David Posada wants to tell me about the windows. We’re standing outside his latest project: a chic 19-unit “Passive House” in North Portland. Four-stories high, with a cedar façade and seven-foot-high windows framed in bright orange panels, it’s an impressive sight. (The brown-and-orange color scheme was inspired by the embers of a campfire.) Biking down North Williams Avenue, you’d definitely stop to gaze up at this arresting building, called KILN. But you’d never guess that it’s one of the most energy efficient multi-family apartment buildings in the country—so well-insulated and with such air-tight construction and high-performing windows that tenants will rarely need to turn the heater on. (There is no air-conditioning.) Posada estimates the building will use a full one-third of the energy of a similar, traditionally-powered apartment building.
KILN, on the corner of North Williams and Beech
The Passive House concept originated in Germany, where the buildings are promoted and evaluated by the Passivhaus Institute in Darmstadt. “In Europe, there are hundreds or thousands of multi-family projects that are built to Passive House standards,” says Posada, a Passive House consultant at Portland’s GBD Architects, which was an early adopter of green building rating systems such as LEED. “In the U.S., where it’s mostly caught on in single-family homes, I think there’s been an assumption by many developers and builders that the market isn’t asking for this.” But—at least in eco-savvy Portland—developers are betting that Passive House apartments catch on.
But back to the windows. Originally, KILN’s owner had wanted to go with triple-paned fiberglass windows, which are energy efficient yet still cost-effective. But then he saw wood-framed windows at the Janey—a LEED-platinum building (also designed by GBD) in Portland’s Pearl District—and fell in love with their graceful beauty. He had to have similar windows for KILN. Most triple-pane windows are made in Europe, which adds to a building’s environmental footprint. But Posada and his team were able to find a German window builder, now living in Seattle, who crafts triple-paned windows from Douglas Fir. (To make things even more sustainable, the Doug Fir comes from the Oregon Coast.)
KILN is the second multi-family Passive House in the United States; the first, the Stellar Apartments, opened earlier this year just 100 miles south in Eugene, Oregon. And there’s another multi-family Passive House on the way. Out in the Portland suburb of Hillsboro, the affordable housing nonprofit REACH Community Development is building a 57-unit Passive House. A Passive House makes sense for tenants who make less than $30,000 a year, says architect Michael Bonn at the Portland firm Ankrom Moisan, because energy bills will be practically non-existent.
The U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification used to be the toughest green building standard in the country. But these days, sustainably-minded architects and designers are looking to other, more rigorous benchmarks like Passive House and Living Building Challenge.
“Nearly 50% of our domestic energy consumption in this country comes from building usage,” says Dan Whitmore, project supervisor and building & energy analyst at Hammer & Hand, a Seattle-and-Portland-based contractor that’s built six Passive Houses and consulted on a dozen more. “The beauty of the Passive House is that it’s a practical way to address energy consumption in our buildings, not just in the short term but in the long term.” Instead of focusing on energy-efficient appliances, which can be swapped out when technology becomes more efficient, Passive Houses put resources into parts of the building that will be there for the long haul, like walls and ceilings. Living Building Challenge, on the other hand, is meant to be that: a challenge. Touted as the most rigorous green building certification on the planet, the Living Building standards require projects to produce all the water and energy they consume (via rainwater collection and solar panels, for instance), incorporate agriculture into the design, and use local materials. (See sidebar for more on green building standards.)
No matter what the green certification, though, it turns out that the Pacific Northwest is home to some of the most cutting-edge sustainable architecture projects in the country.
“Oregon and Washington are really big leaders for us,” says Jacob Kriss at the U.S. Green Building Council, which runs the LEED certification standard. “There are a lot of sustainably-minded people there and they’ve made building the green environment a priority.” Meanwhile, Katrin Klingenberg, executive director of the Chicago-based Passive House Institute U.S., says there’s a preponderance of Passive Houses in the Northwest. “The Northwest is the closest to the central European climate, so it’s no coincidence,” says Klingenberg. And even though there are only five buildings in the world to achieve Living Building Challenge status, the Northwest has the highest concentration of registered projects. (The Living Futures Institute, which developed Living Building Challenge, requires 12 consecutive months of occupancy before it can be certified.) “It’s the progressive nature of these metropolitan areas. It’s a part of the world where people take chances,” says Jay Kosa, Communications Director at the Living Futures Institute.
