environmental design

pla | Phillip Lehn Architect

pla | Phillip Lehn Architect © 2016



pla | Phillip Lehn Architect © February 21, 2016

GTi’s four, centrally located, high bluff unobstructed view lots in north Edmonds, Washington … four fifths of Greenness, the privately shared, five lot residential park that His Eminence Ngawang Migyur Rinpoche, his grandnephew Gnendak Shak, and my wife Mariam and I invested 20 years and over $1.5 million to find, purchase, design, develop and maintain were ultimately repossessed. Lot B was taken on February 15 and lots C, D and E on June 21, 2014. Less than $500,000 was needed to redeem the last and best three lots but we couldn’t find a buyer, investor, lender, benefactor, family member or friend who was able and willing.


When we bought the property ~ 21 years ago, Greenness seemed generously blessed with high promise. Along the way, many ordinary and not so ordinary obstacles and hardships became increasingly more difficult to bear and overcome.  After winning the neighborhood’s unanimous support and the Hearing Examiner’s approval of a crucial street standards variance, GTi completed the public street’s and Greenness’ costly, lengthy and sometimes dangerous long-term improvements and I accepted the ongoing and uncompensated but often rewarding burden of the park’s long-term care and maintenance.


Once Rinpoche saw the site developed, he didn’t want to sell it and decided instead to build a home for himself and family near the street and a small Gompa or chapel and meditation retreat center near the duck pond. Unfortunately ?, the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis weakened some of his most affluent supporters during the heroic and very expensive finishing stages of the construction of Taiwan’s first Monastery of Tibetan Buddhism. At the same time, during record rains, a massive ~ 600-foot-long landslide disturbed ~ 10 – 15 feet of Greenness’ southwest tip (see PLa’s Home page slide show).  While its visible damage to Greenness was insignificant, the slide’s psychological damage was profound.


When Rinpoche returned exhausted from his financial struggles in Taiwan to behold the landslide’s ruinous devastation for the first time, he gave up all hope of realizing his family’s home and American meditation center and asked me to sell the property as soon as I could. Unfortunately ?, no one wanted to buy land that had just suffered such a slide, no matter how insignificant the visible damage to Greenness itself.


Before buying the property, I couldn’t find written record of any landslide ever occurring on Greenness’ part of the bluff and the City’s slump tests of the area assigned it the area’s second lowest probability of hazard (5%). Investigating the landslide, we observed a “pumping” action in the bluff’s seepage related to the time and duration of every rain storm and discovered a huge hole sitting like a water cannon on the face of the scarp (see PLa’s Home page’s slide show) along with evidence from the City’s files that a former City Engineer had directed the developers of the 22-lot plat above us to install a large, 100+ foot-long storm water infiltration system 25 years earlier. Several years after it was installed and forgotten, the City added storm drainage from two more streets to increase its impervious collection area to ~ 2+ acres.  


The City’s Engineering and Public Works Departments had been working overtime coping with that year’s record number of slides and clean ups and Jim Walker, the current City Engineer tried to lighten his load by dismissing and obstructing rather than helping us determine what caused our slide, one of that year’s worst. Given Walker’s opposition, GTi commissioned Associated Earth Sciences, one of the region’s most respected hydro-geology consulting firms to conduct a thorough dye test. The dye took only 51 hours and 27 minutes to migrate ~ 500 horizontal feet between the City’s infiltration system and the slide’s scarp proving a direct connection with minimal resistance had been eroded during the previous 25 years and that the City was clearly culpable and liable.


Unfortunately ?, the City’s engineers and its insurance pool’s lawyers shamelessly resisted our investigation and pretended to ignore its evidence. Expecting us or our neighbor’s insurance company to sue them, their instinctive response was to wear us out by deliberately wasting our time and money … rather than helping us to address a terrible problem the City had caused and which continued to threaten the lives and property of those living below the bluff. Eventually, I persuaded Jim and his assistant Don Fiene, to intercept the infiltration system with a pipe without admitting any fault. Fortunately, Mariam insisted that it be tested because it leaked at every 20-foot joint and had to be replaced.


Since Rinpoche wasn’t willing to challenge the City’s engineers and their insurance pool’s lawyers in court and they weren’t willing to be honest and honorable, GTi wasn’t able to recover any of its investigation’s expenses or the property’s lost value and the incident cast a lasting fool’s shadow on the commonly shared park’s long term stability. This seemingly improbable setback was soon followed by several more.  The dot com bust and 9/11 shocked and disrupted the global and local economies and caused widespread unemployment, which further diminished the value of Greenness’ lots and compelled Mariam and me to borrow more against our personal line of credit.


