Sustainable Stormwater Feasibility: The Historic ASUW Shell House

Executive Summary:

Getting to Zero: Sustainable Stormwater Feasibility at the The Historic ASUW Shell House

Currently at the site of the ASUW Historic Shell House, stormwater from the building and adjacent parking areas mixes with toxins and flows directly into Lake Washington. The objective of this feasibility study is to investigate the viability of using bio-filtration and retention systems to treat all stormwater onsite at the Shell House location, and to create designs and accompanying documentation for implementing this strategy. The goal is to utilize naturally filtered grey water for toilet flushing and irrigation, while ensuring that all stormwater runoff is prevented from entering the lake, and providing onsite interpretation of these systems.

It is well documented that the leading cause of degradation in the Puget Sound and Lake Washington comes from stormwater pollution.  The University of Washington, as a waterfront campus and continued growth, has a growing coverage of impervious surfaces supported by antiquated stormwater infrastructure that increases stormwater pollution and poses significant ecological and human health risks. However, new sustainable and innovative landscape solutions are available that can remediate pollutants and not only naturally clean the water, but also recycle it for other purposes rather than draining it into the lake, which causes significant negative environmental effects.  

This site, at this time, is a unique opportunity to demonstrate ecological stormwater systems to the campus and larger community. The Shell House, the UW’s first Seattle Historic Landmark, is about to embark on an extensive renovation of the building  and site into space for the campus and visitors, including student spaces, event venues, historic and cultural exhibits, and a restored waterfront. The site already gets abundant traffic, including on foot for waterfront access and during stadium events and by boat during the spring and summer months, yet with the new light rail,  the upcoming UW Continuous Waterfront Trail Concept that runs directly through the site, and the popular book and upcoming movie “Boys in the Boat,” it will only increase. By creating a visible, beautiful and sustainable onsite water treatment along with interpretive educational displays, it has the unique potential to be a transformative landscape. It will provide the opportunity to showcase how responsible development of existing sites can be designed to respect the environment, encourage biodiversity, connect with historic narratives of people and place through design and interpretation, and create beautiful gathering places all while visibility demonstrating the highest level of sustainability at the University of Washington.

This project is unique; it will be the first to demonstrate a net-zero stormwater treatment of a building on campus and the first to incorporate these systems on campus in an existing building (the renovation of the building being a sustainable act in itself). Together with UW Recreation, The College of Built Environments Center for Preservation and Adaptive Reuse, The Green Futures Lab and students across campus, this feasibility project will research appropriate site-specific ecological stormwater systems, present design schematics, and investigate educational alternatives for the UW Project Team to implement as the design phase begins for the shell house renovation next year.

Student Involvement:

Undergraduate Architecture students from Arch 402 (Merlino, Spring 2023) will be working with the research and design team and incorporate early schematic concepts in their designs for the building over the quarter, and focusing on the interpretation, exhibit and educational component of the stormwater systems around the building (see above for interpretation design explanation). Each student will propose different design options and approaches to interpretation, and will be presenting their design proposals at the end of the quarter, presenting their full projects to faculty, architects, landscape architects, project stake holders, and the ASUW Shell House board at the end of the quarter. Our two graduate students will begin in summer to work with the undergraduates and their designs to research, refine and develop engineered proposals, graphics, models and outcomes.

Additionally, students will identify peers across campus in late spring for collaboration, incorporating the Winter Quarter ASUW Shell House UW Student Survey responses, engaging with students from AIS, CEE, and Design to identify best practices in the design of educational signage and interpretation methods. The class will end the quarter by holding a design charette that will focus on compiling their combined best design strategies, and a propose a schematic 3-D walk-through/educational app or on-line site to be created when the building is completed. We will be consulting with Owen Oliver, designer of the UW Indigenous Walking Tour and recent UW AIS graduate, on his 3D walking tour of campus, in order to build upon his incredible interpretive tour.

Two graduate architecture and landscape architecture students will be working with the Green Futures Lab and Center for Preservation and Adaptive reuse staff, with consulting engineers for, to work on the specifics of water loads, infrastructure, retention and system analysis, design and plant selection. This process will be over the summer and early fall, and incorporate work from the undergraduate studio, including cultural and historic research on native representation and interpretation, ecological systems, site design and programming. 

As the preliminary feasibility phase of the project, we expect further involvement by students across campus to increase during the implementation phase. This landscape (and building) restoration has the capacity to be a multi-disciplinary, research and educational site.  We see this as the catalyst for involving students in hands-on, demonstrated built projects as the building and site begin the development phase in 2024.