The Bullitt Center in Seattle [Photo by Nic Lehoux]
On track to be the sixth Living Building is the Bullitt Center, a 50,000 square-foot office building in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, designed by Seattle-based firm Miller Hull. Not only does the Bullitt Center have a rainwater harvesting system, 575 solar panels on the roof (which produce enough electricity for the building), and copious bike storage (instead of a parking lot), it also has composting toilets. Though this last detail may sound like a rustic latrine at summer camp, it’s actually quite high-tech. The building is not hooked up to the city’s sewage system, so when you flush one of the building’s ultra-low flush toilets (they use three tablespoons of water per flush), it will take your cargo directly into one of ten Phoenix Composting Systems in the basement. The liquid and solid matter is mixed with wood chips and “fluffed regularly” using comb-like structures. Over time, and with the help of the oxygen that comes down through the toilet itself, the mixture decomposes. Ultimately it yields just three things: carbon dioxide (which leaves the building via a “heat recovery ventilator” on the roof), stabilized leachate (picked up monthly and taken to a nearby liquid waste facility); and biosolids (which will be taken to a biosolids recycling facility to be mixed with sawdust, then sold as fertilizer). Because the composting process significantly reduces the biosolids, it will take approximately two years before the first load of biosolids leaves the Bullitt Center.
Over in Ballard, a bustling north Seattle neighborhood, a new mixed-use development with 18 units is setting the bar for other green building projects. Called Greenfire Campus, it has a rainwater harvesting system, geothermal heat pumps, and a green roof as well as garden plots for each tenant. (The captured rainwater provides all the irrigation for the green roof, gardens, and an on-site wetland habitat that includes ferns, wild hyacinths, and willows.) The campus, designed by Seattle-based Johnston Architects and developed by the Seneca Group, is also home to the Wilburforce Foundation, Skillet Diner, and Parfait Ice Cream. Ray Johnston, the lead architect on the project, says Greenfire is by far the most energy-efficient building he has worked on. “The single most innovative aspect is the ground-source heat pump,” Johnston says, referring to the twenty-one 300-foot deep wells that pump heat from the ground into the units. “The ground-source heat pump is also a heat sink from the solar panels,” explains Johnson. In other words, when the weather is nice, the solar-thermal arrays will transfer heat to the ground-source heat pump, storing it for later use. Currently, the geothermal heat pump provides about 70 percent of the heat for the apartments. (An energy-efficient gas-fire boiler supplies the remainder.)
Greenfire Campus in Ballard
Johnston says he and the building’s owner had hoped to use grey water—recycled water from tenants’ sinks and showers—to irrigate the green spaces as well as flush toilets. But in addition to the considerable cost of adding all that plumbing—$250,000—Seattle’s city code doesn’t make this innovation easy. “The technology is there to clean and filter water,” says Johnston. “But the various agencies aren’t comfortable on a code basis level yet. Once they are, industry and government will meld and it will be a much more sensible code.” Greenfire Campus is slated to receive LEED Platinum certification—the highest LEED rating—for the commercial side and LEED Gold (the second highest) for the residential side.
Just five miles southeast of Ballard, in South Lake Union, the LEED-Platinum certified Stack House proves that green architecture is feasible on a much larger scale. A mixed-use development designed by Runberg Architecture Group, Stack House includes two 7-story buildings (278 apartments total) and the historic rehab of the 107-year-old Supply Laundry Building. Stack House, like Greenfire Campus, has rainwater cisterns, rooftop community gardens (known in Seattle as P-Patches), and efficient appliances like low-flow toilets and Energy Star rated refrigerators and dishwashers. But instead of geothermal heat pumps, the “west building” employs what’s known as a “reverse-cycle chiller.” Two-and-a-half times more efficient than a gas-fired boiler, this innovative heating system transfers ambient heat from the garage via an air pump to heat the tenants’ water. (The east building has a conventional gas-fired boiler.) Vulcan Real Estate, which was the developer on the project, also has a partnership with the city to create bioswales—grassy areas that collect stormwater runoff—between the sidewalk and the street. “The stormwater that runs off neighboring Capitol Hill currently goes untreated into Lake Union,” says Lori Mason Curran, real estate investment strategy director at Vulcan. “All the oil and dirt goes into the lake. But the swales will capture 199 gallons of run-off every year.”
