As Seattle’s economy adapts to the crisis of the global pandemic, our city still faces pressures of a growing population. Articles have littered the airwaves asking if Seattle is Dying, is the city dead, and are people fleeing Seattle to the suburbs? The answer, unequivocally, is no.  

Housing costs are still on the rise and more people are still moving to Seattle. Rather than passing austerity measures to save money so the Mayor can devote 100% of her time to rebuilding a highway to West Seattle, City Council should look at ways to modify and improve our construction practices to meet our climate goals and wear the sustainability moniker as a badge of honor.  

Passivhaus (or, Passive House in English) is a design philosophy focused on the interior environment of buildings seeking limited energy use, more fresh air, and sustainable construction. It is a building philosophy that reduces the impact we have on our environment. Doing the right thing comes at a price to the bottom line. Passive House design utilizes triple pane glazing, thicker walls, air tight-sealed buildings, and these construction premiums typically aren’t built unless there is a return on investment.  

Incentives make the world go ’round.  

The City of Seattle passed the beginnings of a plan in 2016 that allows developers to build taller buildings with more floor area in exchange for affordable housing. The program, known as Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA), is a win-win scenario. The city receives more affordable housing and developers get bigger buildings.  

The City provides developers an additional floor to off-set the affordable housing fee in the MHA program. (Source: City of Seattle)
The City provides developers an additional floor to off-set the affordable housing fee in the MHA program. (Source: City of Seattle)

Seattle also offers bonuses in sustainability programs. The City’s Living Building Pilot Program offers additional height and floor area in exchange for meeting the International Living Future Institute’s high standard for sustainable construction. With such incentives, the city grew from one Living Building (the Bullitt Center), to over 15 proposals in the current pipeline.  

Passive House design goes beyond Living Building Standards and affordable housing programs. They reduce heating loads by more than 50% and offer fresh, clean air filtration, something we could have used in the smoke season. The result is a structure that uses less energy to heat and cool, and maintains a comfortable environment.

Seattle doesn’t offer any bonuses for Passive House design.

Despite going well beyond any sustainable program we do incentivize, Passive House projects are provided nothing from our city. The Seattle City Council should pass a series of sweeping incentives to guide the future of construction.

Like the MHA program, the City of Seattle should create an incentive providing an additional floor to all Passive House projects. (Source: Image by the Author)
Like the MHA program, the City of Seattle should create an incentive providing an additional floor to all Passive House projects. (Source: Image by the Author)

Give Us More Floor Area

Like the MHA program, the City of Seattle should incentivize Passive House construction by simply giving additional floor area and an extra story to build. Rather than a five-story building, it would be six stories. Rather than ten-stories, it would be eleven. Such simple concepts are the backbone of the MHA program and should be utilized for Passive House projects. For single-family proposals, the city should upgrade their zoning to Residential Small Lot (RSL) automatically. Residential Small Lot is limited to the same building heights as single-family projects, but increases the lot coverage from 35% to 50%. The zone also reduces the amount of restrictive setbacks and would be an enticing incentive for building passive house projects on single-family zoned land. The result would simply be more building area with the same neighborhood character.  

More units, more lot coverage, more flexibility in area distribution, Seattle’s RSL zoning would be the perfect incentive to build passive house projects in single-family zoned neighborhoods. (Source: City of Seattle)
More units, more lot coverage, more flexibility in area distribution, Seattle’s RSL zoning would be the perfect incentive to build passive house projects in single-family zoned neighborhoods. (Source: City of Seattle)

Give Us More Homes

Most multi-family zones are not governed by how many units you can provide, so by giving Passive House projects more floor area and an extra story, they will build more homes. But in single-family zones, unit count is restricted. With Residential Small Lot zoning, these restrictions go away. Residential Small Lot provides a density limit of one home per 2,000 square feet of lot area. This means the larger the lot, the more homes can be built. Contrast this to single-family zoning, which only allows three homes regardless if your land is 4,000 square feet or 10,000 square feet.

