Two decades ago, Washington became the starting point of a global building decarbonization movement.
But since then, the momentum has faltered.
The state has access to the cleanest, cheapest electricity in the country and yet its building codes remain strict, customers remain skeptical of upfront costs, and the state’s political efforts struggle to find traction. .
Homes, offices and other buildings account for a large portion of the world’s global greenhouse gas emissions. While local and state efforts to spur interest and investment have yielded mixed results, a recent merger between an environmentally innovative Bainbridge Island company and the world’s second-largest architectural firm is offering new opportunities. ‘hope.
Jason McLennan put his company McLennan Design on the map when he created the Living Building Challenge, a green building certification that has influenced and inspired architects, developers and legislators around the world. He was also heavily involved in the design of Climate Pledge Arena, among other iconic buildings in and around Seattle. In July, his firm merged with Perkins & Will, a Chicago-based architecture and design firm.
“We are doing this at a time in the world when the urgency to design more efficient and environmentally friendly buildings becomes all the more necessary,” said Phil Harrison, CEO of Perkins & Will. “It’s one thing to do a few green projects once in a while, it’s another to try to have a major impact on a large scale.”
The two companies were already collaborating on the design of the future Kaiser Borsari Hall at Western Washington University. Both said the merger would help them engage more interested parties and develop new methods as they pursue bigger projects.
“We have all of these pieces in place, but we haven’t catalyzed this movement in a really effective way,” said McLennan, who is now Perkins & Will’s first sustainability director. “The opportunity with this post is to say, well, how can we do even more?”
McLennan’s Living Building Challenge was used in the design and management of the Bullitt Center, considered the nation’s greenest commercial building. The gleaming structure that has stood atop Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood since its completion in 2013 is outfitted with all the gadgets and adornments of the prototype building of the future: 575 solar panels, gaping skylights to reduce the need for interior lighting, heat pumps heating, a bicycle-only parking lot and a rainwater collection system connected to a 56,000 gallon underground cistern.
Automatic windows and exterior blinds connected to a weather monitor on top of a building across the street keep the building naturally cool during the hottest times of the year. The interior is kept warm during the cooler times of the year by a radiant system that uses heated water circulating through tubes in the floors.
The building was designed to withstand a magnitude 9 earthquake, has its own independent water system and even has the ability to disconnect from the grid using a few batteries in the event of a power outage.
Developers have always been obsessed with preventing environmental damage to a building, but McLennan helped change the narrative, said Bullitt Center spokesman Brad Kahn.. It focuses on the potential positive effects a building can have.
“What Jason brought to this discussion was flipping the script,” Kahn said.
Residential, commercial and industrial buildings account for more than a third of greenhouse gas emissions in Seattle, nearly a quarter in Washington, and about 40% globally.
“We need to find a new way to design, build and operate the places where we spend 90% of our time,” Kahn said. “What we’ve shown is that, even in Seattle, we can run a building entirely on solar power.”
In Washington, public officials seek to eliminate or reduce the carbon footprint of our built environment primarily through forms of financial assistance. But this approach has its limits.
On Friday, King County announced it would use federal grants to help homeowners trade in oil furnaces for heat pumps, a move that can reduce emissions and energy use.
As summer temperatures soar and heat waves and droughts increase both in frequency and intensity, Washington remains ill-equipped for the heat to come.
Seattle has a smaller proportion of households with air conditioning units than almost any city in the United States. Although the number of users has increased over the past decade, progress has been slow.
Earlier this year, a slew of bills targeting outdated building codes, energy use in commercial offices and high heat pump costs, among other things, failed to pass the US legislature. the state.
Developers and companies in the construction, commercial and gas sectors remain strongly opposed to legislation targeting building emissions.
“We’re not even talking about the cost society is paying with greenhouse gases, or the cost of indoor air quality if you have a gas stove,” said Rep. Davina Duerr, D-Bothell. .
While the upfront cost of heat pumps or green homes may be higher, the long-term dividends are far greater, Duerr said, especially with rising energy costs. But the toughest challenge is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from existing buildings.
“The greenest building is the one that has already been built,” she said. “It’s about upgrading and modernizing them.”
Square footage, upfront costs, and upfront energy expenditures have traditionally been primary concerns for anyone looking to buy or build a home, office, or commercial facility. But the industry is adjusting its calculation.
Experts often refer to the difference between operational costs and embodied carbon. The first refers to the greenhouse gases emitted by a finished building. Embodied carbon is more comprehensive, as it examines the emissions produced by the construction process itself.
Embodied carbon is still an emerging field. Since the US Department of Ecology began collecting and cataloging building energy use data, carbon emissions have slowly but surely become a bigger part of the equation.
Now, developers are increasingly considering how a building is constructed, what materials are used and where they come from, and the long-term benefits of electrical appliances, heat pumps, passive temperature control and natural lighting.
“You end up with a building that has a much richer experience and uses less energy,” said Chris Meek, director of the Center for Integrated Design at the University of Washington.
In 2009, the City of Seattle created the Living Building Pilot Program, which is modeled after McLennan’s Living Building Challenge and provides developers with benefits and tax incentives to create sustainably constructed buildings.
Program director Jess Harris said the focus on embodied carbon, while encouraging, continues to grow. It will be difficult to expand tax credits to further incentivize emissions reductions in the private sector, he said, not least because everything has already been done, pointing to tax incentives aimed at reducing operational costs .
Embodied carbon and the retrofitting of existing buildings is a much more difficult problem to solve. “There’s a lot of scrambling to resolve this issue,” Harris said.
In this regard, the law could play an indispensable role.
Washington is legally required to eliminate or offset all carbon emissions by 2050.
The state’s Clean Buildings Act, which was signed into law in 2019 and then expanded earlier this year, aims to reduce the costs and emissions of existing buildings in Washington by requiring developers and owners of commercial buildings to meet a energy performance standard.
The law applies to non-residential buildings, hotels, motels and dormitories over 50,000 square feet in total, excluding parking space. Multi-family residential buildings of five stories or more are exempt from most of the requirements that other buildings face, but became eligible for one of its incentive programs earlier this year.
Compliance with the program will be required gradually from 2026.
But convincing developers that the future dividends will outweigh the upfront costs remains an uphill battle.
“Right now, our buildings are driven by an economic model that is primarily short-term and doesn’t care one iota of energy consumption,” said Robert Peña, professor of architecture at the UW. “We have to find market incentives that make the right thing also more financially acceptable.”