And what could be more sustainable than the adaptive re-use of a city landmark? “Not tearing a building down is one of the most sustainable things you can do,” says Curran. Stack House won the U.S. Green Building Council’s award for Outstanding Multi-family Project of the Year for 2013, and the Supply Laundry Building, which will house offices, is targeting LEED Gold.
Hassalo on 8th will have an on-site wastewater processing center
Perhaps the most groundbreaking large-scale residential project is back in Portland. Hassalo on 8th, developed by San Diego-based American Assets Trust and designed by GBD Architects, has broken ground on a three-building, 657-unit project that will have its own on-site wastewater processing center. In other words, the buildings won’t even be connected to the City of Portland’s sewer system because all waste will be treated on site. The liquid waste and “grey water” will be cleaned and zapped with UV light and plumbed back into the building for non-potable uses like flushing toilets, watering gardens, and replenishing the cooling towers. (The “sludge” will be taken off-site by a pump truck every two years or so and used as organic matter.)
“It’s super exciting,” admits project architect and design principal Kyle Anderson. “There isn’t a multi-family residential project that I’m aware of that uses reclaimed water in the building.”
Because Hassalo on 8th won’t be contributing to the city’s already over-burdened sewer system, the Bureau of Environmental Services gave the developers a 60 percent reduction on systems development charges—a savings of $1.4 million. Because of that, the costly wastewater recycling system will pay for itself in 2.5 years. “After that, it’s crazy. It’s extra margins for the client,” says Anderson.
In addition, because of the buildings’ high-performance envelopes—they’ll have added insulation in the roofs and wall cavities—Anderson expects them to beat the already-stringent Oregon Energy Code by 30 percent. The building is vying for LEED Platinum.
But some of the most energy-efficient buildings around don’t have any kind of green certification. “I’d rather use the $30,000—or more—it would cost to get LEED certified to put solar panels on the roof,” says Jean-Pierre Veillet, founder and president of Siteworks, a design build firm in Portland. This is precisely what Veillet did with EcoFLATS, an 18-unit rental building on North Williams Avenue. Rooftop solar arrays provide all the tenants’ hot water and rooftop photo-voltaic panels generate electricity, which goes back to the grid when tenants don’t use it. (Veillet was able to off-set the considerable cost with a generous subsidy from Energy Trust of Oregon.) Instead of on-site parking, the building has a 30-unit, wall-mounted bike rack in the lobby. One of the building’s most ingenious features, though, is a flat-screen monitor, prominently displayed in the lobby for all to see, that tracks how many kilowatts per hour each tenant is using. When I visited, on day two of the building’s weekly energy cycle, unit 301 had only used 3.8 kw/hour, but unit 303 had used 12.3 kw/hour. “That’s probably their plasma T.V.,” surmised Veillet. According to the International Energy Agency, the average per capita consumption of electricity in America is 37 kw/hour per day.
Veillet says it’s not about public shaming, but engaging tenants—most of whom already commute by bike and recycle every scrap of paper in their apartments—in the process of saving energy. “Hopefully they’ll look at that and think, ‘Oh, shit, I left the lights on. I’m going to go turn them off,’” says Veillet. “EcoFLATS is the type of people-first green building project that we should replicating by the hundreds, all over the Northwest,” says Jerry Yudelson, one of the founders of the U.S. Green Buildings Council and now president of the Green Building Initiative.
Veillet made sure to keep the rents in this building affordable, which is one of the reasons he didn’t pursue any sort of certification. EcoFLATS tenants pay market rates—$1.55 a square foot—and their average monthly energy bill is $15. “We don’t need more trophies. We need to build stuff that’s affordable—that people can live in,” says Veillet.
A shorter version of this story appears in the July 2014 issue of Alaska Airlines.