Urban Waters spirit runs deep

Tacoma - Construction of Tacoma's new Center for Urban Waters is down to the final details.

Last week, window washers rappelled down the west face of the building, cleaning the last traces of construction dust from exterior glass. Inside, assembly crews set up desks and office partitions.

Ninety-seven City of Tacoma scientists, engineers and environmental inspectors will move into the building before this month is out. In July they’ll be joined by nearly the full 36-person staff of the Puget Sound Partnership, the state agency formed to restore the health of Puget Sound.

A corner office awaits Joel Baker, the University of Washington Tacoma professor who will serve as science director at the center.

The $38 million Urban Waters project, which skeptics criticized at every turn for high cost and misguided hopes, is riding a wave of enthusiasm in its inaugural days.

The Urban Waters concept – locating a nexus of environmental expertise on a former Superfund site, in a building that is itself a paragon of environmental virtue – now appears to have been prescient, given the priorities of the Obama administration.

The center’s completion coincides with widespread acceptance of the notion that science and technology are the answer to the world’s environmental problems.

And, despite the recession, there is cash for environmental restoration and technology. While money for everything else is in short supply, federal funds for environmental cleanup and green jobs are at least temporarily plentiful.

Projects designed to restore the health of Puget Sound received $70 million in federal stimulus funds last year. Congress appropriated $50 million more for 2010.

While construction workers were still drilling holes for the center’s foundation piers, the concept already had attracted two large grants: $4 million from the Environmental Protection Agency for a “Puget Sound Institute,” intended to gather top scientists for cleanup expertise, and $1 million from the state Department of Ecology for stormwater research, in conjunction with the City of Puyallup, the University of Washington Tacoma and the Washington State University Puyallup Research and Extension Center.

Looking east across the Foss Waterway from downtown Tacoma, the 51,000-square-foot research facility is hard to miss, and that was the plan from the beginning.

Eager to humanize the east side of the Foss and attract eco-tech entrepreneurs, backers wanted the building to have a strong visual presence. The building’s red-orange color – which architects say was inspired by rust on the oil storage tanks next door – makes it pop into view.

The prominent location is intended to establish Tacoma as a national hub for green technology and give the city a competitive edge over other cities trying to do the same thing.

“They wanted it to be like a big sign, saying, ‘Here is this building,’” said Devin Kleiner, the architect who led the Perkins+Will design team.

“The building itself is a billboard,” Kleiner said. “What it says, is ‘Sustainability.’”

That’s what it says inside too.

It’s a smart building, managed by a weather station “brain” on the roof.

Data on wind speed, temperature and cloud cover automatically adjust heating and cooling systems and tilt external window shades on the west side. Green and amber lights on inside walls let workers know when it’s OK to open windows. (On the east side, where the labs are located, the windows are fixed to maintain consistent conditions.)

Overall, the new building will consume 36 percent less energy and 46 percent less water than if it had been built using standard techniques, according to Jim Goldman, who managed the building project for Turner Construction, the general contractor.

The building features a green roof, recycled water for toilets, a natural heating and cooling system, and natural light to reduce dependence on electricity.

Goldman said he expects the Urban Waters building to win the highest rating (platinum) from the U.S. Green Building Council for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.

If he’s right, it will be the second structure in Washington state to do so. The first was Perkins+Will’s downtown Seattle office.

Two big galvanized metal water tanks, 36,000 gallons each, stand next to the main entrance.

“We thought about putting the tanks underground,” Kleiner said, “but then we decided to put them out where everybody could see them. This building is all about water management. Why hide it?”

Rainwater that falls on the building percolates through 12,000 square feet of roof gardens, set in 4 inches of special lightweight soil mix. That reduces stormwater runoff and helps keep the roof cooler in summer.

The water tanks collect excess water from the roof and parcel it out for flushing toilets (low-flow, naturally) and irrigating the extensive landscaping on the site.

The entire property was designed for maximum absorption of rainwater, in part by using permeable concrete paving blocks instead of solid pavement on the 35-space parking lot.

Plantings cover every surface not used for parking or walkways.

A rain garden captures runoff and filters it naturally before it reaches the Foss Waterway.

The center is heated and cooled by a “geoexchange system” that circulates water through 84 wells drilled on the site, some as deep as 282 feet. Because water at that depth stays at a relatively constant temperature, heat pumps can concentrate thermal energy from the water and either use it to heat the building in winter or send it back underground for cooling in the summer.

By nearly every measure, the Center for Urban Waters is sustainable architecture. But will it generate the sustainable flow of eco-tech spinoffs its backers hope for?

That remains to be seen, said Jake Fey, Tacoma’s deputy mayor and an avid supporter of green jobs and environmental technology.

“Every county in the state has an interest in the green economy,” Fey said Friday night at a UWT-sponsored panel discussion called “Envisioning Tacoma as a Leader in the New Green Economy.”

“But even with all the players, there is a niche in Tacoma that every county doesn’t have,” Fey said. That niche, he said, was created by putting the collaborative energies of the University of Washington Tacoma and the Puget Sound Partnership together in the same building.

“That makes it one of the prime opportunity areas for the City of Tacoma,” he said.

Rob Carson: 253-597-8693