Atlantic Cities

Telling Builders to Build Greener Without Saying How

Telling Builders to Build Greener Without Saying How
Courtesy: Vulcan Real Estate

In Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood, you can use the white brick smokestack of the Supply Laundry Building as a landmark to help find your way among boxy new condominiums and low glass office buildings. The Space Needle is the western point of this local compass, and the smokestack is the east.
 
In the future, the Supply Laundry Building may also mark a new kind of path toward more energy efficient buildings. In early November, the city agreed to allow the building’s owner, Vulcan Real Estate, to renovate the building without adhering to the usual municipal energy code requirements.
 
Instead, the rehabbed building will have to meet an overall target: use 50 percent less energy than the national average for a building of its size and type of use.
 
The project will be the first major test of renovation under an outcome-based energy code, a concept that "turns the regulatory framework a little bit upside-down," as Liz Dunn puts it.
 
Dunn is the director of the Preservation Green Lab, a Seattle-based think tank run by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. With technical help from the New Buildings Institute, the Lab has been developing the outcome-based code concept over the last several years.
 
Standard municipal energy codes are highly prescriptive, essentially presenting developers with a checklist: windows with a certain U-factor, interior insulation with a certain R-value. "For existing buildings, for older and historic buildings, the prescriptive energy code is just a really poor fit," Dunn says.
 
For example, the western façade of the Supply Laundry Building has its original early-20th-century wood window frames. Such frames are often too thin to accommodate double panes, and have to be replaced in order to bring a building up to code.
 
As municipal energy codes get stricter—Seattle’s is one of the most rigorous in the nation—developers find it increasingly difficult to tackle renovations of existing buildings in a way that’s both affordable and preserves historic character.
 
That’s a missed opportunity, says Jayson Antonoff, energy and climate change policy advisor for the Seattle Department of Planning and Development. "We need to do more with existing buildings, because that’s frankly where the action is," he says. Otherwise "we’re never going to get to the kind of climate change goals and energy efficiency goals that we have as a city."
 
Brandon Morgan, Vulcan’s development manager for the project, says the company expects to start work on the Supply Laundry Building in March and complete the project by the end of 2012.
 
Thanks to its agreement with the city, those original wood windows will be able to stay after a generous amount of caulking and weather-stripping. The other three sides of the building have mid-century aluminum windows. Those will be replaced with new frames that will be both more efficient and more historically accurate.
 
The new frames will also have removable interior storm windows. "We wouldn’t get credit for that in the [standard] code but it’s certainly going to have a major impact on our energy efficiency during those winter months," Morgan says.
 
This emphasis on how people use and interact with a building is central to outcome-based energy codes, but is totally ignored by standard codes, which only consider a building’s permanent features.
 
That’s a weakness, Antonoff says, because even in the best designed building "there’s no guarantee that things are going to be maintained properly, calibrated properly, operated as expected."
 
To developers like Vulcan, the flexibility offered by outcome-based codes is appealing. "We’re saying it doesn’t matter how you get there, as long as you get there, who cares, a kilowatt hour is a kilowatt hour," says Morgan.
 
There’s still a number of practical questions to consider here, of course. How will the permitting process work? What’s the best way to set an energy efficiency target for a building? If the building doesn’t meet that target, who should be held responsible, and how?
 
But if the Supply Laundry renovation (plus, PGL hopes, two other pilot projects yet to be identified) can generate some answers, Seattle’s experience could provide a national model. Outcome-based codes are "one of the more complex projects that we’ll probably ever tackle," Dunn says. "It’s going to take years to play out, but Seattle is piloting this for the nation."

Sarah DeWeerdt is a freelance science writer based in Seattle. Her work has appeared in publications including Conservation, Nature, and New Scientist. All posts »

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