First published September 1, 2006 in Environmental Design + Construction magazine
Atop a ridge overlooking Seattle’s downtown skyline, Elliot Bay and the Cascade Mountain range, sits the West Seattle neighborhood of High Point. Until recently, it was clearly one of the low points among the city’s 21 neighborhoods. More than 700 subsidized housing units in mostly dilapidated barracks-style buildings dotted the area — the result of a rush to provide housing following World War II.Visit High Point today, and you’ll see a neighborhood transformed. Seattle Housing Authority has undertaken a 130-acre redevelopment project that will make High Point the largest sustainable, mixed-income urban neighborhood in the country. Now in its second year of construction, High Point is already receiving national attention and awards honoring its innovative approach to the environment and the community.When construction is completed in 2009, the High Point neighborhood will be a mixture of 1,600 low-income and market-rate homes, townhouses, condominiums and apartments. All residence designs meet the standards of the Master Builders Association’s Built Green program at the three-star level or higher; more than 500 of them have been ENERGY STAR-certified. Additionally, the community includes several Habitat for Humanity homes and senior housing, all meeting Built Green standards.
The Seattle Housing Authority, along with architect Mithun, took an ecologically holistic approach to the planning of High Point. The design team considered not only the health, self-sufficiency, long-term costs and well-being of its residents, but also the impacts on the environment and local salmon runs. The team asked for and incorporated design ideas from hundreds of people, including city leaders, surrounding neighbors, and High Point’s former residents — who are all guaranteed housing in the new development.
“We kicked off the project by taking a big picture look at the area and what we wanted to achieve,” said Brian Sullivan, project architect with Mithun. “Working hand-in-hand with Seattle Housing we are able to transform the neighborhood into one that provides a healthy environment and quality design and, at the same time, engages the community.”
recovery, reuse and saving trees
While most of the old buildings at the High Point site were dilapidated, Seattle Housing saw an opportunity to salvage many of the materials, keeping them out of the landfill. Although dismantling all the existing buildings at High Point was not feasible, the deconstruction team recovered and sold many valuable materials.
Bulldozers were also kept at bay for many of the mature trees on site that grew up with the old neighborhood. An arborist evaluated the neighborhood trees, and wherever possible, planners designed the streets and buildings around the best specimens. In Phase I alone, 100 large legacy trees were saved—trees valued at more than $1.5 million. To breathe new life into the community, about 2,600 new trees will be planted.
natural drainage system
Among High Point’s most innovative features is its 34-block natural drainage system designed by SvR Design. The largest of its kind in the U.S., the system protects Longfellow Creek, Seattle’s most productive salmon-spawning stream. High Point’s new streets slope slightly to one side so that water runs to extra wide planting strips lining the neighborhood sidewalks. The strips, planted with layers of specially amended soil and a variety of native and ornamental trees, shrubs, and grasses, act as a swale. They soak up and filter the runoff, allowing it to be treated prior to draining to the creek. Sidewalks adjacent to the planting strips are made of a porous concrete—a mixture of Portland cement, gravel and water—allowing water to drain through and run into the swales. In addition, one entire street is made from this same porous concrete, the first public street of its kind in Washington.
High Point also serves as a national example for healthy homebuilding. As part of a program to improve indoor air quality and reduce the occurrence of asthma attacks in children, High Point has built 35 “Breathe Easy” rental homes for low-income families with asthmatic children. The High Point team collaborated with the King County Health Department and the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences in the School of Public Health and Community Medicine at the University of Washington.
The first mass production build in the country, these Breathe Easy houses feature an advanced air filtration system, hydronic heating system, linoleum flooring instead of carpet, zero-VOC paints and cabinetry, and airtight wall construction to minimize dust, pollen and other allergens. Even the surrounding landscaping plants were selected to minimize pollen. To live in the homes, families must qualify and agree not to smoke or own pets, and will be surveyed periodically to see if the house design impacts their children’s asthma.
cost-effective green design
Because half of High Point’s housing is for families with low or modest incomes, the Seattle Housing Authority has been careful to employ sustainable materials and strategies where it makes economic sense. Low-allergen, drought-tolerant plants, zero-VOC paint, and energy-efficient appliances cost no more than standard options; reusing old paving as backfill in trenches saves money. Some elements such as the homes’ hydronic heating systems and linoleum floors cost more upfront but long-term costs are much lower.
city within a city
The goal of the High Point project echoes the desires of residents who were consulted—to weave the neighborhood back into the fabric of the greater West Seattle community. To achieve this goal, High Point’s streets have been realigned and reconnected with the West Seattle grid, and new neighborhood facilities and a commercial center will open in convenient locations. The mix of housing types and resident income levels will be similar to those in the surrounding neighborhoods.
All of life’s necessities will be within walking distance, including a medical and dental clinic, a new library, retail center, community center and athletic fields, as well as over 20 acres of land for parks, open spaces and playgrounds.
Residents have also put their own personal touch on the community — infusing art into High Point’s public spaces. Handmade shelters, benches and tables made from wood recycled from some of the old neighborhood’s trees are carved and placed in parks and on trails. A vibrant recycled cedar fence — each board painted with a design from a returning resident or by local schools and businesses — surrounds the neighborhood’s “Market Garden” where residents grow and sell vegetables to subscribers. Artist Bruce Myers was commissioned by Seattle Public Utilities to create public art that reminds residents they are part of a sustainable community. Myers created bronze sculptural plaques along the street curbs to slow runoff and remind residents that they are stewards of Longfellow Creek.
building for the future
The developer and design team of High Point have had one primary goal: building a community for the future. A future that includes healthy lives, healthy homes and a healthy environment. The neighborhood’s transformation shows that through innovative thinking, listening to the wisdom of the public, settling for nothing short of great design and a commitment to the environment, that goal is certainly achievable.
SIDEBAR: high point
a sustainable neighborhood of 1,600 low-income and market-rate homes, townhouses, condominiums and apartments.
scheduled for completion: 2009
owner/developer: seattle housing authority
civil engineering and right-of-way landscape architect: svr design
landscape architect: nakano associates
contractor: absher construction
marketing: fusionhappens, llc
porous concrete: stoneway concrete
heating system: blueridge company (baxi luna tankless water heater, blueridge roca flat-panel radiator)
natural drainage systems: seattle public utilities