Story and photos by Christopher Boffoli
Reporting for West Seattle Blog
On the surface of the amphitheater in the park adjacent to the new High Point Neighborhood Center, a representation of a phoenix is carved prominently into the concrete. This ancient symbol of renewal is perhaps appropriate for the continuing reinvention of the High Point neighborhood and its new crowning jewel that is scheduled to open this Saturday.
(A sneak peek inside the center – a closer look at its groundbreaking design – and some High Point history – ahead)
Named for its proximity to the highest point in the City of Seattle (35th/Myrtle), the neighborhood was until recently one of the districts most in need of revitalization. The area had seen many iterations over the last two centuries. As native old-growth forests yielded their timber for a nascent Seattle, apple orchards filled the clear cuts.
(Seattle Housing Authority photo of early High Point)
716 barracks-style housing units were erected to provide residences for Boeing workers as they toiled around the clock to build the aircraft that helped win World War II. Then in the early 1950’s, the former defense housing was taken over by the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA), which converted the dwellings, into much-needed residential housing. Over the subsequent decades the High Point neighborhood became a place where immigrant families lived while they established themselves, biding their time until they were able to move on to something better.
At its peak, nearly 2,100 residents of an estimated 42 ethnicities called the area home. But by the 1990’s the neighborhood had devolved into an isolated, low-income community. Some considered it one of the most heavily concentrated pockets of poverty in King County. It gained a reputation as a scary, crime-ridden place.
(Seattle Housing Authority photo of ’90s-era High Point home)
With outdated structures (many around 60 years old), inadequate access to transit and unintended open spaces, City leaders recognized High Point as a priority that the area needed to be rejuvenated. Initial funding came in 1999, with a $35 million “Hope VI” federal grant. And as demolition began in earnest in 2002, plans for High Point evolved into that of a new community which, through innovative design and a recognition for the multi-cultural legacy of the neighborhood, could aspire to something more conducive to the future of the city. At the same time, planners articulated the need to respect the fragile natural features and beauty of High Point as well as its connection to the Longfellow Creek watershed.
Within the last few years these plans have come to fruition with great success, as the 120-acre High Point site has garnered international awards and acclaim for building affordable and yet environmentally sustainable housing. Though it was more complicated and expensive to do so, the development was planned with a keen focus on mitigating its impact upon the environment. By accomplishing it successfully, High Point’s planners dispelled the misperception that building “green” was reserved for the realm of only the most elite, high-priced construction projects.
It is fitting then that High Point’s new Neighborhood Center not only was designed and built around the notion of sustainability, but that the structure itself will be an ongoing teaching model for how the LEED-certified building and its systems will interact with the surrounding environment.
A few days ago, Neighborhood House – the nonprofit behind the project – granted West Seattle Blog‘s request for a hard-hat tour of the new building prior to its grand opening. Amidst a frenzy of contractors working on last minute details, my guide Peter Wolf of Neighborhood House, could hardly contain his own enthusiasm for seeing the project nearing completion.
“It’s great to see this all coming together,” he says, “I’ve not been over here for several days and I’m amazed to see how much they’ve gotten done.” As a capital campaign associate, Wolf headed up the team of people responsible for raising $13 million in public and private donations to support the center’s construction. His employer, Neighborhood House, partners with the SHA on a mission of providing services, education and community resources to low-income immigrant families and their West Seattle neighbors. The new 20,000-square-foot Neighborhood Center is designed to serve 6,500 children, teens and adults annually. Its completion has taken just over a year.
One of the first things you notice about the new building is its striking design and scale in relation to the surrounding residences. The steep shed roofs and Modernist design, along with its placement at a prominent intersection in the heart of the revitalized neighborhood, references the tradition of classic urban planning, in which the scale of civic and public buildings was deliberately accentuated to suggest their prominent role in the community. This method reached its nadir sometime in the late 20th century when many municipal buildings capitulated to a drab, uninspired, cinder block aesthetic.
But the design of the new High Point Neighborhood Center didn’t stem from a desire to make Modernist statement. Rather, its genesis had more to do with a consideration of the building’s environmental footprint, its requirements in relation to the footprint of the site, and how it would integrate with the design language of the surrounding structures. Higher up-front costs for the building’s “green” systems will be offset by long-term savings. And by aiming high for LEED-gold certification, the project attracted additional private grants which added to the fundraising totals.
(Pictured: Peter Wolf (hard hat), and architects Sally Knodell and Matt Eaton)
Lead architect on the project, Sally Knodell, explained some of the challenges of the existing site and the project’s high goals for environmental sustainability. “Environmental factors really defined the building’s design. It was a combination of solving a lot of different issues. The SHA, who did the master planning, wanted the building to be tight to the intersection (along Sylvan Way). But the intersection isn’t 90 degrees. So it meant the building has sort of a splayed floor plan.”
