Sustainable Design

Achieving Sustainability through Unconventional Design

Rising sea levels, worsening storms, heightened seismic concerns and other environmental threats have presented the commercial real estate industry with a daunting array of challenges. Yet simultaneously, those challenges have inspired developers, architects, engineers and builders to create properties that are both resilient and elegant.

“I think we are seeing a new generation of developments by owners who are really focusing on how they can adapt to a lot of environmental drivers and help create a more sustainable, hopeful future,” said Allyn Stellmacher, a partner with ZGF Architects in Seattle.

Creating a next generation resilient property, however, requires heightened creativity, shrewd financials and a willingness to step beyond the conventional.

Stellmacher points to the example of The Mark, a 48-story landmark tower in downtown Seattle that won best office tower and best hospitality venue awards from the NAIOP Washington State chapter last year. The project was set on a quarter-block site with a footprint of just 15,000 square feet. It also abutted two historic buildings – the First United Methodist Church and the Rainier Club. To achieve the desired total floor space of 750,000 square feet, ZGF designed an asymmetrical obelisk that partly cantilevered out over the church and utilized an unconventional structural system. Wrapped in an exoskeleton of steel braces that crisscross each plane of the tower, The Mark became the first high rise to use a lateral brace system in a high-seismic zone.

It took an owner who was willing to go beyond normal boundaries to achieve that design, Stellmacher said. “To get the building to work structurally, we had to go through a code peer review because the structural system was outside what was permitable based on the shape of the building. It was a very complex dance between architects, engineers, code officials and others to create this exceptional project.”

Increasingly, property owners are embracing unconventional designs to address the impacts of climate change and heightened seismic risk assessments while also satisfying tenants’ desire for urban core and waterfront locations.

“We are seeing a lot of clients driving for a more tailored approach. They are not just following LEED or any other off-the-shelf standard. They are thinking more about the specifics of what they will need to make their building durable and resilient,” Stellmacher said.

When the real estate firm Gerding Edlen began devising plans to redevelop a 4.4-acre site on East Boston’s waterfront, it declared the mixed-use Eddy project would be “built to last” not simply “built to code.” Realizing that climate change would make the site vulnerable to flooding, ADD Inc.’s design for the new 267,150-square-foot, 19-story office and apartment tower included raising the foundation nine inches above the level of the previous building on-site. The design located the electrical room on the first floor to keep it above flood stage and included a generator on the roof with enough fuel on site to maintain fire, life and safety operations for four days. It limited entrances on the waterfront side of the building, reinforced that side with special waterproofing and placed an 18-inch curb wall along the waterfront to protect at-grade retail spaces from storm surges or other flooding. The design even utilized plants to limit flood damage. The landscape architect selected large planters that could serve as a passive barrier, disrupt storm surges and funnel water away from the building, then planted hardy, native plants that could survive immersion in salt water.

In addition to improving the building’s resilience, the less-than-conventional plan delivered other benefits. The resilience features prompted city officials to rapidly approve the project, enabling it reach completion and occupancy quicker. Locating electrical equipment above the 500-year-flood elevation and installing other flood control measures prompted the development’s insurer to conclude that potential flood losses on-site would not exceed $1 million (compared to $10 million for a conventional building on-site) and significantly reduce the owner’s premium. Financial analysis of the project concluded the building’s cogeneration turbine, which was included in the design to heighten the building’s energy resiliency, would reduce the building’s energy costs by 24% or nearly $150,000 annually. Finally, the Eddy’s sustainability and climate resilience features impressed would-be commercial and residential tenants and enabled the owner to lease space more quickly and at premium rates.

Not every resiliency measure generates an obvious or substantial return on investment. However, the National Institute of Building Sciences estimates that every $1 invested in hazard mitigation saves society $4. Meanwhile, major hurricanes, floods, tornadoes and wildfires have made companies and commercial property owners more aware of the high cost of service outages.

Consequently, developers are studying not only emergency power and flood mitigation measures, but on-site infrastructure that would provide fresh water, manage effluent or protect interiors from drifting smoke, Stellmacher said. “It is consuming a lot of people’s mental time and competing for project dollars and infrastructure space to make sure there is appropriate accommodation for resilient electrical, structural, data and plumbing.”

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