Six years after the slide (2004), I met Bert Bradley, a commercial flooring subcontractor and fellow early member of the Northwest EcoBuilding Guild who wanted to distinguish himself as a “Green” or more environmentally responsible general contractor/developer by buying and building custom designed spec houses on both of our upper lots. In the beginning, Bert professed to share GTi’s goals enthusiastically and offered to finance the construction of the first house himself. He was convinced that it should be a very small house or cottage but most realtors and mortgage lenders considered the lots low density, 12,000 SF / single family residence zoning and unobstructed views far too valuable for the size of houses Bert wanted to finance, build and sell on spec.


Bert’s budget and my fee were also much too low to cover the expansive scope of our research, designs and developments. Along with exploring questions of appropriate size, we were also reexamining other basic building elements … sub-grade structural walls, alternative building materials and assemblies, insulation, garden roofs, insulated natural light, hybrid heat reclamation and heating systems, water collection and use, etc. Had Bert been willing and able to pay for more of my time and to finance the construction of a slightly larger house, the results of our collaboration may have been more successful.


Bert’s and my life experiences are very different and our friendship and design collaboration was often hindered by those differences. Trust in each other did not come easily for either of us and I may not have sold any of our lots to Bert if Rinpoche hadn’t already waited so long to get his money back and if my family would have had enough money of our own to see us through.  Unfortunately ?, our circumstances didn’t give us much choice and despite or possibly because of our conflicting natures, many disagreements and the aggressively argumentative nature of our design discussions, we made good progress, especially in the development of insulated day-lit basements, rammed earth walls, garden roofs and bamboo rain screen siding. Unfortunately ?, we didn’t give ourselves enough time and money and we ultimately failed to design a house that Bert was willing to finance and build.


Despite Bert’s active involvement in writing, reviewing and rewriting our purchase and sales agreement before signing it, an originally agreed phrase of it later became a source of still unresolved conflict. Since Bert and I expected to write Greenness’ CC&R’s (Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions) together and had yet to establish how the park’s common spaces and amenities would be shared, maintained and governed, our purchase and sales agreement was written accordingly:


“GTI, BERT and PHILL shall jointly define easements and conditions, covenants and restrictions (CC&R’s). Both lots shall be developed as part of a shared residential park called “Greenness”. Its easements and CC&R’s shall dedicate portions of each lot beyond each residence as common to all lots, prohibit fences along property lines and provide for common landscaping, common amenities, and common governance of common areas including the assessment of fees to maintain common areas. Common amenities could, but not necessarily, include the orchard, foot paths, flower and vegetable gardens, organic composting areas, “fire pit point”, the duck pond and the view pavilion.”


Bert agreed with this wording but presumed his two lots would be allowed to use and enjoy the park’s common open spaces and amenities near the bluff without sharing the costs and burdens of their common ownership. Bert’s sister and her family had suffered a terrible slide related disaster several years earlier and his father had either advised, asked or expected Bert to avoid any slide related liabilities. His two lots were located near the street as far as possible from the bluff and weren’t at risk. However, the park’s most valued common open spaces and amenities - the view pavilion, garden/duck pond and fire-pit-point were all located along the bluff’s upper ridge.  While the risk of a slide damaging any of these amenities was and still is considered low, and while the courts had previously ruled that unless property owners above do something to cause a slide, they can’t be held liable for its damages, Bert refused to accept his lots’ shared ownership of the amenities along the bluff but nevertheless expected to be granted a perpetual right to use and enjoy them.


When I insisted that the right be conditioned upon his acceptance of a fair share of the amenities’ costs, responsibilities and obligations, he accused me of deliberately “tricking” him with the phrase “could, but not necessarily, include …”. Since we had discussed my reasons for the phrase openly and he was given ample opportunity to understand its meaning and our terms before signing the agreement, his accusation was and still is unfounded and his presumption of privileged entitlement was and still is unfair.  


Eventually, Bert met and introduced me to a professional couple who asked me to design a house for them and two young brothers they planned to adopt once the boys’ mother died as expected from cancer. I designed and obtained a building permit for a house that met their requirements and that the Seattle Chapter of the American Institute of Architects Committee On the Environment (COTE) selected to feature in their 2006 “What Makes It Green?” program.


