Ideas on High Density Happiness from MPavilion

On 20 January 2016, I had the opportunity to attend the third and final discussion in a series on 'High Density Happiness.' The discussion was part of MPavilion, a four-month architecture and design event in Melbourne, Australia. Since its inception in 2014, a notable architect has been commissioned to design a pavilion for the Queen Victoria Gardens, which serves as a meeting place for a free program of talks, workshops and performances. 

People listening to the panel discussion underneath and beside the MPavilion 2015, designed by  AL_A , studio of Amanda Levete.

People listening to the panel discussion underneath and beside the MPavilion 2015, designed by AL_A, studio of Amanda Levete.

The interesting discussion, High Density Happiness: Urban Placemaking, focused on what makes a neighbourhood or city an appealing and attractive place to live, and how Melbourne can retain its status as the world's most liveable city. The panel included Laura Phillips, editor of Open Journal, Jeff Provan, founder and design director of Neometro, Simon Knott, of BKK Architects and Rachel Elliot-Jones of Assemble. The panelists, as well as a few audience members, raised some interesting ideas and questions which resonated, so I thought I would share, prior to the audio recording being made available on the MPavilion website. You can listen to the audio recording of the first panel discussion as part of this series, High Density Happiness: Building Communities.

High Density Happiness: Urban Placemaking

Placemaking imperatives

  • Residential developments must address and contribute to the public realm, however it is important that we mediate levels of privacy, designing housing as a private retreat from the city, to allow people to engage and dis-engage with public life.

  • Promoting a diversity of housing types allows for a greater assortment of people to enjoy a building and neighbourhood.

  • Developers, planners and architects need to ask: Would I be prepared to live in this development? Would I let my family member live here?

  • Considerations need to be broader than size and focus on the bigger picture feelings of quality and design. We need to raise living standards as many resident concerns are not size, but quality related.

  • The more a development gives back to the community, the more it gets back. Developments can exhibit generosity through small moves.

  • Apartments should be an oasis - welcoming their inhabitants and making them feel glad to be home

  • Discussions about apartment building design should be less focused on height and more about street level interaction. The street facade and treatment of streetscape is often an afterthought, left to the last minute. But how the ground floor activity and design fits with what building residents and the local community want or need is incredibly important. 

  • Developments should respond and contribute to local context. You can't just plonk a design anywhere. It is vital that the needs of the current and future demographic is considered.

A new development model

  • We need to change the approach to development which covers the site and maximises yield. There are some great examples of models that give back to the community, such as the Commons.

  • The majority of multi-storey developments in Victoria are not designed by architects. We have witnessed non-designers having the power over design elements which they are not trained or equipped to deal with. Such an approach has been more concerned with market issues rather than the longevity of living spaces. 

  • We need to better consider the implications of gentrification and displacement. Sometimes the diverse, artistic community which has made an area appealing is pushed out when they become 'trendy'. 

  • We need to consider the finished construction as the start of the development process, not the end, as this is where we see its actual contribution to the residents, street, neighbourhood and city. 

  • We have opportunities to incentivise new approaches to development, such as collective and affordable housing.

  • Car parking policy needs to be revitalised to reflect changing needs and attitudes. Reduced car parking is cost-effective to developers, reduces housing cost and contributes greater housing choice in market. There is opportunity for better bike storage and maintenance facilities in apartments. 

  • It is important to shift the role of government from an 'umpire' to leading good development outcomes. To aid this political donations from developers should be banned so that the State Government isn't subject to difficult pressures. To protect our assets (public transportation, public spaces, etc), we need good legislation and policy. Independent design review processes is beneficial as no sites are the same. Architects, landscape architects and designers should involved in large scale development and public participation must be encouraged to allow for community discussion and debate. 

MPavilion offers a great opportunity to engage the public in discussions on urban planning policy.

MPavilion offers a great opportunity to engage the public in discussions on urban planning policy.

Inside the Most Sustainable Fire Station in the USA: Fire Station 20

Fire Station 20. Photo by Lara Swimmer , courtesy of Schacht Aslani Architects.

Fire Station 20. Photo by Lara Swimmer, courtesy of Schacht Aslani Architects.

“Seattle is known worldwide for its environmental leadership. City policy mandates LEED Gold for new construction, and we’ve gone well beyond that with this new fire station” -Mayor Edward Murray.

Durability, efficiency and functionality were core to the design of a new building for Fire Station 20. With modest, yet striking architecture, the building is unassumingly the most sustainable fire station in the United States. Located on a new site nestled into the steep slope of Queen Anne hill, the building has a strong civic presence, interspersed between predominantly industrial buildings on 15th Avenue W, making it an ideal location to showcase sustainable design.

