What role does a municipality need to play in luring design and construction innovation to urban landscapes? Should there be an entirely new set of rules governing ultra-sustainable projects? Those are two of the questions being discussed in Seattle, as the city and King County are looking at zoning codes and fees, specifically as "living building" projects are starting to gain traction in the area. 

With a handful of these projects being constructed throughout the Pacific Northwest, including Portland, Vancouver, B.C., and Seattle , these buildings not only fall off the grid of zoning rules, but literally fall off the grid of city services. So, because of that, should they be allowed to also fall off the grid of paying for city services they say they won't use?

The project pushing this issue to the forefront is the Bullitt Foundation's proposed Cascadia Center for Sustainable Design and Construction in Seattle. The six-story, mixed-use building hopes to set standards for performance-based design and increase the awareness of new approaches to sustainable design and construction, or so says the organization's Web site. The building aims for completion and operation under the Living Building Challenge, passing right on by LEED Platinum and the 2030 Challenge. Really, a first for mid-rise structures, as it gets quite difficult to have a net zero energy usage the bigger the building.

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Bullitt Foundation

But with the plans to build a 50,000-sq-ft, wood-framed building in Seattle's Central Area that can last 250 years come challenges too. Seattle architect firm Miller Hull and the organization's planners say the new building will collect, treat and reuse all its water on its downtown Seattle site. This rethinks mixed-use, urban buildings. As discussed in a Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce article, designers of the building are so confident of its ability, they would rather not be forced to hook into the region's wastewater system. Currently King County has that as a requirement.

While the developers want the fees for hooking in waived or reduced, the county says it will then put the pressure unfairly on others to pay for the system. But does this discourage innovative strategies that are already proving to be more costly than conventional construction?

Getting exemptions because of these special strategies is nothing new for the Bullitt Foundation's proposal. Largely because of a Seattle City Council ordinance that grants city planners leeway in giving exceptions for buildings striving for the Living Building standard, the Bullitt Foundation went to the city's Design Review Board to gain a variance on zoning rules.

Not only will the building handle all its own water, it also will consume one-third the amount of energy as that of an average building of its size through heat recovery ventilation, solar hot water, passive cooling, daylighting, high insulation and reduced plug loads. But to gain full net zero energy use, designers planned for photovoltaic panels to produce the rest of the energy consumption. A lot of them. In fact, to get enough energy for the structure, these panels are needed on the roof and the entire south-facing wall, including overhanging on the roof across the property line, an obvious no-no under the zoning limitations.

Also, to let daylight flood the interior, each floor needs to be a touch higher than code allows, bringing the entire building—which will house the Cascadia Region Green Building Council and the International Living Building Institute—about 10 feet taller than code allows.

Are exceptions right for these three cases? Are new rules warranted? Right now there are a lot of questions surrounding living buildings, especially as most of the planned structures are still in the construction phase (Bullitt is targeting a 12-month construction period with completion in December 2011). It remains to be seen who has the answers. And if those answers work.