Knodell added that visualizing the building dimensionally was a bit of a challenge as, though the floor level from the front entrance is essentially at ground level, once inside the building splits off into half floors, a result of the disparate needs of each of function of the building’s areas. The primary gathering spaces, a classroom, a conference room and a teen center, had to be oriented towards the adjacent park because those rooms will be rented out for events with activities that will benefit from being able to spread out onto the building’s north terrace, intersecting with the amphitheater in the park.
Classrooms on the eastern elevation of the building, which will house a morning Head Start program (accommodating children who speak up to 20 different languages), had to have a play area that benefitted from the cover of a stand of mature trees. And the building’s solar panels needed to be away from the trees to take advantage of maximum exposure to the sun.
Wolf says that the High Point Neighborhood Center’s solar array is one of the largest in the State of Washington. He says, “We won’t know exactly until we’ve operated the building for a year, but we expect that the solar panels on the roof will generate an annual average of 15% or more of the building’s electricity needs.” On the sunniest of summer days the building will generate a surplus of electricity that will be distributed out to the local electrical grid. And Neighborhood House is still seeking to raise an additional $70,000 for a second array of solar panels to increase those numbers.
“The architects used computer models to orient the building on the site to take best advantage of sunlight,” he adds, “and most of the building’s spaces are illuminated by natural light to reduce consumption of electricity.”
Wolf pointed out several of the building’s skylights and demonstrated how even the downstairs rooms were built in a way where natural light floods into them even with the lights are off. “Because this building is all electric, and because Seattle acquires much of its electricity from hydro-electric sources, fossil fuels will not comprise a significant part of the operation of this building.”
But solar panels are only one of many environmentally sustainable features of the new center. Most of the windows are triple-glazed. Low VOC paints and varnishes throughout will ensure that construction materials will not off-gas poisonous chemicals.
Wainscoting throughout the building is made of a material sourced from recycled sunflower seed husks. Even the pint-sized toilets in the bathrooms of the Head Start classroom are dual-flush. Wolf says, “An important part of this building is educating children at a very early age about the importance of environmental sustainability.”
He showed me several places in the Neighborhood Center where solar and seismic systems have been left exposed (above, interior windows into the solar inverter room) so that those who use the buildings can learn not only how the building works but how it continually interacts with the environment around it.
Interactive computer kiosks in one of the center’s lobbies will offer electronic tickers of energy consumption in real time, as well as pre-recorded environmental stories from several countries, in multiple languages. Artwork throughout the building further reinforces the environmental lesson.
Throughout the building tile mosaic murals by Mercer Island artist Chris Cocklin Ray portray water and salmon cycles. And a theme of concentric circles, on the floors inside and outside the building on the sidewalk, at once evoke a theme of natural cycles and literal drops in a pond.
One of the most celebrated features of the new High Point neighborhood is an elaborate drainage system which, with features like porous concrete, pollutant-filtering soil layers, plantings and an artificial pond, works to enhance rainwater management with the result of easing the pace of rainwater drainage into the Longfellow Creek watershed.
The new neighborhood center fits into this system like a perfect puzzle piece. “The impact of rainwater falling on this building will be as if it were falling on a pasture,” assures Wolf.
But for all of the emphasis on exposing the building’s environmental features, one of the most significant is completely hidden from view. Deep in the ground on the north side of the building construction crews bored 30 holes each 300 feet deep. Fluid circulating through miles of piping will take advantage of the constant temperature of the earth to radiate heating and cooling into the floor of some of the building’s larger public spaces.
“It is really one of the unsung heroes of this project,“ says architect Knodell, “You can’t see it but it is a big player in making the building more efficient over a comparable building of its size.” Perhaps by lucky accident some of that thermal-heating system lies close to where the amphitheater’s phoenix spreads its whimsical wings.
Filled with subtle curves and warm wood surfaces throughout, the center succeeds in bringing its own natural warmth to what is essentially an urban, civic building. In doing so it echoes the sense of community that has been realized in High Point’s Neo-Urbanist plan of dense building, front porches, public spaces and an emphasis on pedestrians. But the greatest sense of warmth will no doubt come next week when the center opens its doors and begins to provide community services, education for children, support for families and connections with neighbors in what is arguably one of the most diverse locales in West Seattle.
Neighborhood Center is adjacent to High Point Commons Park, at Morgan/Lanham (map). This Saturday’s grand opening is scheduled for 1-4 pm – it starts with tours at 1, ceremony and speeches at 2 (full details here).
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