Seattle seized the opportunity to improve sustainability during a time of unprecedented capital improvement that began in the late ‘90s. It did this by first requiring all new City buildings over 5,000 square feet to meet new LEED™ (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) building ratings that measure the sustainability of buildings, and by providing financial, height and density bonuses for private projects meeting LEED™. Subsequent initiatives have included priority permitting, energy benchmarking and an updated policy for City buildings. As a result it now has one of the highest concentrations of sustainable buildings in the country and a powerful sustainable building industry.

What is it?

A collection of successful regulatory standards, measures and incentives for the building industry that have delivered a national record number of sustainable buildings in the private and public sectors.

How does it work?

Having initially established a Green Building Team in 1999, Seattle regrouped its green building experts to form a single business unit called City Green Building in 2005. Its main program was funded through interdepartmental resources and staffed by green building experts in residential, commercial, institutional and city capital projects. Using its strong relationships with the City's water and energy utilities and their incentive programs, it connected developers, design teams and building permit applicants with green building resources and helped eliminate code-barriers to building green. In 2012 City Green Building evolved to join forces with the Office of Sustainability & Environment, the primary office for urban sustainability policy development, while still maintaining the permitting and code development work within the Department of Planning & Development.

A fundamental element of the City's green building program is the promotion and measurement of the environmental impact of buildings and third party verification. Standards include:

  • Commercial Buildings - LEED™ standards, these are also rapidly being adapted to offer standards for other sectors.
  • Residential Development - Built Green™ was developed by the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties and is non-profit.
  • Built Smart exceeds the State Building Code's highest energy efficiency levels and is run by Seattle City Light.
  • Affordable Multifamily Housing – The Evergreen Sustainable Development Standard (ESDS), , administered by the State Department of Commerce is for non-profit developers of affordable housing. it promotes and encourages energy conservation, operational savings, and green building practices in multifamily affordable housing projects. The ESDS supersedes Seattle’s previous standard for affordable housing, SeaGreen.

Seattle's successful programs include:

Priority Green – A suite of green permitting incentives aimed at streamlining permitting for applicants pursuing sustainable development projects.. Expedited permitting is provided for projects meeting LEED Gold or Built Green 4-Star. Development departures are available for projects seeking to meet Living Building Challenge standards. 62 Single Family & Townhome, 14 Multifamily and 5 Commercial projects have participated between October 2009 and May of 2012.

Incentive Zoning - offers multifamily developments greater floor area if a minimum green building standard of LEED Silver or Built Green 4-Star is met. From 2006-2011 Seattle offered downtown commercial, residential and mixed-use developments greater height and/or floor area if a green building standard of LEED Silver or higher is met and they contributed to affordable housing. At the end of 2011, three projects had been completed (two at Silver, one at Gold) and three more were under construction.


Launched by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) in 2000, the LEED Rating System is based on well-founded scientific standards. It is the nationally accepted benchmark for the design, construction, and operation of high performance green buildings in the US. LEED-certified buildings demonstrate reduced operating costs, support healthier and more productive occupants, and reduce the impact on natural resources. To earn LEED certification, a building project must meet certain prerequisites and performance benchmarks within each of the five categories:

  • sustainable site development
  • water savings
  • energy efficiency
  • materials selection, and indoor environmental quality
  • innovation and process.

Projects are awarded Certified, Silver, Gold, or Platinum certification depending on the number of credits they achieve. The rating system is continuously refined via an open, consensus-based process.

The Sustainable Buildings & Sites Policy

City capital improvement projects fall under the City's Green Buildings and Sites Policy. An initial policy, adopted in February of 2000, called for new Municipal buildings over 5,000 square feet to meet a minimum LEED Silver certification. Since then, 26 projects have achieved LEED certification (17 Gold, 7 Silver, and 2 Certified). In November of 2011 the policy was updated with projects 5,000 square feet or greater now expected to achieve a LEED Gold certification, as well as meeting minimum standards for energy and water use, waste diversion and bicycle facilities. The new policy also addresses tenant improvements, small projects and sites..

