World's Greenest Senior Living Community Opens in Seattle

The Living Building Challenge is tough, but this building has big aspirations.

solar roof on the Aegis Living Lake Union

Aegis Living

It is a sad fact of architecture that buildings rarely look as good in reality as they do in the renderings. The Aegis Living Lake Union assisted living community in Seattle flouts this convention; it looks better in reality than in the renderings. Treehugger covered it when it broke ground because it was designed to achieve certification under the Living Building Challenge (LBC), which is possibly the world's toughest green building standard.

Aegis Living exterior

Aegis Living

The LBC is definitely challenging, and achieving some of its seven petals is almost impossible for this kind of use. Aegis Living and its architects, Ankrom Moisan, are reaching for three petals of the seven in the LBC—energy, place, and beauty—but are not ignoring the rest.

The energy petal appears to be less onerous than it was in earlier versions, which required the total energy demand to be met onsite. That's why Seattle's Bullitt Center and The Kendeda Building in Atlanta have solar hats bigger than the building. Lake Union is all-electric, emission-free, and "105% of the building’s total energy demand through various energy reduction measures, including an onsite solar array and offsite solar energy farms that generate 1.7-million-kilowatt hours."

"The building has also reduced its overall energy draw by 25% (relative to a comparable building type) through key features that include an enhanced thermal envelope comprised of triple pane window glazing, thermal insulation for exterior walls, and heat recovery through forced-air ventilation. Other features that reduce the energy draw include a recirculating heat pump system, LED lighting and sensors to monitor use and high-efficiency appliances."

Notably, "all non-drinking water is supplied through captured rainwater and treated greywater, saving more than 140,000 gallons of water annually for the life of the building." One of my ongoing problems with the LBC is its water petal, which called for potable water to be captured and treated as well. It seems silly in Seattle, which has some of the best quality drinking water in the world. I am glad they chose to get their drinking water from the mountains instead of the roof, and while they are not going after the water petal, they certainly are not ignoring it.

Model room with a view
Model room with a view.

Aegis Living

Dwayne Clark, Aegis Living's founder and CEO, said of the Living Building Challenge: “Being the first to reach such an important milestone, Aegis Lake Union will no doubt raise the bar for the industry, setting new standards for us and others to lessen our environmental footprint while continuing to deliver an exceptional resident experience. I couldn’t be prouder of our team for always leading the way.” 

A point we have tried to make on Treehugger is that lessening one's environmental footprint also leads directly to better comfort and an exceptional resident experience, thanks to more consistent temperatures, less noise, and better air quality but also to a healthier environment with fewer toxic chemicals being used in construction and operations. That's one of the great strengths of the LBC.

petals of LBC
The building is going for three of the seven petals of the Living Building Challenge.

Aegis Living Early Design Guidance

So I am a bit disappointed that they did not go after the materials petal—"endorsing products that are safe for all species through time"— which was the plan when we first wrote about the project. It is one that would have a significant impact for the residents. But it can be tough and expensive, and it is likely that in a health care environment, there might not even be products available that are free of the chemicals on the LBC "red list."

Similarly, I wish they had taken on the challenge of the health and happiness petal: "Fostering environments that optimize physical and psychological health and well being." Given they say the "focus on wellness, which at Lake Union, includes a balance studio where residents can listen to the calming sounds of the waterfall right outside the window," it seems it would have been a natural fit.

In the previous post, I griped that getting only three petals out of seven seemed insufficient and that perhaps it should be like the World Series, where you need four out of seven to win. Seeing what they have done here, I think that was harsh.

The Living Building Challenge is not designed for particular uses, and a senior living community is an intense user of resources, with lots of people living and working there and probably lots of equipment in kitchens, laundries, and recreational and wellness areas. Achieving the other petals may well have been impossible, let alone prohibitively expensive. But as we saw with water, they are not just ignoring them.

Rowing shell on ceiling

Aegis Living

Also, in the original post on this building, I quoted the vision statement: "The project will be an example of craftsmanship, lightness, and community, merging the philosophy of Aegis Living and the imperatives of the Living Building Challenge with the story and design concept of the rowing team and shell house."

Rowing mural on wall

Aegis Living

I noted that "I'm a senior rower and have seen a lot of shell houses around the world, and I don't see the connection." Now that it is built, I still don't see it in the architecture, but I do appreciate the Pocock four shell hanging from the ceiling and the homage to the famous 1936 team, winners of "the greatest race you've never heard of," on the walls.

There are many people aging into this climate crisis, and they are among the most vulnerable. Aegis Living is doing some smart planning and marketing here—not only providing the usual services but doing it in a building that is healthy, doesn't run on fossil fuels, and doesn't need much fresh water–it is inherently resilient. It will also be cooler in heat waves and deliver fresher air when the forests burn. The rowing shell on the ceiling is nice, but writing as an aging architect who knows about both rowing and climate, the smartest sales pitch in this project is the Living Building Challenge.