Sustainable fire stations in Seattle

In 2003, citizens voted in support of the City of Seattle’s Fire Facilities and Emergency Response Levyto generate $167 million to upgrade, renovate or replace 32 neighborhood stations to seismic and modern firefighting standards. A key component of the City’s project was a commitment to achieving the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environment Design (LEED) certification. LEED is an independent sustainable design rating system in which participating projects earn points for green features, meeting one of four certification levels (ranging from certified, silver, gold, with platinum as the highest level). The City’s station improvement initiative initially targeted a minimum of LEED Silver, though this target was subsequently raised to LEED Gold.

In 2010, Schacht Aslani Architects were appointed to design Fire Station 20. The project team brought extensive expertise, having designed the LEED Gold certified Fire Station 30 in Mount Baker. Aspiring to higher environmental performance, the City challenged the team to meet LEED Platinum certification and the guidelines of the Architecture 2030 Challenge (2015), encouraging reduction of carbon emissions and fossil fuel consumption. Fire Station 20 achieved LEED Platinum certification in June 2015, earning 98 points out of 110 to make it the highest LEED scoring fire station in the USA.

Fire Station 20 creates a civic presence, featuring a new sidewalk to enhance local connections, landscaping and public art. Photo by Lara Swimmer, courtesy of Schacht Aslani Architects.

Fire Station 20 creates a civic presence, featuring a new sidewalk to enhance local connections, landscaping and public art. Photo by Lara Swimmer, courtesy of Schacht Aslani Architects.

Site and building features

Prior to the new development, Fire Station 20, located in residential Queen Anne, was assessed by the City as too small, ageing and inadequate for contemporary emergency response requirements. Following investigation, 4 lots were secured at the intersection of Interbay and West Queen Anne, allowing expansion and the ability to accommodate a drive-thru design, though presenting several challenges due to a former landfill in the area and the site’s significant slope. The development improved local amenity by creating a new sidewalk connection along W Armour Street to provide safe pedestrian access between the hill climb to the residential buildings of Queen Anne and the Rapid Ride bus stops located in front of the station.  

The layout of the station is divided into distinctive sides referred to as the “dirty” and “clean” house. The “dirty” house encompasses the Apparatus Bay which has capacity for 2 engines, workshop space, marine and oxygen storage areas. This side of the building has a walk in shower and a special washing machine known as an extractor, both modern features of fire stations, ensuring any contamination cannot spread. A storage space with radiant heating keeps uniforms dry when not in use, an important aspect of maintaining uniforms as they go through extreme wear and tear.

The main entrance is located on the “clean” side and leads to the lobby and station office. During duty, fire fighters can be affected by extreme temperatures and exposed to stress. The building’s climate controlled spaces are essential for supporting recovery and comfort after an emergency. The kitchen, TV room and bunk rooms have been designed to support rest and recovery, by enabling light levels to be controlled and noise minimized. The physical training room, with views over the neighborhood, helps the crew maintain fitness for service. Whilst the layout enables use of the stairs between the first and second floor, the building is designed to be accessible and integrates an elevator, for visitors to the station for public open houses and school tours.

The kitchen and dining space. Photo by Lara Swimmer, courtesy of Schacht Aslani Architects.

The kitchen and dining space. Photo by Lara Swimmer, courtesy of Schacht Aslani Architects.

The physical training room. Photo by Lara Swimmer, courtesy of Schacht Aslani Architects.

The physical training room. Photo by Lara Swimmer, courtesy of Schacht Aslani Architects.

Design features

Initial energy models for Fire Station 20 indicate a 70% saving compared to a typical building. Fire stations generally require systems 24 hours a day, placing additional demands on energy and makingsustainability standards challenging to meet. This significant saving is attributed to making the right moves with design up front by orientating the building to maximize natural light and selecting highly efficient mechanical systems.

During the day, minimal artificial lighting is required due to orientation and expansive windows. Efficient LED lights are incorporated throughout the building and used when required. Solar panels are discreetly integrated into the roof, generating approximately 30% of required energy. 14 geothermal wells beneath the ground take advantage of the earth’s stable temperatures. Water is circulated through pipes extending into the ground to extract or discharge heat to efficiently warm and cool the building. The constant opening and closing of the Apparatus Bay doors creates an inconsistent temperature that is inefficient to control. To combat this, the building is the first fire station in Seattle to incorporate a radiant heating system, helping to stabilize the temperature. A heat recovery system captures and reuses 75% of the exhaust heat that would otherwise be lost from the building. A generator provides backup power to the fire station in the event of an emergency. There are two charging stations for electric vehicles. Throughout, low flow plumbing fixtures are used, resulting in a 43% reduction in water use.

