- The Seattle City Council unanimously passed building performance standards on Tuesday that require large existing buildings to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the coming years and reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
- The “landmark legislation” is expected to cut the city’s total core emissions by 10%, making it the most ambitious plan to reduce building emissions in Seattle’s history, according to a City Council news release.
- Building performance standards are gaining traction as an emissions-slashing strategy in cities and states nationwide. Still, Seattle is a relatively early adopter, joining just a handful of cities, including Boston, New York City, and Washington, D.C., that have officially passed such a policy.
Much anticipated by climate action advocates and several years in the making, Seattle’s new policy takes aim at building emissions, which constitute 37% of the city’s overall emissions. The city already bans most fossil fuel uses in new buildings per a 2021 energy code revision.
The building emissions performance standards, which apply to buildings larger than 20,000 square feet, are expected to impact about 3% of Seattle’s buildings — approximately 4,135 buildings, according to a November memo by the city’s Office of Sustainability and Environment. These buildings may be relatively small in number, but they account for nearly a third of the city’s building emissions, the memo states.
Almost 25% of nonresidential buildings and 45% of multifamily buildings won’t need to take any measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions since they are already all electric, the memo says. The policy also works in tandem with new state rules requiring large buildings to meet energy performance standards in the coming years, according to the Seattle City Council. While the state and city standards are related, they are not the same: The state’s rules focus on increasing buildings’ energy efficiency, while Seattle’s standards specifically focus on decreasing greenhouse gas emissions.
Seattle’s standards are performance-based, meaning owners can choose how to reach them, with initial benchmarking and reporting requirements starting in 2027. The first emissions reduction requirements begin in 2031, with performance targets becoming gradually stronger over time through 2050. Nicole Ballinger, buildings and energy strategic advisor for the Office of Sustainability and Environment, recommended at a press conference in June that owners first focus on energy-efficiency measures and upgrading to new low-emissions equipment such as heat pumps.
Larger buildings will be required to meet the standards first since they contribute the most emissions, according to the Office of Sustainability and Environment memo.
Building owners have alternatives to meeting the standards. For example, between 2031 and 2035, they can make an alternative compliance payment based on how far they are from meeting the standards. Multifamily building owners can implement a specific building upgrade option that includes replacing fossil fuel-powered water and space heaters with electric heat pumps. Some buildings, including those with high vacancy rates and low-income housing, will also get extensions to meet the standards.
Jurisdictions with building performance standards have grappled with the best way to penalize noncompliance. Seattle’s policy gets its teeth from fines on noncompliant building owners. Those who provide no or inaccurate performance reporting may face flat fines of $15,000 and $7,500, depending on building size. Noncompliance with emissions reduction targets will result in fines assessed per square foot: $2.50 for low-income housing and low-rent multifamily buildings, $7.50 for other multifamily buildings and $10 for nonresidential buildings.
However, Seattle is hoping to avoid penalizing owners altogether, especially those with fewer resources, according to the Office of Sustainability and Environment memo. The office launched an accelerator program in 2022 to provide free technical support and training for nonprofits and under-resourced building owners to help them comply with building performance standards.
The city also plans to seek federal and state funding, and to use alternative compliance payments, to support under-resourced building owners and tenants and to create incentives for building owners that reach net-zero emissions earlier than they are required to, the memo says.
City officials and proponents of the policy say the standards will create high-paying, local clean energy careers. “As buildings begin to decarbonize to meet [building emissions performance standards] targets, demand for heating, air conditioning and refrigeration mechanics, insulation professionals, roofers, electricians, sheet metal workers, engineers, architects and more will increase,” according to a Dec. 6 op-ed in The Seattle Times by Jessyn Farrell, director of Seattle's Office of Sustainability and Environment; Patience Malaba, executive director of the Housing Development Consortium; and Katie Garrow, executive secretary-treasurer of MLK Labor.
The op-ed acknowledges that the cost of decarbonization is a real concern for building owners and tenants who already face tight cost margins, but it points to technical assistance and direct investment as strategies to mitigate such challenges.