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The Greenest Buildings Are The Ones Already There, Panel Tells Event Audience

If you want to save the planet, start with saving old buildings. That’s the gist of what panelists at Bisnow Seattle’s Adaptive Reuse Summit told the audience last week. 

Pre-war buildings add character to communities, but renovation can be tricky. It’s more expensive to renovate older buildings than remove them and start from scratch, and building policies often complicate the process.

The panelists at the summit agreed that the process is worth it in the long run. Renovation is practical because older buildings tend to hold their value, but it is also environmentally friendly and creates beautiful neighborhoods where people want to be.

SKB’s John Olivier, Dunn & Hobbes Liz Dunn, University of Washington’s Kathryn Rogers Merlino, Unico Properties’ Brett Phillips, Clark Construction’s KK Clark and Hunters Capital’s Michael Malone discuss preserving, restoring and transforming Seattle at Bisnow’s Adaptive Reuse Summit last week.

Kathryn Rogers Merlino, University of Washington director of Center for Preservation and Adaptive Reuse, said she likes “old stuff” and it is part of the human condition to want to save as much of history as possible. 

“We like layers of history,” she said. “We also can’t deny that there is a climate change. No one here in Seattle is going throw a can in the garbage, but yet we destroy and throw away old buildings with wild abandon.”

The policy part is complicated, she said. Municipalities and building owners tend to want to go all in, or do nothing. The bar is set too high. 

Rogers Merlino — who wrote the book Building Reuse — supports smaller, more doable changes that move the needle in the direction of preservation.

“We need to think outside of the box and do the best we can now,” she said. “How can we cost-effectively retrofit buildings and do the minimum to keep them safe to occupy? Let’s do a B+ job and messy in the middle gray area.”

Clark Construction Senior Project Manager KK Clark points out that there are many unreinforced masonry buildings in Seattle, with as many as 7,500, according to a report by KOMO News.

Alan Durning, founder of the Sightline Institute, moderates the panel as KK Clark and Michael Malone look on.

“We need funding alternatives to soften the cost,” she said. 

Part of the practice should include small improvement projects that allow tenants to remain in the building, Dunn & Hobbes principal Liz Dunn said. She prefers to allow businesses to stay in her buildings when she does retrofits.

“I’m not kicking them out to do a massive retrofit when I think there’s a strategy that can keep them in place,” she said.

Brett Phillips, Unico Properties vice president of sustainable and responsible investment, says he thinks the system in Seattle is broken. The city has a lack of affordable housing and a lack of density. 

“You have all this density tied up in undevelopable land,” he said.

It makes sense to change the systems, he added.

“To quote Kathryn’s book, ‘The greenest building is the one that’s already there,’” he said.

Hunters Capital Chairman and owner Michael Malone said that the goal of saving buildings is all well and good, but we need a pathway to do it.

“We have the vision, but not the plan,” he said.

Phillips said that building efficient buildings is a practice that already pencils out. 

“We are doing that today without sacrificing returns,” he said. “People that say it’s not possible are wrong.”

Phillips urged the audience to get their hands dirty and write legislation themselves, then work with the city to implement the plan.

“There are ways to do this,” he said. “Build a coalition, settle on a policy and keep taking it to the city until you talk to the right people there.”

Making the project pencil out is also about choices, he said.

“Do you need to source the marble from Italy?” he asked. “When there are good choices that are less expensive but look just as good?”

Clark agreed that it is all about choices. 

“It can be as simple as choosing materials that are sustainable,” she said. “Do you need that marble? Does that align with your core values?"