The building features efficient LED lights and expansive windows to optimize natural light during the day. Photo by Lara Swimmer, courtesy of Schacht Aslani Architects.

The building features efficient LED lights and expansive windows to optimize natural light during the day. Photo by Lara Swimmer, courtesy of Schacht Aslani Architects.

The apparatus bay. Photo by Lara Swimmer, courtesy of Schacht Aslani Architects.

The apparatus bay. Photo by Lara Swimmer, courtesy of Schacht Aslani Architects.

Materials were considered for their durability, environmental and health impacts. 90% of materials from the demolition of existing buildings on the site were able to be salvaged for recycling. Approximately 30% of the new building was constructed from recycled materials. Some materials were selected for their environmental credentials. Examples of this include use of materials with low levels of volatile organic compounds to improve indoor air quality and the integration of environmentally friendly zinc in the siding as it has a 60 year plus life-span and is able to be 100% recycled.

Schacht Aslani Architects collaborated with landscape architects Nakano Associates to soften the industrial character of the street. The landscaping creates a visual connection with nature that complements the steep slope of the site and civic features of the building. Two green roofs create additional space for landscaping and help to reduce and filter stormwater. Managing stormwater at the site was important given the proximity to the Lake Washington Ship Canal and potential impact on marine life. Water that falls on the roof is directed to a bio-retention planter where it is filtered by a series of plants, soil and gravel. 

Artwork marking the entrance and drought tolerant plants integrated into the landscaping. Photo by Lara Swimmer, courtesy of Schacht Aslani Architects.

Artwork marking the entrance and drought tolerant plants integrated into the landscaping. Photo by Lara Swimmer, courtesy of Schacht Aslani Architects.

The crew were interested in integrating a vegetable garden due to the popularity of the one at the old station. The thriving vegetable garden provides a variety of produce enjoyed by the firefighters, offering additional benefits of healthy eating and social interaction through gardening and cooking.

A series of terraced garden beds soften the appearance of the retaining wall which helps to relate to the residential buildings in Queen Anne. Lattice-style fencing along the alley is intended to provide a green screen once climbing plants mature. Native and drought tolerant plants are used throughout the landscape as they need very little water once established.

Wind and Water, a striking artwork by Rob Ley marks the entrance to Fire Station 20. Ley described that the smoke-like forms of stainless steel tubing references the role of wind and water as a fire suppressor. The piece was commissioned as part of the City of Seattle public art program and creates visual interest for people passing by.

Information sharing

To engage with and inform the community about the building, a large flip-dot sign on 15th Avenue W displays real-time environmental performance information. The sign uses minimal energy and is complemented by interactive signage about energy, water and carbon savings as well as solar generation.

Signage displaying information about the performance of Fire Station 20 to people passing by on 15th Ave W. Photo by Lara Swimmer, courtesy of Schacht Aslani Architects.

Signage displaying information about the performance of Fire Station 20 to people passing by on 15th Ave W. Photo by Lara Swimmer, courtesy of Schacht Aslani Architects.

The City’s fire station initiative and sustainability goals provided opportunity for architects involved in the different buildings to share information about the efficiency, costs and challenges of different mechanical systems and learn from each other. Projects benefited from the experience of earlier developments, reflecting an economy of scale which promoted efficiency and innovation. The earlier involvement of Schacht Aslani Architects in the design of Station 30 involved conversations with crews, neighbors and a range of built environment professionals which helped to build a wealth of knowledge which influenced the design of Fire Station 20. The firm describes that the learnings from the sustainable design of Fire Station 20 have been shared with architects working on other station projects.

Fire Station 20 has an Energy Management and Control System which monitors and regulates the building to sure it is operating efficiently. This helps generate information which continues the legacy of sharing knowledge of design outcomes to benefit future city projects. The building is considered the pinnacle of the City’s fire station redevelopment and sustainability initiative and is anticipated to save money over the long term as a result of its low energy and water consumption. Fire Station 20 serves as an excellent model for sustainability, reflecting the innovative design by Schacht Aslani Architects and the City’s commitment to improving the environmental performance of its buildings.

Thank you to Cyndi Wilder and David Jackson from the City of Seattle and Eric Aman from Schacht Aslani Architects for the opportunity to see inside Fire Station 20 and their assistance with information about the design of the building.

