The greenest commercial building on earth rises in Seattle

The Bullitt Center not only set its sights very high; it is having a ripple effect on suppliers of building materials.
The super-green Bullitt Center under construction

The super-green Bullitt Center under construction Bullitt Center

When EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson visited Seattle last month for a talk at UW’s graduation, there was one visit she and her staff weren’t interested in promoting. On Saturday morning, just before the graduation, she and a few of her staffers made an unpublicized stop at 15th and Madison. (The low profile was to avoid distracting attention from her graduation speech.)

Despite a June Seattle drizzle that left her shivering, Jackson’s warm demeanor shone through as she gave a big hug to the obviously smitten daughter of EPA Policy Advisor Bill Dunbar. In the midst of a flurry of introductions, someone handed her a hard hat and she began a tour of Capitol Hill’s big new green energy star: the Bullitt Center.
 
It’s not hard to see why Jackson would be interested in the Bullitt Foundation’s still under-construction office building. Once completed, it will be the greenest commercial building in the world – the only so far to attain Living Building status. The Bullitt Foundation, founded in 1952 with money from the Bullitt family's KING Broadcasting properties, is devoted to protecting and restoring the environment in the Northwest.
 
The Bullitt Center will produce all of its own energy through a large photovoltaic array on its roof, capture and treat rainwater on-site to supply everything save drinking water, and even compost human waste using bins in the basement. Where a standard commercial building might last about 40 years, the Bullitt Center is built to last 250.
 
“The creation of the Bullitt Center is a response to the [carbon] impact of buildings,” the foundation explains on its website, “which currently account for an estimated 39 percent of carbon dioxide emissions, 65 percent of waste and 70 percent of electrical use in the United States.”
 
It’s an ambitious project by any standards, but perhaps most exciting is the ripple effect it has had on the market for building materials. To qualify as a Living Building, the Bullitt Center must adhere to a long list of guidelines, including creating all of its own energy and water. (Due to state law, drinking water must still be piped in, but the team hopes they might one day be able to filter their own drinking water on-site as well.) Construction of the building has also banned 14 types of chemicals; namely carcinogens, endocrine disrupters and other chemicals known to be ecologically harmful.
 
Joe David is a Project Associate with Point 32, the company behind the Bullitt Center’s development. David has spent hours conducting recon on building materials for the center – including something called an applied air barrier. “It’s kind of like the rain jacket for the building,” David explains.
 
But when he spoke with Prosoco, the company that manufactured the “rain jacket” he wanted, he learned the product was made with phthalates, which studies have linked to damage of the liver, kidneys, lungs, and reproductive systems. Earlier this month, phthalates reared their head once again as a headache for plastics manufacturers, when a study found they were also linked to diabetes. For David and the Bullitt Center, it was a deal breaker.
 
That is until he got a call back from the company a few weeks later. “After a few conversations, the manufacturer called us back and said, ‘We think we can reformulate the product so that it doesn’t have any red-list chemicals,’” he says. The Bullitt Center will be just one of many buildings to include the reformulated sealant: Prosoco was so horrified to learn about the effects of phthalates, they plan to use it in all of their products going forward.
 
“We’ve also been able to make a number of other substitutions with manufacturers’ help to get rid of things like neoprene and PVC,” adds David.
 
Finding workarounds for these kinds of banned chemicals will mean a cleaner, healthier work space for the Bullitt Center’s tenants – who so far include the Bullitt Foundation, which will occupy a half floor of the 6-story building, the International Living Future Institute, and the UW Integrated Design Lab. That still leaves three and a half floors to fill by January of 2013, when tenants will be able to move in.
 
The $30 million Center will run about $350 a square foot in construction costs finished – about $50 more per square foot than your typical commercial building. Still, tenants will have free water and electricity – so long as they stay within their allotted share.  Eventually, the Point 32 team hopes the legwork they’re doing will lower costs and barriers for future developers with the green building bug.
 
So far though, the Bullitt Center is still the only building under construction in Seattle’s Living Building Pilot Program, which was inspired by a meeting between Bullitt Foundation President and CEO Denis Hayes, Point 32 Owner Chris Rogers, who oversaw development of the Seattle Art Museum's Olympic Sculpture Park, and Seattle’s Director of Planning and Development, Diane Sugimura. The program has seen controversy recently over the height of the proposed Skanska building at 34th and Fremont.
 
And EPA'S Lisa Jackson? Her Seattle visit was just one stop on a nationwide survey of innovation in clean energy. Though she might not admit it, it’s not hard to imagine how a visit to the Bullitt Building might be uplifting after spending so much time being pummeled by Members of Congress suspicious about any added environmental regulation.

Berit Anderson is Associate Editor at Crosscut. You can find her on Twitter @Berit_Anderson or reach her at berit.anderson@crosscut.com.


Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!

Comments:

Posted Mon, Jul 23, 12:52 p.m. Inappropriate

Great building, as I've said before. But can we stop trotting out this stat about the average age of a commercial building being 40 years. Even if it's true, I'm not sure what it really means, given how many buildings are taken down for reasons other than that they're failing as structures. Here's something from the New York Observer, written in 2010:

"The average larger midtown commercial building is 57 years old, nine years older than the president of the United States; the average midtown south one is a cheek-pinching 92; and downtown, it’s 63, according to data from CB Richard Ellis Research, based on buildings measuring over 75,000 square feet in midtown south and downtown, and over 150,000 square feet in midtown.

The majority of these buildings-55.1 percent in midtown, 93.7 percent in midtown south and 55.5 percent in downtown-are over 50, just old enough to remember Idlewild Airport but too young to have seen the Brooklyn Dodgers."

Sea Wolf

Posted Mon, Jul 23, 3:03 p.m. Inappropriate

This is a wonderful building but very expensive. There is a Platinum Green commercial building in Bremerton that has been built to very high stantards at a much lower cost. Rice, Fergus, Miller Architects has a beautiful building built at a fraction of the cost of the Bulitt Building. One hopes that the cost of the Bulitt building will not become a club that opponents of this technology use to beat us over the heads with. The Bremerton building has used available materials, some from the original building it was made from and with technology that can be used by the public right now.

MelBSea

Posted Tue, Jul 24, 11:04 a.m. Inappropriate

At $350 per square foot, the Bullitt Center is approximately 15% more expensive than a typical new Class-A office in Seattle. And for that premium, the building weeds out all toxic materials, uses 100% Forest Stewardship Council certified wood and generates all its own electricity. "Very expensive" is an opinion. In my opinion, the modest premium delivers a good value.

hbkahn

Posted Fri, Jul 27, 10:23 a.m. Inappropriate

The Bullitt building (nor any other "green" building of this scale) does not "generate all its own electricity." It will (hopefully--I'm not an expert to evaluate the claim) generate the same amount of electricity through the year as it consumes. It's an average because solar does not generate much after sunset (duh) or during winter. Since it's probably not technologically feasible to store electricity for a building of this size from the times of plenty to the times of not, the building has to be on the grid.

louploup

Posted Sat, Jul 28, 9:21 p.m. Inappropriate

"In the summer it gives excess energy to the (power) grid and in the winter it gets it back when we can't generate enough," he said. "It nets out at zero on an annual basis." Excerpt from:

http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/03/20/10226909-could-this-30-million-green-tower-be-the-future-of-world-cities

SallyD

Posted Thu, Jul 26, 10 a.m. Inappropriate

No multistory building can be truly "green" because it doesn't get the maximum sunlight per interior area used.

jabailo

Login or register to add your voice to the conversation.

Join Crosscut now!
Subscribe to our Newsletter

Follow Us »