Building a Better Building

The Bullitt Center, one of North America’s most ambitious green buildings. Credit: Benjamin Benschneider Photography, FlickrCC.

Leave it to Denis Hayes, organizer of the first Earth Day back in 1970 and now president of the sustainability oriented Bullitt Foundation, to inspire and commission the greenest commercial building on the planet. Indeed, the six-story, $30 million Bullitt Center, which opened this fall in Seattle and provides office space for the Bullitt Foundation and a half dozen other tenants, is a veritable crystal ball for what commercial office buildings will look like in the future.

The building is so green that it is on track for certification under the International Living Future Institute’s rigorous Living Building Challenge, a performance-based green building certification program that distinguishes structures for their commitment to green attributes including net-zero energy use, energy and water efficiency and non-polluting, locally sourced materials. Once it has been operating as efficiently as advertised for one year, the new building will qualify as just the 16th certified “living building” in the world.

The most obvious of the green technologies in the building is the 14,000-square-foot, 240-kilowatt photovoltaic solar array that juts out over the roof like a hat brim and generates more than enough electricity to power the building, sending extra juice back into the larger grid. With Seattle’s spotty sunshine, energy efficiency is key. To wit, 80% of interior lighting is provided by natural daylight. The building’s “cerebral cortex” (as Hayes calls it) can open windows and activate exterior shutters automatically depending on variables such as sun angle, temperature and wind conditions. Likewise, laptops are the only computers allowed given they use less than a quarter of the energy of desktop computers.

In the basement, a room-sized cistern holds up to 56,000 gallons of Seattle’s most abundant natural resource, rainwater, which would otherwise run off the building, picking up surface pollutants and transporting them into an already severely compromised Puget Sound. Instead, thanks to a simple water collection system (including a small green roof) and the cistern, the rainwater gets filtered, chlorinated and filtered again before it ends up in office workers’ tea cups and water bottles.

Bullitt Center, interior common space. Credit: Brad Kahn, FlickrCC.

All the building’s toilets use minimal amounts of water and compost human waste that’s then trucked 30 miles east and used as fertilizer on a working timber forest. In order to encourage greener commuting, the building has no car parking but does provide bicycle garages and showers. And its siting near public transit in one of the Seattle’s busiest and most dense urban neighborhoods (Capitol Hill) is no accident. This strategic location ranks 98 out of 100 on Walk Score, an index reflecting attributes such as mixed income, mixed use, density, access to public transportation and proximity to schools, parks and local businesses.

Meanwhile, bulky or heavy building materials (wood, steel, concrete, etc.) needed to construct the building were sourced as locally as possible, most from within 300 miles, to minimize shipping costs and associated pollution. And all the timber used in construction of the building—the first timber frame commercial structure put up in Seattle since the 1920s—is certified as sustainably harvested by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

One aspect of living up to the high standards of the Living Building Challenge that Hayes, an activist at heart, has found particularly satisfying, is the requirement to advocate for change. In that spirit, when Hayes and company realized that the vapor barrier that gets sprayed under the building’s exterior aluminum siding contained phthalates (noxious chemicals linked to reproductive and other human health problems) they asked the manufacturer, Prosoco, to come up with a different formulation free of the harsh chemicals. The company not only rose to the challenge, but is now in the process of converting its entire line over to this greener formulation, meaning thousands of buildings a year in the U.S. and beyond will have greener vapor barriers.

Hayes and his supporters also successfully lobbied the city of Seattle to exempt their project from building height restrictions so that it could be tall enough to generate all of its electricity from solar power. Given this push, the city started its own “Deep Green” pilot program that encourages building developers to shoot for similarly lofty sustainability oriented goals. “It shouldn’t be illegal to build a super-green building,” says Hayes.

Hayes relishes these “domino effects.” And while he expects the building to be around for a long time—250 years, or five times as long as a similarly sized conventional building—he hopes it won’t be the greenest commercial building on the planet for long.

“One building off by itself has zero impact on the world’s climate,” he says. “But a building that is influential and begins to change the way that architects, engineers, contractors, developers and financial institutions view the built environment—that’s a building that was worth building.”