This article is published on The Urbanist, a site dedicated to examining urban policy to improve cities and quality of life. 

Inside Seattle’s Greenest Commercial Building: The Bullitt Center

"We shouldn't fuel the future with the polluting methods of the past... We have the technology to power our future in ways that don't threaten our health or poison our planet. Let's choose to use it" ― Denis Hayes, President and CEO, Bullitt Foundation 

Courtesy of the  Bullitt Center .

Courtesy of the Bullitt Center.

The design inspiration for the Bullitt Center, one of the world’s greenest commercial buildings, stems from elements of Seattle’s natural environment. With a vision for creating an innovative living building, the design team explored the ecological processes of the Douglas Fir forest, which historically covered the Capitol Hill site. The architectural design imitates aspects of the Douglas Fir tree and forms part of the local urban ecology, optimizing energy, and water from its local setting.

Vision for a living building 

Bullitt Center Exterior by

Water cycle

The Bullitt Center which opened in 2013, was designed to meet the ambitious goals of the Living Building Challenge (version 2.0), a sustainable building certification process. Developments participating in the Living Building Challenge (LBC) are required to meet sustainability standards defined according to seven categories, which for version 2.0 included site, water, energy, health and happiness, materials, equity and beauty. These standards are updated to continue excelling sustainable architecture. LBC projects are assessed on actual, rather than anticipated performance and are evaluated only once they have been operating at full occupancy for at least 12 consecutive months. The Bullitt Center, designed by Miller Hull Partnership, is intended to have a lifecycle of 250 years, incorporating many adaptable features so the building can change over time. The six-story building is designed as a living laboratory and center for experimentation to share information, with public tours available 3 times a week.

Bullitt Center Wetland by

The building is designed to mirror how the Douglas Fir forest would historically capture, absorb and slowly release water that fell upon the site. Rainwater is harvested from the roof, filtered, passed through ultraviolet light and activated charcoal, and treated with a small amount of chlorine. Once the Center receives approval from environmental and health authorities, all of the building’s water will be provided from this rainwater system instead of the municipal water supply. Greywater, from sinks and showers, is captured, filtered and pumped to a constructed wetland on the third floor. The water passes through plants and gravel in the wetland five times so nutrients are absorbed and harmful materials removed. The water then enters a bio-swale located on the west side of the building where it is filtered again by plants and 20 feet of gravel before entering ground water.

The Center features the only six-story composting toilet system in the world. The odor-free system only uses two tablespoons of water and biodegradable soap, significantly reducing water consumption. Human waste enters the large composting system in the basement and is decomposed through an aerobic process. Liquid is separated into leachate storage tanks and taken monthly to the King County Liquid Waste facility in Carnation where it is used in a bird sanctuary. The biosolids will be taken to GroCo in Kent to be mixed with sawdust and made into fertilizer.


Energy of nature

The designers considered how the site historically processed sunlight, when it was a Douglas Fir forest and created the roof as a canopy integrating 575 solar panels.

The Center is designed to use minimal energy so the roof provides sufficient solar power, as a standard office building would require a larger roof area to generate enough energy. The building optimizes natural light through expansive windows, and interior conditions are also moderated through operable and triple-glazed windows with automated exterior shades, hydronic heating, geothermal heating and passive heat recovery systems. Computers are used to monitor and adjust the building’s systems for maintaining comfortable levels of light and inside temperatures.

People power

The Miller Hull Partnership recognized that in delivering an efficient building, their design would need to influence people’s behavior and rely on ‘people power’. At the building’s entrance, a staircase greets workers and visitors, rather than elevators, as found in many standard office buildings. Constructed with beautiful timber and surrounded by windows offering views of Seattle to Puget Sound, the Bullitt Center fondly describes it as the ‘irresistible staircase' for its inviting design. It goes without saying that the staircase offers health benefits by encouraging people to be active at work. To ensure the building is accessible, an energy efficient elevator is integrated, however it is discretely located. 

Bullitt Center Staircase by

The building’s location was selected because of accessibility by walking, cycling and transit. Instead of providing on site car parking, the building has storage for 29 bicycles with a repair station, plus showers and change rooms on every level. Each building tenant engages in a green lease, which specifies a budget for energy and water consumption, making workers more aware of their behavior.

City as an ecosystem and innovator

Compared to standard buildings, the Bullitt Center considered design aspects beyond its site encompassing the broader ecosystem of the city. An adjacent traffic median was rejuvenated as a public park, responding to local needs for more green gathering spaces and creates safer connections for pedestrians and cyclists. The location also enables excess energy from the solar panels to be sold back into the grid.

