To date, only five buildings have earned full “Living Building” status through what’s largely considered the world’s most rigorous, performance-based green building standard, the Living Building Challenge (LBC). Curiously, all five of these structures are pedagogical in nature, with Smith College’s Bechtel Environmental Classroom being the latest deep-green project to join the ranks of Living Building-dom.

To give a clearer idea of how rare it is for a project to achieve Living Building status, consider that this super-holistic standard revolving around seven primary “Petal” categories (Equity, Beauty, Health, Site, Water, Energy, Materials) was established in 2006 — that’s less that one project per year achieving certification.

Earlier today, the Living Building Challenge’s parent organization, the Seattle-based International Living Future Institute, announced that a sixth Living Building has achieved full certification. Well, a Living Park to be more accurate.

You see, the LBC doesn’t just extend to proper buildings (and renovations and communities) but also includes an infrastructure and landscape typology. McGilvra Place Park, a half-acre traffic median-turned-pocket park wedged between E. Madison Street, E. Pike Street, and 15th Avenue E. on the edge of Seattle’s Capitol Hill and Central District neighborhoods, is the first project to meet the Challenge’s infrastructure and landscape typology requirements and, in turn, is the world’s first Living Park.

Created in 1901 and described by the City of Seattle as “small, tree-shaded triangle,” McGilvra Place Park was reopened to the public in April 2013 following an extensive — yet oh-so-thoughtful — three-month-long overhaul. The unveiling coincided with the grand opening of the petite park’s neighbor directly across E. Madison, The Bullitt Center.

Heralded as the greenest office building in the world when it opened for business on Earth Day 2013, the Bullitt Center is also expected to achieve Living Building status in the coming months. And in addition to housing the environmental preservation-minded Bullitt Foundation, the University of Washington’s Integrated Design Lab and green building/renovation firm Hammer & Hand, another primary tenant of the Bullitt Center is none other than the International Living Future Institute.

Makes sense for a green building standard setter to have its world headquarters within a building that’s aiming for said standard, right?

The Bullitt Foundation is just one of a handful of partners that worked to transform the traffic median-passing-as-a-pocket park into a leafy urban oasis — complete with ping-pong tables! — located in an area of a park-abundant city that’s somewhat starved of public green space. (The large and lovely Cal Anderson Park is located about a half-mile away from the Bullitt Center while the even larger Volunteer Park is a little over a mile off).

The Seattle Department of Parks & Recreation, the Seattle Department of Transportation and the Seattle Parks Foundation were also involved with the public-private collaboration. The Berger Partnership, a venerable Seattle-based landscape architecture firm, oversaw the park's design while Point32, a real estate firm and development partner for the Bullitt Center, served as sustainability project lead.

Says Denis Hayes, CEO of the Bullitt Foundation, in a news release issued by the Living Building Challenge: “Neighborhood plans have long called for more green space in this area. And the sustainability features of the park made it much more compelling to the community and really set it apart.”

So what exactly are the standout sustainability features at the pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly McGilvra Place Park? And how did they help transform a lonely traffic median in the middle of Seattle into the world’s first Living Park?

In addition to preserving 11 century-old London plane trees that were already at the site, replacing water-intensive turf with native vegetation, increasing accessibility and bringing in the aforementioned ping-pong tables, it’s fascinating to learn how the park’s new features meet the incredibly stringent Living Building Challenge requirements.

For one, McGilvra Place is up to LBC snuff in the energy category because, well, it doesn’t consume any. “Onsite energy generation occurs solely through photosynthesis in the leaves of the park's tree canopy (the original solar array),” reads the project case study. Same goes for the park’s water footprint: with the turf removed, the space’s water consumption was completely eliminated.

On the materials front, everything, from the existing sidewalks and retaining wall, was recycled and reused in the project with zero construction waste sent to landfills. Even the concrete and asphalt from a city street — a small section of 15th Avenue that was closed off and turned into a pedestrian plaza — was reclaimed during construction. What’s more, the nifty new park furniture is made from locally reclaimed timber and even the bike racks were locally sourced from a manufacturer located less than 25 miles away from the project site.

McGilvra Place Park diagram

City of Seattle

More on McGilvra Place’s new furniture (previously, the available seating options were old stumps):

The site furniture is crafted from reclaimed wood of fallen trees within the Seattle city limits and celebrates wood in a variety of forms. The pieces exhibit a progression moving from the west end of the park toward the Bullitt Center on the east. In the park the wood is in its rough cut, raw state and gradually gets honed and burnished by human hands continuing into the Bullitt Center where it becomes a building material for the new living structure.
The development of the project involved input from the very community that it set out to benefit, achieving four primary goals as outlined in the project case study:
  • Encouraging healthy and active lifestyles.
  • Creating green streets or street parks in underutilized street right-of-ways.
  • Improving barrier-free access to and within parks.
  • Expanding green management practices to reduce carbon footprint and enhance habitat value.
Completed with a “hard cost” of $406,000, the McGilvra Place Park project first received public funding in 2010 through an application submitted by a neighborhood group to the Parks and Green Spaces Levy Opportunity Fund. Additional funding was secured in a capital campaign headed by the Bullitt Foundation and the Seattle Parks Foundation.

Head on over to the Living Building Challenge to learn lots more about this mighty impressive little pocket park in Seattle. And if you’re in the area do stop by — docents stationed at the Bullitt Center are on hand to share additional information about the park's transformation.

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Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.