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Seattle’s Bullitt Center Bills Itself as ‘World’s Greenest Office Building’

Seattle’s Bullitt Center bills itself as the world’s greenest office building for its local and sustainable materials. Video courtesy of KCTS9/Earthfix

Before skyscrapers, Seattle’s waterfront held little more than tide flats edged with evergreen forests. Those forests ran off the sunlight and rainwater that fell on them, and they did nothing to pollute the area.

What if today’s urban landscapes could return to that level of natural efficiency?

That’s what the Seattle-based Bullitt Foundation is attempting to do by creating “the world’s greenest office building” on the edge of the Capitol Hill neighborhood overlooking downtown Seattle.

“We’re taking a piece of land that was a ramshackle bar, and we’re turning it into something that has characteristics of the Douglas fir forest that was there before. It is a building that is in complete balance with nature.” says foundation president Denis Hayes.

Hayes is known for coordinating the first Earth Day in 1970, and it only makes sense that the grand opening for the Bullitt Center will be held today.

“The foundation decided that we really wanted to walk our talk,” Hayes says. “We’ve been preaching this stuff for the last two decades. Now we’re going to show that not only that it can be done, but that we will do it.”

After breaking ground a year and a half ago, the building is nearing completion and tenants have begun to move into what is expected to be the largest structure to qualify for the Living Building Challenge, the world’s most rigorous standard in sustainable building.

Unlike other green buildings, Living Buildings must prove themselves for a full year. They can’t contribute any waste to the environment. They can only use as much water as they can collect. And they must only be powered by as much energy as they can generate.

In addition, all the heavy building materials like concrete and steel must come from within 300 miles of the site. And none of the building products can contain any of the red-listed 362 toxic chemicals that are commonly used in construction materials.

It was Joe David’s job to screen all the materials. Today David can walk through the building and point to any material — the concrete, the glass, the building’s protective coating — and explain where it came from and what toxic materials it normally would contain and the lengths they went through to remove them.

“It was surprising how often you’d come across a product that may have some toxic component, but it was still being used because it was industry standard,” says David, who works for the building developer Point 32.

Much of the internal structure of the building is made of heavy timber because in the Pacific Northwest, timber is an abundant renewable resource. And every single piece of wood in the structure was sustainably harvested, making the Bullitt Center the first commercial building in the United States to earn the Forest Stewardship Council’s certification for using 100 percent FSC-certified wood.

“We can go pallet by pallet and figure out what forest the wood was extracted from and where it was processed and guarantee that it the harvesting practices meet the Forest Stewardship Council standards,” David says.

In addition, those forests must be within a 600-mile radius of the building site. Most of the building’s timber came from forests in Washington and Oregon.

Heavy timber office buildings haven’t been built in Seattle since the 1920s because they required old-growth trees with a large circumference to support the weight of upper floors. But the columns in the Bullitt Center are made by gluing together smaller beams to form columns that are just as strong. Those glue-laminated beams, or “glulams,” are made at Calvert Company in Vancouver, Wash.

Watch a video of Calvert’s beam-making process:

Going to all these lengths comes at a price. Overall the foundation has spent $30 million to build the Center. That figure includes the price of the land, years of working with regulators to find ways to permit the project and about $18.5 million in construction costs. The construction added up to about $355 a square foot. That’s about $55 more per square foot than a typical commercial building in Seattle. But the Hayes says it’s worth it. After all, he expects the building to still be around in 250 years.

“You want to build things that will endure. Something that will become part of the quasi-permanent wealth of society. Not something that you put up and rip down a few years later,” Hays says.

Net-Zero Energy

In addition to being built to last, the structure will be 80 percent more efficient than the average high rise office building in downtown Seattle. And twice as efficient as the greenest office building in the area.

A 50,000 square-foot building has to be super efficient in order to be powered exclusively by the sunlight that falls on the building’s 575 rooftop solar panels that extend beyond the building like a brim of a sombrero.

The 14,303 square feet of photovoltaic panels are expected to generate 240,000 kilowatt hours per year, hopefully just enough for the building to break even. All that electricity will be fed directly into the electrical grid and sold to Seattle City Light. The building will purchase energy back as needed using a typical house meter.

Each tenant in the building will get a percentage share of the energy being generated on the roof and that percentage equates to the amount of energy they’re allowed to use.

“If they can operate their business within that energy budget, the Bullitt Foundation will right the check to pay their utilities bills,” David says. “So a tenant who can live within their energy budget will never have to pay a utility bill while officing here.”

But living within these energy constraints shouldn’t be painful. Hayes promises that the building will still have ample lighting and plenty of energy to power computers and keep refrigerators running cold.

“We’re not sacrificing any services, we’re just doing it vastly more efficiently,” Hayes says. “If you can build it in Seattle and make it work, then there’s certainly no excuse to build it anyplace in the southern two thirds of the United States where they actually have some sunlight.”

