As buildings push the sustainability envelope, longstanding regulations get a critical eye.
Image Above info: To install tall windows needed to reduce electricity demand for lighting, the Bullitt Center had to obtain a height variance from the city of Seattle and fend off a zoning challenge from a nearby apartment building. Photo by Nic Lehoux.
October 28, 2013 — During an enthusiastic ribbon-cutting ceremony on Earth Day 2013, Seattle city leaders celebrated the grand opening of a structure billed as the greenest office building in the world.
Pending the resolution of a few remaining regulatory hurdles, the six-story, 50,000 square-foot Bullitt Center will soon embark on a yearlong quest to become certified as a “living building” by the ultra-strict Living Building Challenge. The gleaming mid-rise aims to meet all of its energy needs with a rooftop array of 575 photovoltaic panels and use only rainwater captured in a 56,000-gallon basement cistern.
Denis Hayes, coordinator of the first Earth Day in 1970 and president and CEO of the Bullitt Foundation (which owns the building and occupies half of the sixth floor), hopes other developers will replicate and surpass the Bullitt Center’s ambitious benchmarks. But to do so, they’ll have to wend their way through a patchwork of laws, codes and regulations that would make similar structures illegal in many parts of the United States.
As supporters are discovering, some of the biggest remaining challenges to ultra-green buildings are no longer technical or financial barriers, but regulatory ones. Backers are increasingly winning former skeptics over to the idea that carbon-neutral commercial structures can be smart long-term investments. Even in environmentally conscious Seattle, however, Hayes figures that about two dozen codes or regulations had to be revised or tweaked to keep the building’s aspirations on track.
New advocacy groups, public-private partnerships and precedent-setting examples like the Bullitt Center, however, are helping to blaze a trail toward more sustainable buildings as experts cast a wary eye toward climate change and future water and energy shortages. “We’d like to think of ourselves as a pilot for something that begins to be very important not just here but in a lot of places,” Hayes says.
To significantly increase the nation’s green building stock, the vanguard will need to clear away numerous obstacles. When Roger Millar served as city-county planning director for Missoula, Mont., he helped write a successful 2009 ordinance that allowed rooftop photovoltaic panels to be installed without a special permitting or approval process. “We were overhauling language written in the 1920s,” he says. Now vice president of a nonprofit called Smart Growth America, Millar has organized workshops throughout the country to identify and remove barriers, offer incentives, and fill in gaps in zoning and land use codes to encourage more sustainable building.
The approach seems to be working. After his group hosted a 2012 workshop in Pima County, Ariz., the county amended its codes to require a cool roof reflective coating for low-sloped roofs on all new commercial and industrial buildings. After a similar workshop in Pittsburgh, the city began installing energy-saving cool roofs on about 50 buildings earlier this year.
Preliminary findings by the Vancouver, Wash.–based New Buildings Institute suggest that the number of verified or planned net-zero commercial structures in the U.S. — those that generate as much energy as they consume over the course of a year — has more than doubled within the past 18 months. Every geographic region is included, with a mix of buildings that is expanding beyond the nonprofit and educational sectors and attracting corporate sponsors such as PNC Bank, Chevron, Frito-Lay and Walgreens.
Make Way for Negawatts
To date, regulatory reform efforts have focused largely on boosting the viability of energy-efficient buildings — an understandable goal given that commercial and residential structures account for nearly three-fourths of all electricity consumed in the U.S. Wringing extreme savings from a large building can require some deft maneuvering, however. Meeting the Bullitt Center’s energy self-sufficiency goals, for example, required higher ceilings and windows to let in more daylight, which covers about 90 percent of the building’s lighting needs. Developers calculated they would have to increase the overall height by 10 feet. The Bullitt Center won a height variance from the city under a pilot program inspired by the Living Building Challenge, but still had to fend off a zoning challenge from a neighboring apartment complex.
Another unique pilot program launched by the city and based on a concept known as metered energy savings, Hayes says, may prove to be one of the biggest success stories yet.
For the building’s rooftop photovoltaic array, which extends over the sidewalk like a mortarboard, the Seattle Department of Transportation initially invoked legislation designed for skyways when considering whether to permit encroachment onto a public right-of-way. Ultimately, however, it agreed to treat the array like an awning, easing the regulatory burden. The building now leases air rights from the city, an agreement Hayes says has been essential given Seattle’s relatively limited sunlight for much of the year. “We could not power this building if we had to do it within the limits of the building itself,” he says.
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Image Source #1: PNC Bank’s “green branch” in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., adds an increasingly popular twist to traditional building construction: Direct current powers LED lights right off the facility’s 211 solar panels, eliminating the loss from AC-DC conversion. Photo courtesy of PNC Bank.
Source #2 below: The Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, dedicated in 2000, was one of the first net-zero commercial buildings in the U.S. Photo courtesy of Oberlin College and Conservatory.