This project will be directed by Professor Kathryn Rogers Merlino (Architecture, adjunct Landscape Architecture),  Director of the Center for Preservation and Adaptive Reuse in the College of Built Environments in consultation with Professor Nancy Rottle, Director of the Green Futures Lab.  As the first collaboration between these two centers who engage with students across the university, this project will be the first on campus (and perhaps of the region) to demonstrate comprehensive sustainability in the reuse of an existing building as well as net-zero reuse of stormwater in innovative landscape systems.  As leaders in our respective areas, we will publish this project on our websites, social media, and publications, and continue to engage students from around campus in all our on-site work.

Education & Outreach:

Gathering Place for All: This is one of the most popular and beautiful sites on campus.  When completed as a completed student and event center, this project will have an exceptional opportunity to educate thousands of visitors – UW community and visitors alike -  on sustainable, responsible and beautiful ecological landscapes.  The site already gets plenty of traffic both on foot during stadium events and by boat during the spring and summer months, yet with the new light rail, upcoming UW Continuous Waterfront Trail Concept that runs directly through the site, visitors will grow in numbers. Additionally, the site is a prime destination for fans of Daniel James Brown’s 2013 book “The Boys in the Boat,”, with the Shell House as the main setting, and has already attracted thousands of visitors to the site from outside Seattle.  In 2022, the ASUW Shell House tour won “Travelers Choice” award from Trip Advisor, attaining a 5 star rating from the thousands of visitors who toured the site.  The upcoming film adaptation of the book directed by George Clooney (Fall 2023) will continue to make this a major destination in the city. By creating a visible, sustainable onsite water treatment and educational display, we will be showing visitors how both saving an existing building and treating its onsite water in a way that respects the environment and salmon is the highest level of sustainability at the University of Washington.

Indigenous Historic Landscape: Long before the Montlake Cut connected Lake Washington and Lake Union, the Lakes Duwamish people would come together here to portage across the narrow isthmus that spanned the water. The spot’s Lushootseed name — stəx̌ʷugʷił (stukh-ug-weelth) — means “carry a canoe.” For over 8,000 years, the Lake Washington People used this site a natural portage. The project will engage with AIS students and faculty to build upon research on indigenous history of the site which is the current site for the Willapa Spirit Honor Canoe.  In the summer of 1989, the first Coast Salish canoes in decades slipped through the Montlake Cut in what became known as the Paddle to Seattle. Quinault native and UW educator Emmett Oliver planted the seed for a native cultural resurgence far greater than he could imagine. Decades later, his legacy remains with the storage of the Willapa Spirit Honor Canoe in the ASUW Shell House.  In her 2018 course “Engaging with the Waterways: Welcoming the Willapa Spirit Canoe to Campus," UW AIS faculty Cynthia Updegrave examined the history of destruction and healing between the UW and the lands it occupies. We will build upon her research on how ‘landscape is memory’ and work with AIS faculty and students and with Owen Oliver, recent UW graduate and author of the UW’s Indigenous Campus Tour to investigate how design methods of landscape and representation can reflect cultural and ecological systems and erased histories of indigenous experiences and landscapes.

This location is also identified in the Waterlines Project Map documented by the Burke Museum. The lakeside site represents a past and present that will merge and overlap as the original waterlines are marked by the new innovative, sustainable landscape design and incorporate narratives of this canoe journey culture. The project will look to be guided by these historic waterlines, and guidance of the Burke Museum Waterlines Project, the UW Canoe Family and the AIS Department will engage in these narratives.

Active Learning: This project will not be an invisible wetland on campus, but an interactive, learning landscape with signage indicating the complex and beautiful natural water treatment processes that are occurring onsite.  In Spring Quarter, Architecture 402 students will begin to design individual concepts and mock up models on how on-site physical interpretive signage and seating will enhance the visitors experience of the site. Through the UW Fabrication Lab, students will use laser cutters, 3D printing and the wood and metal shop to produce model-size proposals of interpretive signage and incorporate them into their building and site design projects for the quarter. These will be presented at the end of the summer with their final design projects, and several students are interested in continuing the project over the summer once the stormwater design proposal is underway.  

Environmental Impact:
  • Energy Use
  • Living Systems and Biodiversity
  • Transportation
  • Water
  • Environmental Justice
  • Community Development
  • Cultural Representation
Project Longevity:

UW Facilities is nearing the end of their capital campaign and will begin the design and construction of the site in building in the next year. This site is well supported by the University, and will be operated and maintained by UW Recreation and the University for generations to come.