Net-Zero Water

The solar panels will also collect rainwater and funnel it into a 56,000 gallon cistern. The goal is to harvest enough rainwater to satisfy all the building’s water needs. The rainwater will be filtered and purified until it’s clean enough to drink. But tenants won’t be drinking the rainwater just yet.

“Currently, it’s not legal to operate a system like this,” David explains.

For now, the building is connected to Seattle’s water supply system to provide potable water for sinks, showers and the fire sprinkler system.

“We’re going to go through a year of testing to demonstrate that this system is functional and we’ll be working with policymakers on the state and federal levels,” David says.

Once the Washington Department of Health and Seattle Public Utilities give their approval, the building will switch over to using treated rainwater as the sole source for potable water.

But then they face an additional challenge. According to federal regulations, rainwater must be chlorinated before it can be used for potable purposes. But chlorine is on the Living Building Challenge’s list of forbidden toxic chemicals.

“The real question is whether chlorine needs to be added to system or not. Everyone says it does. So we’re trying to figure out how to add chlorine simply into this system so that we can operate our rainwater-to-potable system right away,” David says. “There’s a pathway there. We’re just working through the details.”

Net-Zero Waste

Once water is used in sinks, showers and floor drains, this “greywater” must somehow be treated, cleaned and returned to nature.

Here’s how they plan to do it. Greywater will go through a series of screens and will be held in a 400-gallon tank in the basement. From there it will be slowly pumped to a wetland-style roof garden over the second floor of the building. The water will be cleaned through natural filtration and some of the water will evaporate at this point. The rest will drip slowly into a drain field on the sidewalk level and eventually recharge the groundwater beneath the building.

In front of the building, the Bullitt Foundation is partnering with the Seattle Parks Foundation to build the first landscape project in the world to meet the standards of the Living Building Challenge. The sycamore-covered triangle called McGilvra Park is being transformed into a demonstration site for green stormwater infrastructure, natural drainage systems and permeable pavement.

And as for the human waste, that will be dealt with by way of the world’s first six-story composting toilet system. When someone uses a Bullitt Center toilet, the waste travels down into a composter in the basement.

Inside the composter, wood shavings and water are added to the waste, helping it decompose until it’s turned into leachate, which will be pumped out and picked up once a month and taken to a facility where it will be combined with other compostable materials and eventually be used as fertilizer.

And in case you were wondering, it doesn’t stink. Not even a little.

Life In A Living Building

So far 80 percent of the Bullitt Center has been rented and tenants have recently begun moving into space.

University of Washington Architecture professor Rob Peña will be one of those tenants. He’s part of the university’s Integrated Design Lab, which will be reside on the second floor of the center.

Once their offices are set up, Peña’s team will treat the space as a living laboratory — testing and monitoring every dimension of the super green building.

“We can really poke and prod the building’s vital signs and learn all we can about it to get that information out to the public,” Peña says.

What’s life like in a living building so far?

“We’re noticing being in the space that it’s so comfortable. The heating is all by warming the (concrete) slabs with geothermally heated water. So there’s this evenness to the temperature that’s really quite pleasant,” Peña says.

Peña says many of building’s green aspects actually make it a quiet, comfortable place to work. There’s no noisy ventilation system; windows open silently when fresh air is needed. And he says the daylight from the tall windows is more natural and appealing than the fluorescent lighting in most office buildings.

Peña says he hopes his team can begin to quantify the human benefits of working in a super green office building.

“Fundamentally this building is about making healthier communities,” Peña explains. “We forget that the biggest cost of doing business is your people, not the real estate. If this building can demonstrate there really is a happier, healthier, more productive place to work, then all of these questions about energy, water, even real estate costs become a whole lot less important.”

The Future Of Green Building

Unlike other green building certifications, Living Building status won’t be bestowed upon the Bullitt Center until it proves over the course of a year that it indeed meets the requirements of being net-zero waste and net-zero water and energy use. The clock will start ticking once the building is finished and the tenants move in, likely sometime in early summer.

The main purpose of building the greenest office building in the world, Hayes says, for the final product to be so elegant and energy efficient that it will inspire builders around the world to think differently.

“It’s impossible to say that something is impossible if it exists,” Hayes says. “If you took just the office buildings in the United States today and reduced their energy consumption by half, you would be saving twice as much energy every year as America imports from the Middle East. These are big things.”

The success of the Bullitt Center won’t be measured in the next year alone, he says.

“I would really like 20 years from now to have buildings that are better than this one. And for people to come to this one and say, ‘What was all the fuss about? It looks like all the other buildings’,” Hayes says. If we actually get to that point, I think we will be spectacularly successful.”


EarthFix is a public media project of Oregon Public Broadcasting and Boise State Public Radio, Idaho Public Television, KCTS 9 Seattle, KUOW Puget Sound Public Radio, Northwest Public Radio and Television, Southern Oregon Public Television and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.