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Client Health and Autonomy, Building Durability, and Cost Control were Key Drivers for Sound Mental Health’s LEED Platinum Housing Project in Seattle, Washington


Kathleen O'Brien interviews project designer Chirstina Bollo.



Kenyon House is an 18-unit two-story affordable housing project for previously homeless people with disabilities and fragile health. The project was developed by Housing Resources Group, AIDS Housing of Washington, and Sound Mental Health, all 501©3 organizations. O’Brien & Company provided initial rating, technical assistance, field application assistance, and performance testing and site verification of the envelope installation.

The project was the first project in the State of Washington to attain LEED for HomesPlatinum certification for affordable housing and only the second in the United States. It was completed in 2008 and featured in GreenBuild 2009’s LEED Project Showcase. According to Owner Sound Mental Health’s Trish Blanchard (Chief Clinical Officer), the agency is “grateful for this beautiful and sustainably built project and the partnerships that made it possible. Kenyon House provides supportive housing for some of the neediest and hardest-to-house in our community.”

Christina, you were the Project Designer with SMR Architects on the Kenyon House Project. What was your experience with “green” design prior to this project?I was lucky enough to study at the University of Oregon with John Reynolds and Alison Kwok from 1999 to 2002. While there I was involved with the Agents of Change Vital Signs Case Study Project, which included investigating actual buildings, conducting post-occupancy surveys, and developing case studies based on real world results. I’ve been interested in sustainability from the beginning.

It shows! You managed to achieve the highest LEED rating on the project. Was that planned from the beginning? Yes and no. From the beginning, I was referring to the LEED for Homes checklist to make sure the design was meeting the standard. But the owner was not planning to get the project certified. That changed when the non-profit developer found funding for certification. It was actually pretty late in the game, but because I’d been using the LEED checklist all along the project was actually able to do pretty well.

I’ll say. Was LEED the driver then for your decisions? I would not say that. It informedOct08Kenyon 031   but did not drive the sustainability decisions. Thinking about the owner’s goals and the residents needs was truly what drove them. For the owners, it was important to design a building that would last 50 years — the term of the funding requirement. So for example, we detailed the windows so they can be replaced without tearing the building envelope apart. We used a fiber cement rainscreen for a more durable enclosure and focused on durability throughout. Of course the other big issue for the owner is cost of operating the facility. So saving energy and water was also a priority. All of this matches very well with LEED for Homes.

And what about the residents?Thermal comfort and good indoor air quality are always important in a residential setting, but especially in this one, where the occupants are in fragile health. I will say that LEED for Homes is much more suitable for this type of project. One concern with the non-residential LEED standard was its smoking prohibition. In a situation like this, such a ban would actually encourage surreptitious smoking, perhaps causing fires. Continuous ventilation was obviously key.

Any hiccups getting into LEED so late?We had a few stressful moments. O’Brien & Company had to submit a CIR for the paper-faced drywall already installed for the tub enclosure. They determined the drywall could meet the performance requirements, especially since we had the contractor apply a primer to the board. But probably the most challenging aspect of implementing LEED so late in the game was our needing to solicit signatures for accountability forms from consultants who had been off the project for quite some time. We got it done, but it was daunting.

How did your contractor feel about the added LEED performance requirements? Our contractor Walsh Construction was pretty enthusiastic about it. They saw it as an opportunity to learn advanced sealing techniques and committed to implementing them on all of their projects as a matter of practice.

Besides LEED performance, what else about the project meshes with the goal of sustainability? Social equity is an important aspect of sustainability. For the owner, above all else was the desire to create an autonomous, independent living situation for the residents, while fostering interaction between them and staff. The lobbies and central staircases were designed to force circulation past the case workers’ office. Yet, the studios are totally self-sufficient. The backyard was deliberately set aside for vegetable gardens maintained by the tenants. So it’s a nice mix of community and privacy.

Oct08Kenyon 007 You mentioned community. How do the neighbors feel about the project?Well actually the project addressed a safety problem the neighborhood was dealing with. The zoning called for the long side facing E-W (perpendicular to the street). This was terrible orientation for passive heating and cooling (as well as daylighting). The site’s original configuration also made for a pass-through for “hooligans.” Turning the building, so the long side now faced SW (with the front facing S), helped provide a buffer against such straying and entirely changed the building’s energy performance potential for the better. It was definitely a win-win and a no-brainer getting through to the city. This configuration also made more space for the tenant’s backyard garden.

Looking back, how do you feel about the project now? I am very happy with it. In fact, I’m finding it difficult to leave it behind! The landscaping budget was pretty tiny. So for a while it was a very fancy building sitting in a bunch of mulch. I’ve been involved with a series of volunteer landscaping projects for the front yard. And now that the Seattle Department of Transportation has started allowing it, I’m hoping we can do something fun with the parking strip. It gets great light all year round.

Christina Bollo designs environmentally and socially sustainable homes for homeless people and people with special needs. She received a Master of Architecture degree from the University of Oregon and is a registered architect in Washington State. She is the chair of the Seattle Pedestrian Advisory Board and a member of the national board of Architects/ Designers/ Planners for Social Responsibility.

Did you enjoy this article?  You might also like these Building Capacity Blog articles: 
Interview with LINC’s Maria Elena Marquez-Brookes
Interview with KCR’s Larry Eyre
LEED Rescue: How Projects Get Into Trouble and How to Get Out
Costs & Associated Benefits of LEED Certification

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