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Building for the Future by John Fleming AIA

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A closer look at the Center for Urban Agriculture, a Living Building Challenge winner.

Sustainability is often a secondary concern in new development. How can we do better?

At Mithun, we imagined a building that actually gives back to the community and natural environment. Using a vacant lot as a starting point, our design team conceptualized the Center for Urban Agriculture (CUA), a mixed-use development and winner of “Best in Show” in the Cascadia Region Green Building Council’s 2007 Living Building Challenge:


The CUA collects nearly all of its energy with 34,000 square feet of photovoltaic cells on its south face. In Seattle, however, solar energy requires a long-term storage strategy, as the sun comes out primarily during the summer. On sunny days, the project is designed to transfer solar energy from the PVs into rainwater collection tanks where electrolysis splits H2O into oxygen and hydrogen. The energy is then stored in the liquid hydrogen until it is needed days, weeks, or even months later.


The CUA is designed to be completely independent of city water. Rainwater collected from the roof and planters, stormwater runoff from surrounding streets, and the CUA’s wastewater is treated for re-use through a combination of bio-membrane technology and “living building” machines. The design also benefits the neighborhood as a community stormwater collection facility.


The CUA’s vertical, A-frame design provides more than an acre of farmland to grow fruits, grains, and vegetables. A chicken farm further contributes to local food production. Research indicates that 40 percent of an individual’s ecological footprint is from the embodied energy associated with food, primarily from its transportation and packaging. Not only can local residents decrease their ecological footprint but also explore new and old agricultural techniques in the lower five-story teaching and laboratory facility. The research and education center will extend to the restaurant where the menu offers local healthy cuisine.


The north terraces and chicken farm provide green habitat for native birds and insects, bolstering biodiversity that is becoming increasingly rare within the city.

While our R&D approach freed us from some of the reality constraints most projects face, it also may mean this particular urban farm could never be built. Then again, we hope to influence the direction of future projects. A chicken farm in the heart of the city? That’s almost as crazy as the Internet or plug-in cars. In the context of global warming, we need to be dreaming and experimenting even when our clients don’t specifically ask us to.

Building for the Future

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