To sweeten the deal, the density limit should be improved to one home per 1,750 square feet of lot area. A standard 5,000 square foot lot will now allow three principal homes and three additional dwelling units, doubling what was previously permitted. This is a win-win for developers and the city. By utilizing zoning we have already deployed across single-family neighborhoods, this automatic upgrade will entice more density and more homes to be built sustainably.

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Ryan DiRaimo (Guest Contributor)

Ryan DiRaimo is a resident of the Aurora Licton-Springs Urban Village and board member of the neighborhood group ALUV. He works at an architecture firm downtown and was a selected participant of the HALA focus group. He advocates for density, pedestrian safety and world class mass transit.

4 COMMENTS

  1. In addition to the Bullitt Center, Bertschi School in Montlake, and an apartment building in Fremont (on Bridge Way I think) have also qualified for full LBC and a number of projects have achieved “Petal Certification,” or a modified Deep Green status (like the Brooks building on Stone Way) which means they’ve met some but not all of the LBC criteria. Someone from ILFI can chime in with more up-to-date and accurate info. Living Building Challenge is a superb program, but with all of the development in the last ten years it’s a shame so few projects have pursued it.

    Passivhaus does qualify for Priority Green and Priority Green Expedited, and a Passive House project could apply to the Innovation Advisory Committee, if the project also pursued the Water Wise program and appropriate waste reduction strategies. These incentives are not currently as valuable as the MHA incentives.

    Passivhaus has enjoyed massive success and wide adoption in Vancouver BC, Philadelphia, New York City and several other North American cities. In Brussels their Exemplary Buildings program has led to the creation of over 15 million square feet of net-zero and Passivhaus buildings. (It’s much easier to get to net-zero energy and net-zero carbon if the energy use of a building can be cut by 50% over code!)

    To reach our own 2050 carbon-neutral goal in Seattle 80% of our new and renovated buildings in the city will have to meet a standard like Passivhaus. We ought to get on this. Every building built now merely “to code” locks in excess carbon emissions for 50 years or more.

    • Yes I totally agree that LBC is a great program and it inspired the idea of giving the same bonus for large passive house proposals.

      I think the biggest bonus would be the auto-upzone to RSL for projects on single family zoned land. Skip the city council contract-rezone approval that takes forever and make sure it stays out of the design review speed bump designed to slow down development and suddenly you have a real program that has legs.

      My overall point was to showcase that most of this stuff has already happened (but for other programs). So why not expand that by including passive house as an incentive? I’d argue passive house is a better program than the other sustainability programs on it’s own (especially in residential construction).

      Even with the priority green expedited permitting, that’s not much an incentive (as you mentioned) compared to getting an extra level or more area.

  2. Eric I agree. I’d love to have major zoning overhauls and actually mandate PH for new construction, but the reality is that will not be passed easily. Government is a process, and slow.

    I opted for the bonus level plan for multi family because we already did that for affordable housing and we already do it for living building proposals. So why not passive house?

    I opted for the single family to RSL because we already did that for about 1,000 acres of single family land back in the MHA upzones.

    These are programs we already have, so the incentive would be such an easy thing to pass.

  3. This plan relies on the fact that our city rations out its zoning so tightly that the right to build another couple of homes on a piece of land is valuable, valuable enough that builders will trade that right for a promise to use more expensive materials, or rent a few homes out for a loss, or whatever else.

    I view this state of affairs as a problem. If we want housing to be abundant and affordable, the mere right to build a home should not be a scarce and valuable thing! Let’s stop rationing homes and zone a lot more of our city for a lot more homes, triple-pane windows or no.

    Passivehaus is really neat and I’d love to see more of it. I think if we would just institute a carbon tax to price energy usage commensurate with the damage it does to the environment, many aspects of this construction philosophy would make financial sense all on their own without needing to hold additional density hostage to it.

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