To Advance Ambitions for Sustainability, Pittsburgh Can Look to Seattle for Inspiration.

With its vast array of innovative sustainable projects, Pittsburgh is often touted as a green leader.  But to truly innovate, Pittsburgh must look beyond the city limits for inspiration as it continues on its path toward healthy, high performing sustainable design and construction. One such source is King County in the Greater Seattle area. This jurisdiction is taking impressive steps to improve the vitality of our environment, setting new standards for sustainability on a municipality level through a historic commitment to the Living Building Challenge.

Just over one year ago, King County Council in Seattle, WA unanimously passed its 2015 Strategic Climate Action Plan, which includes registering 10 new Living Building Challenge or Net Zero Energy municipal projects by 2020. The plan outlines the ambitious goals of King County to significantly reduce its carbon footprint, ultimately becoming carbon-neutral for new construction projects by 2030 and reducing countywide carbon pollution by 80% by 2050.


Graph showing energy reduction goals from the King County Climate Action Plan

A Living Building Challenge commitment on a municipal level is remarkable since this building standard is the world’s most rigorous. It includes requirements such as achieving net-zero energy, net-zero water, and full building material transparency. Currently, only 11 buildings in the world have achieved full Living Building certification and many of them support office or educational functions, a contrast to the industrial-use projects that King County will seek to build.

That municipality has 300+ active capital projects of varying sizes annually, from renovations to new construction, and operates a variety of facilities ranging from transit stations to wastewater treatment plants. The process energy and water usage of each is intensive, so decreasing those uses can significantly help our environment and play a vital role in combating climate change.

In order to properly execute its Strategic Climate Action Plan, representatives from the King County GreenTools program provide guidance to project teams, giving high-level oversight to ensure sustainability ambitions are met. In October of 2016, King County Executive Dow Constantine, along with GreenTools, hosted a leadership training summit for county staff, emphasizing the importance of high performance sustainable development and explaining requirements set forth in the plan. The audience included a broad mix of county personnel, from finance directors and project managers to operations staff. Speakers included the vice president of the Living Building Challenge, Kathleen Smith, as well as the project team from Pittsburgh’s Frick Environmental Center (FEC), which is targeted to achieve full Living Building certification. GreenTools representatives reached out to the FEC project team because, as the first municipally owned and free-admission LBC-targeted project, FEC was an early adopter of Living Building Challenge, overcoming highly difficult obstacles to achieve ambitious sustainability goals. The FEC project team emphasized to the King County staff the importance of breaking boundaries to facilitate change.

The Frick Environmental Center is a city-owned building currently pursuing Living Building certification in Pittsburgh. Photo credit: © Nic Lehoux

Here in Pittsburgh, there are two facilities that have made a commitment to full Living Building Challenge certification: Frick Environmental Center and Phipps Conservatory. FEC is city-owned, indicating the increasing commitment of Pittsburgh to the advancement of sustainability. Although it has not adopted the Living Building Challenge on a policy level, the city has adopted building energy reporting and transparency requirements with new Building Benchmarking legislation that recently passed City Council, thereby joining the ranks of other leading U.S. cities such as New York City, San Francisco, Boston, and Washington D.C.

At a time of such intense national political and social debate regarding climate change, it is more important than ever to act locally and create effective policy that will ensure the health of our planet for future generations.

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