More on the project can be seen here:

Canoe Family at the Shell House

Videos of the site:



Environmental Problem:

The goal in sustainable water treatment in urban sites is to be like a natural ecological system, balancing intake with outflow of waters of similar or better quality – however,  that is rarely the case in urban environments.  For example, when it rains on campus, the rainwater runs into a network of storm drains that lead directly into local bodies of water. Along the way, rainwater picks up contaminants such as heavy metals, oil, toxins, pathogens, chemicals and trash, which goes untreated and flows directly into fish and wildlife habitat. This stormwater falls on various surfaces including buildings, roads, parking lots, sidewalks, loading docks, and landscaped areas. While some of the water may be absorbed by the soil, most of it ends up in the nearest storm drain, and ends up in Lake Washington. Additionally, stormwater runoff can cause erosion and sedimentation, which can negatively impact salmon habitat by filling in the spaces between rocks where salmon lay their eggs. This can prevent the eggs from hatching, and reduce the amount of available habitat for juvenile salmon. It can also increase the water temperature of streams and rivers. This can be harmful to salmon, as they require cool water temperatures to survive. Warmer water can reduce the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water, making it more difficult for salmon to breathe and survive. Untreated polluted water can also reduce the amount of available habitat for salmon, and can also make it more difficult for salmon to find food and avoid predators.

The site challenge:  Currently, there are existing catch basins and stormwater conveyance pipes located around the Shell House building with several piped outfalls into Lake Washington. On the north side of the building, there are two existing catch basins that collect surface stormwater runoff from the adjacent asphalt area. These catch basins appear to flow into Lake Washington to the south and east via 6-inch and 8-inch diameter pipes. The 8-inch diameter pipe flows to the east of the building and there are 6-inch diameter pipes running along the southwest and northeast sides of the Shell House building. There are existing roof downspouts on the southwest and northeast sides of the building. The downspouts daylight near the ground surface into a concrete channel that flows to a small area drain at the north corners of the building. These systems are traditional outflows to Lake Washington, and would typically be reconstructed with similar systems. We propose an alternative to the traditional drainage systems, which currently allow stormwater to be discharged into Lake Washington as a “receiving body of water,” and treat all water onsite through constructed wetlands. To achieve this goal, we will explore the feasibility of implementing biofiltration and retention systems, and using filtered greywater for toilet flushing and on-site irrigation. These methods not only showcase ecologically sustainable systems and advanced water quality treatment technologies, but also create a beautiful natural habitat.


Explain how the impacts will be measured:

Water Recycling
Water Treatment
Living Systems and Biodiversity
Environmental Justice
Salmon Habitat Protection
Educational Interpretation
Demonstration Gardens
Beauty and Delight

With the ultimate goal of treating all onsite stormwater through innovative and sustainable sustainability, we will study the feasibility of how the Shell House site can treat all onsite stormwater through bio-filtration and retention, utilizing filtered grey water for toilet flushing and on-site irrigation. These are innovative sustainable treatment mechanisms that would provide a visible demonstration of ecologically sustainable systems and  innovative water quality treatment technologies while also providing beautiful natural habitat. 

The research and design feasibility, based on UW Recreation's Validation Report of site conditions, will focus on the research, design and construction feasibility of the following systems:

Subsurface Engineered Wetlands: These are systems that replicate the functions of natural wetlands by filtering pollutants and improving water quality and by the hydrology and vegetation of a natural wetland. They also provide a habitat for diverse plant and animal species while providing ecosystem services such as water purification and flood control, and can hold water for recycling uses in toilets or irrigation.

Bioswales - a landscape element designed to manage and treat stormwater runoff through shallow, vegetated drainage ditches engineered to slow down and filter stormwater as it flows through the landscape. Also designed to mimic the functions of a natural wetland, they are typically located in areas with high levels of stormwater runoff, such as parking lots, roadsides, and other paved areas.

Rainwater collection - a water cistern collection system involves the collection and storage of rainwater for later use by installing a cistern or storage tank, which captures rainwater from the roof of a building, then treated and filtered to remove any debris or contaminants before it is used for non-potable purposes such as irrigation, cleaning or toilet flushing.

Permeable Pavements & Porous Asphalt:  Instead of capping soils with impenetrable materials, a permeable surface of concrete or asphalt is utilized for areas where hard surfaces are necessary (roads, highways, parking lots, sidewalks, etc).

Through our research and design phase, we will produce documentation of all research relating to current water loads on site, results from proposed wetland processes, predicted recycled water content, impact on ecological systems, and resulting landscape restoration processes. 


Total amount requested from the CSF: $31,959
This funding request is a: Grant
If this is a loan, what is the estimated payback period?:


ASUW Shell House: Sustainable Stormwater Feasibility Study Budget
Graduate MLA/M.Arch Student24/hr plus benefits480 hours x 24 plus benefits13,973.00
Graduate M.Arch Student24/hr plus benefits200 hours x 24 plus benefits6,986.00
Engineer Consultant10,000Flat fee, consulting10,000.00
Studio Supplement 1,000Signage mock-up materials1,000.00

Non-CSF Sources:

Project Completion Total:


ASUW Shell House: Sustainable Stormwater Feasibility Study Timeline
TaskTimeframeEstimated Completion Date
Research and DevelopmentJune-July7/30/2023
Design & SystemsJuly-September9/1/2023
Interpretation DesignNow-October10/1/2023
Implementation ProposalOctober11/23/2023