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Northwest Developers Vie To Construct "World's Greenest" Buildings

Tom Banse


VANCOUVER, B.C. – Developers in Seattle, Portland and Vancouver, B.C. are striving to build the "greenest" commercial buildings in the world. These mid-rise structures will generate their own power, collect their water from the sky and compost sewage on site. But being the greenest comes with compromises.


The buzzword here is "living building." Seattle architect Jason McLennan coined the phrase to describe ultra-green construction.

It led to the Living Building Challenge. A qualifying structure needs to generate as much energy as it uses, capture its own water and send no wastewater into the sewer.

In other words, be pretty much self-sufficient. Easier said than done.

Jason McLennan: "The bigger the project gets, the more you realize that all of our systems have not been designed to support truly regenerative building."

Jason McLennan heads the International Living Future Institute. The green building group has certified a handful of small, one story buildings as truly sustainable. But now ambitious Northwest developers are aiming bigger... taller... showier.

For example, the next time you visit Vancouver, B.C., you may want to take in an architectural showpiece scheduled to open this summer.

Construction superintendent Clarke Peters leads the way into the visitor center nearing completion at the VanDusen Botanical Garden.

Clarke Peters: "We have six roof petals – they're called – different petals that are actually supposed to emulate the shape of an orchid. That's what the building geometry is based on, the shape of a flower."

The 20,000 square foot building features solar hot water and a geothermal heat exchanger. Peters says the toilets flush into a chemical free septic system that uses plants for filtration.

Clarke Peters: "The plants in the percolation field are going to be the best fed plants in the garden, heh, heh."

Now it's one thing to hide away in a solar-powered backwoods cabin and poop in a privy. It's a whole 'nother ball of wax to build a completely self-sustaining commercial building in the city.

Clarke Peters: "It's definitely presented challenges, as you can see."

The undulating roof at Vancouver's botanical garden drains into a huge rainwater cistern designed to make the facility water independent. That was the plan at least, but Peters says the health department insisted the visitor center connect to a city main for drinking water.

Clarke Peters: "Because if some bird died up there and somehow some of the bacteria or something ended up in the water and injured somebody. The liability is just too great. Coastal Health said, 'No way. Don't even go there, not an option.'"

Designers in Seattle and Portland are bumping against the same limits as they try to be self-sustaining. The environmentally-minded Bullitt Foundation run by Dennis Hayes hopes to break ground shortly on the "greenest, most energy efficient commercial building in the world."

Chris Rogers is the developer for the six-story tower in central Seattle.

Chris Rogers: "It will be powered from a solar array that will cover the building's roof and extend a little bit beyond. Dennis Hayes refers to it as a sombrero."

Tom Banse: "But you're in Seattle, cloudy Seattle?!"

Chris Rogers: "We are in cloudy Seattle, but it turns out that we can generate enough energy through our solar array using the most efficient panels available on the market today."

Rogers says the light-filled building will not go off the grid though.

Chris Rogers: "In the summer we will be generating more energy than we will need at that particular moment in time. We'll be sending that excess energy back to the grid and in the winter we will be drawing more than we are producing."

Still, to balance out to zero, the people working in these buildings have to practice massive energy conservation.

Even more so in Portland, where an eight-story "living building" is on the drawing boards near Portland State University. Developer Dennis Wilde says for instance, he'll include fewer elevators.

Dennis Wilde: "The wait times are going to be longer than they would be in a normal office building. We're going to put in an open staircase that is very light and inviting and we're going to encourage people to use the stairs."

Wilde says the biggest savings in the Portland building will come from letting the temperature inside fluctuate more than usual with the seasons: cooling less in summer and heating less in winter.

Dennis Wilde: "To do that, you've got to work with your occupants so that they understand that how they dress and what their expectations are are going to be different than the norm, if you will."

And what about the rent? Wilde says the higher costs of green building will translate into rents 13-15 percent above market. Nevertheless, floor space has virtually sold out to various non-profit groups, university departments and government agencies... this, years before the Portland building even opens.

One final fact to chew on, neither the Oregon Sustainability Center nor the Seattle office tower we were talking about before will offer any parking spots. Tenants are supposed to walk, bike or use transit.

On the Web:

Bullitt Foundation Cascadia Center for Sustainable Design and Construction (Seattle):

VanDusen Botanical Garden Visitor Centre (Vancouver, B.C.):

Oregon Sustainability Center (Portland):

Living Building Challenge:

Copyright 2011 Northwest News Network