Open space at Bullitt Center

Local materials were sourced in the construction to minimize the environmental impacts of transportation. The building’s frame is constructed of timber, sourced within 1000km from a responsibly managed forest as certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. All of the steel and concrete was sourced within 500km.

The Bullitt Center also helped generate local innovation. Instead of sourcing high-performing windows from Germany, the team liaised with the company to allow a local company to get an exclusive license to manufacture them. They also worked with a local company that produced water sealants for building exteriors to create a formulation that didn’t contain phthalates, one of fourteen harmful materials, which must be avoided to meet the LBC requirements. Through these endeavors, others working in the construction industry in the region are now able to access these innovations.

The building’s sustainable design also pushed the boundaries of government regulations and required collaboration with many agencies. The Center worked with the City of Seattle to create the Living Building Pilot Program to overcome barriers in the Land Use Code to developing green buildings. The team worked with Seattle’s Departments of Transportation and Parks and Recreation to close 15th Street to traffic to extend and redevelop McGilvra Place Park adjacent to building. It is continuing to work with Seattle-King County Public Health and the Washington State Department of Public Health regarding the use of treated water on site. Despite the architectural and engineering innovations of the building, the planning and design process took around 5 years, demonstrating the challenges in sourcing materials to meet the LBC standards as well as meeting regulations.

The development of the Bullitt Center highlights the importance of sustainable buildings serving as living laboratories to test ideas, and to assist other developers to improve upon technologies and design. It also illustrates the need for city governments to think beyond their building codes and facilitate innovation in green building design perhaps through waivers or credits, rather than impediments. Drawing on the building’s metaphor, the Bullitt Center has planted the seed for a forest of innovative sustainable buildings to be developed in Seattle and beyond.

This article is published on The Urbanist, a site dedicated to examining urban policy to improve cities and quality of life. 

City activation and place making videos

Yesterday, a friend and former co-worker who works in regional development and tourism sent me a message saying that she was looking for some interesting and inspiring videos about city activation, place making and collaborative processes in urban development. Her city has a spectacular setting on Australia's Great Barrier Reef and a magically perfect tropical climate which make it a major destination for tourists and a fabulous place which locals never want to leave. Increasingly, people are identifying the many opportunities to reinvigorate spaces within the central business district to complement the natural setting with other city experiences. 

It is incredibly exciting that the city is exploring opportunities to enhance the urban landscape, and in the process are looking around the world for ideas to generate some passion in their leaders. I have selected a few videos which I hope offer both interesting and motivating ideas for aspiring to create great spaces and inclusive and engaging processes in cities. If you have a little spare time each of these is worth a look. I would love to hear of any other great suggestions you have to share - just enter any  in the comments below. I hope to add some more suggestions when I have a little more time. 

Spare 15 - 20 minutes

How Public Spaces Make Cities Work
In this inspiring talk, Amanda Burden discusses the importance of public spaces in creating an enjoyable city life. She shares her experience of developing the High Line in New York as a great example of public space anchoring an area undergoing transformation, and she provides insight into some great ideas for strategic and integrated urban development which ensure people are connected with the places they live.  

Before I Die I Want To
Candy Chang has sprinkled countless cities around the world with little experiments, often on the sides of abandoned buildings, to engage people in their neighborhoods about life, memories and dreams. She shows the power of public spaces when people have a voice and share experiences with each other. 

The Walkable City
Jeff Speck explains how Portland, Oregon made a series of choices which shifted the city's priorities to make it more sustainable, walkable and bikeable - and in the process boosted economic development outcomes. This is a great example of a leaders setting an agenda to improve the city for all.   

Brilliant Designs to Fit More People in Every City
The vision for the future city, according to Kent Larson is a place for people, capitalizing on compact urban centers and shared use of spaces and vehicles. Technological innovation will play a role in creating micro cars, robotic walls for apartments to adapt spaces, apps to enable communities to 'personalise' the type of housing they demand and sensors to save energy consumption. A little out there, but inspiring for thinking beyond the status quo! 

Retrofitting Suburbia
Ellen Dunham-Jones offers opportunities for how cities can regenerate car-based suburban development as people-oriented spaces. 

My Architectural Philosophy? Bring the Community into the Process
This insightful talk by Alejandro Aravena discusses the importance of engaging with the community to find the right questions to ask and the right problems to solve in a complex example from Chile. 

Spare 60 minutes

The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces
William H. Whyte discusses his observations of people's needs for public spaces in cities and what makes a utilized and vibrant space. A fantastic film to watch for anyone responsible for overseeing a public space or city activation design project.