Unfortunately ?, Bert neglected to cultivate dependable working relationships with his many would be subcontractors. When he needed their help to verify his cost estimates, the economy had become white hot and most subs were too busy with jobs for other generals they had worked with before to take the time to prepare Bert’s bids, especially given the design’s many innovations. Labor and material prices were escalating rapidly and without actual bids, none of us could know what the project would likely cost and what kinds of adjustments might be necessary. To make matters worse, the couple and the two young brothers discovered soon after the mother died that living together was unbearable. They had all enjoyed several weekend outings together but their many differences in age, diet and temperament were just too great and despite the couple’s best efforts to make it work, living together in the couple’s tiny Seattle cottage soon proved impossible. Along with their doubts about the project’s cost and Bert’s efforts to get their political support in his battle for privileges from me, this unexpected and profoundly personal revelation ultimately caused the couple to abandon their new family dream project altogether shortly before its construction was to start. Once the couple backed out, Bert backed out and around this same time, Migyur Rinpoche suffered a near fatal stroke in China and remained paralyzed in a coma.


I don’t remember Gnendak and I even asking much less putting any pressure on Bert to pay off his loan and when he refused to honor our purchase and sales agreement to support the shared park concept and, “on the advice of my attorney”, refused to honor his previously signed pledge to approve the lot line adjustment we needed to subdivide our lower lot until we accepted his terms for our settlement … threatened to sell one of his lots without the Conditions, Covenants and Restrictions needed to establish and protect the shared park concept and our previous ten years’ investments … and offered to loan us the money needed to buy both of this lots back, it seemed best to accept his offer.


Rinpoche doesn’t believe in the principle of charging interest and had even eliminated the practice in his part of Tibet. Given this, GTi never charged Bert any on the $370,000 he borrowed from us for ~3.5 years to buy and hold both of his lots. Unfortunately ?, in addition to his $180,000 down payment and $146,363 reimbursement for all of his expenses, including a parking ticket, Bert never thought to return the favor and instead required 8% interest from us. Effectively cornered without the money or the will to challenge Bert in court and no hope of help from Rinpoche, I pressed Gnendak to accept Bert’s conditions and to borrow enough from him to buy back both lots with five year liens at 8% interest.


Unfortunately ?, five years wasn’t nearly enough to survive what suddenly came next. Among its many other global consequences, “The Great Recession” ended my family’s critical contract job, kept me unemployed for ~ 6+ years without any unemployment compensation and forced Mariam and me to sell our first house cheap. Expecting to keep it as a source of future retirement income, we had invested a considerable amount of time and money improving it.  Instead, the little we got back from its sale after paying off its mortgage forced us to borrow what was left of our line of credit to pay basic living expenses.  I did my best to sell GTi’s lots to pay off the liens in time but the banks weren’t making loans and I couldn’t find anyone willing to pay our drastically reduced prices or loan us enough in cash.


As soon as our five years were up, Bert and an expensive legal team – Montgomery Purdue Blankinship & Austin PLLC - with offices high in Seattle’s Columbia Center that his father once worked with when he was Vice President of General Electric, convinced the County’s overworked and understaffed Court that two of the region’s last three, centrally located and most beautiful unobstructed view lots really weren’t worth enough and that Bert needed to be granted authority to take all of GTi’s property rather than just the two lots he held liens against in order to recover all the interest owed on the original amount borrowed.


They didn’t need to take all our property to ‘recover’ the money they claimed we owed Bert. They knew Bert’s original two lots were extremely rare, would likely return to their former value and increase at a much higher than average rate once the economy began to recover as it has.  Unfortunately ?, Bert had to pay off a much larger settlement resulting from his subsequent project’s losses and he and his lawyers couldn’t resist the opportunity to take as much as they could from us. We had no money to defend ourselves in court and except for a letter I wrote the judge, their contentions and the Judgement they wrote for the Court were effectively uncontested and GTi lost everything. Suffering a continuous succession of discouraging shocks and setbacks, GTi managed to survive all but this last and most devastating. Bert, or possibly his expensive lawyers, now own all three of GTi’s original view lots and his plans for their ultimate ownership, design and development still remains a mystery.


Most of our obstacles were well beyond any one person’s understanding, control or influence but personal and cultural shortcomings, serious character failings and actual misdeeds are also to blame. This short telling of the fascinating story necessarily leaves much untold and while time absorbing and arduous to write, it reveals much about ourselves and I may try to tell more of it later. It’s also not over. Despite our many setbacks and losses, important accomplishments were realized and it’s still too soon for me to fully understand and judge what happened. We nearly realized influential works of enduring value but Rinpoche nearly died and is still partially paralyzed. Little of our work was realized, we lost our families’ fortunes and Rinpoche’s was badly needed by many monks and nuns in Tibet and India.  The tragedy and its consequences are inescapable and I pray for the compassion, wisdom and courage to understand, forgive and help heal our many wounds.


Auspicious wishes





Phuntsho Thundrup - Phillip Lehn



cofounder and architect, LEED AP



Green Tara incorporated