City LEED Incentive Program 2001 - 2005

The City of Seattle provided support to green buildings through its City LEED Incentive Program, with $530,000 for design and consulting fees for LEED™ projects. This was launched in 2001 as a joint program of Seattle City Light and Seattle Public Utilities – it provided upfront soft-cost assistance to projects committing to LEED. Funds could be used for additional design and consulting fees and for LEED certification costs. . In addition, incentives from the utilities provided over $2 million for energy conservation and over $2 million for natural drainage/water conservation,

Funding levels between 2001 and 2005 were $15,000 for LEED Certified, and $20,000 for LEED Silver or above. In 2006, these were changed to $15,000 for LEED Silver, $20,000 for LEED Gold and $25,000 for LEED Platinum.

Over the course of the program, 24 projects participated, representing 1.8 million square feet of development, a construction cost of almost $224 million and 874 units of green multifamily housing. 22 projects achieved LEED certification, with five meeting LEED Certified, fourteen LEED Silver and three LEED Gold. Combined with funding for five Built Green multifamily projects, the program grew from initial funding of $80,000 in 2001 to a total funding level of just over $100,000 annually in 2005, then back to $80,000 in 2006. Utility Incentives

The City’s public electric utility, Seattle City Light, and it’s water and waste utility, Seattle Public Utilities, both provide incentives to ratepayers to build to higher conservation standards. Seattle City Light’s Energy Smart Services offers financial incentives and technical assistance for existing facilities that improve their operations and for new construction projects that exceed the Seattle Energy Code. Projects that use water saving equipment and fixtures can receive rebates from Seattle Public Utilities and those that reduce stormwater flow get credit against their drainage fees.


Seattle's Sustainable Building policy has fuelled private sector growth in the green building industry placing Seattle as one of the leading cities in the US in the number of certified LEED buildings within its City Limits – 179 projects were certified as of December 2011, representing over 58 million square feet.

An economic development study commissioned in 2005 by the Seattle Office of Sustainability and Environment and the Office of Economic Development found that the Green Building Industry is one of the City's strategic economic "Clusters," with $671 million gross revenue per year in Green Building Activity.

The green building industry has continued to grow exponentially. By the end of 2011 there were:

  • 179 LEED Certified Buildings in Seattle (30 Certified, 55 Silver, 86 Gold and 8 Platinum)
  • 268 buildings registered for LEED 2,251 Built Green Residential projects (1,269 New Single Family, 96 Remodels and 881 Multi-Family) representing a total of 5,866 housing units.69 Evergreen Sustainable Development/SeaGreen projects, representing $161,094,092 in City of Seattle Office of Housing funds going to build and/or rehab affordable green housing. 

Next steps

To continue the substantial green building market growth, the City is:

  • Implementing an updated sustainable building policy with improved standards for municipal projects.
  • Embarking on a resource conservation program for existing City buildings.
  • Offering permitting incentives and land use departures for projects built to green building standards.
  • Continuing improvements to the Seattle Energy Code so that it remains 20% beyond national standards.
  • Developing high-performance code standards for water conservation, transportation options and green building materials.
  • Creating the 2030 District, a private-public partnership working with private owners, developers, building managers and design and engineering professionals to create a high-performance building district in downtown Seattle.
  • Enacting energy use benchmarking legislation that requires all buildings in Seattle that meet specified size and use thresholds to report aggregate annual energy use consumption to the city, and to disclose that information to potential purchasers or tenants. 
  • Launching Community Power Works, a Seattle based building retrofit program that will achieve deep energy savings and create green jobs.  
  • Establishing a Climate Action Plan that lays out a roadmap for how Seattle can become a carbon neutral city by the year 2050 and be prepared for the impacts of climate change, including strategies identifying how to reduce greenhouse gases in the transportation, building energy and waste sectors.


Seattle believes that strong, clear building regulations are the key to creating green buildings. While energy audits can help existing buildings become more efficient, they believe that implementing green building standards for city-funded projects ensures that future buildings will be efficient and environmentally friendly.

There is strong evidence that there is a correlation between cities that have green building policies and those that have the highest concentrations of private green building development – the 10 strongest green building markets in the nation are in cities that have established public policies that promote green building.