Green building: some new winners

Two Northwest buildings, both commercial properties, win top environmental awards, marking a trend to for-profit projects
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Drainage into the Greenway at Dockside's Synergy

Two Northwest buildings, both commercial properties, win top environmental awards, marking a trend to for-profit projects

Pacific Northwest winners in the annual American Institute of Architects' Top Ten Green Projects competition are vastly different in complexity, size and cost, but a four-story Seattle office building and a four-building complex in Victoria's Inner Harbor have an important similarity: both are commercial or residential buildings rather than the usual award winners from governmental or nonprofit owners.

The Terry Thomas Building is a first-time honor for the Seattle firm of Weber Thompson. Synergy, phase one of a huge Victoria Inner Harbor development marks a second award for Vancouver architect Peter Busby. The projects are among five "for-profit" winners, the first time in the 13-year history of the awards for so many commercial winners.

Perhaps a trend? Scott Thompson certainly sees it in his neighbors in Paul Allen's Vulcan development on South Lake Union. In 2008, Seattle architects Miller/Hull won for the Discovery Center at South Lake Union, and Thompson says all the new buildings in the Vulcan area are using rigid environmental standards for construction. Sustainability saves money, he believes, and will drive more construction decisions as energy costs increase.

David Miller, a leading Seattle architect (Miller/Hull) and professor at the University of Washington, is vice-chair of the AIA awards committee. He saw in this year's awards jury a determination to promote practical applications, including large projects such as Victoria's Synergy, which meet rigid energy-efficiency standards. "This jury was more interested in projects that change the building culture and have more applications, rather than [awarding] people that have already drunk the Kool-Aid," said Miller.

He's referring to the usual award winners — environmental, governmental and nonprofit groups with aesthetic appeal and an educational mission, sometimes making a statement but not necessarily seeking the efficiency of a commercial structure.

The Pacific Northwest winners fit into the commercial category. Neither makes a spectacular statement on the street, although both are attractive and efficient designs. Their strong statements are in the details, only some of which are apparent from the exteriors.

The Terry Thomas Building was designed as office space for the Weber Thompson architectural firm in Vulcan's South Lake Union development. Handsome but not overpowering as seen from Terry Street, the $10.2 million building is focused on connecting interior and exterior spaces and creative use of passive energy. And the strategy is simple, according to Thompson: Open the windows both front and back and use a central courtyard as a "chimney" for cooling. This is the way buildings used to be built, Thompson notes, particularly in moderate climates like the Pacific Northwest.

Thompson, speaking now as a tenant, is delighted at his energy savings. He had hoped to save 30 percent of energy costs compared to a typical office building; instead, "we have been experiencing savings of 50 percent of energy costs." The building, named for its location at Terry and Thomas streets, is owned by a group that includes Thompson. The architects occupy 65 percent of the building, two smaller firms the remainder.

If The Terry Thomas is an example of a small project with gains attainable without complex technology, Synergy at Dockside Green in Victoria is an attempt by architects Busby, Perkins & Will, and the City of Victoria to make a major statement.

"Dockside Green is developer Joseph Van Belleghem's signature accomplishment to date, and possibly the benchmark against which all green building in Canada will be judged from now on," writes Sara Hart in the January issue of GreenSource Magazine. "Environmental sustainability is best achieved by incorporating high-performance buildings into denser, mixed-use neighborhoods and by providing better transit alternatives. Dockside Green is one of the case studies in this pilot program and a role model for the future."

Busby's project visually dominates its Inner Harbor location, the first stage of the eventual $30 million Dockside Green commercial and residential project. The first phase, Synergy, includes four buildings constructed over a common underground parking structure. Synergy includes a nine-story residential tower with commercial units on the ground floors; a two-story townhouse building; a six-story building with commercial units on the ground floor and a four-story residential building. A second phase, containing smaller buildings, is under way.

Dockside Green began as a design-build competition sponsored by the City of Victoria, which owned the land. The winning team had to deal with a complex sewage-treatment system, traffic patterns, and contaminated soil. Synergy is built on a brownfield, and uses native plantings to alleviate the toxicity.

The city's role was huge, according to Robert Drew, design principal for Busby, Perkins & Will. "They had to accommodate a development they had never seen before," requiring flexibility not always associated with governmental agencies. Now, says Drew, the city is getting calls from far and wide asking how it's done.

Synergy's development team faced challenges requiring extraordinary teamwork, particularly with a wastewater treatment system and biomass power plant on site. "Any change, even small, in any part of the plan impacted others," Drew observed. The project, occupied for nearly a year, is very close to being "off the grid" for both water and power.

The AIA judges took note of integrated methods of conserving water as well as energy: "Green roofs with vegetable gardening spaces and the greenway on the site were designed to support social equity and local food production. They also have environmental benefits: green roofs and spaces limit the urban heat island effect and allow stormwater to permeate on site, taking a burden off the city stormwater system. In addition, all rainwater is collected on site and reused for irrigation and toilet flushing or infiltrated and treated by the greenway."

Synergy is enormously complex, with at least a dozen architects, engineers, environmental consultants and others heading up the team. The buildings themselves appear conventional, but the gains are often out of sight: the garden roofs, stormwater collection, a biomass heat plant, linkage to alternative transportation and a wastewater recycling system.

Synergy has the highest rating ever recorded under The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) building-rating system, developed in 1998 by the U.S. Green Building Council to provide standards for environmentally sustainable construction. This is the second COTE award for Busby; in 2004 he won for the White Rock, B.C., operations building. Later in 2004, Busby joined Perkins & Will, the Canadian arm of the big international architectural firm.

Pacific Northwest projects have won 18 of the 130 Top Ten "green" awards since competition began in 1997. Two Seattle firms dominate the awards list. Miller/Hull Architects has won four awards, including the Discovery Center and the Fisher Pavilion at Seattle Center; Mithun architects has also won four awards, most recently for the complex urban-center design of Lloyd Center Crossing in Portland.

A third Seattle firm, Mahlum architects, has won twice. Single winners are the firms of Jones and Jones, Seattle; Bohlin, Cywinski and Jackson, Seattle; Tom Bender, Nehalem, Ore.; DLR Group, Portland; and Matsuzaki Architects of Vancouver, B.C.

Seattle's reputation for green building continues to rise with the 2009 Top Ten awards list, and both Thompson and Miller feel the city has a type of critical mass for this type of building, with strong support from local governments, which enforce the codes. British Columbia, with Dockside Green promising to pull in additional awards as it continues to unfold, appears ready to expand the reputation to a Cascadia level.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Floyd McKay

Floyd McKay

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades.