Seattle’s Bullitt Center: Ready To Debut As World’s Greenest Office Building

Apr 18, 2013

After breaking ground a year and a half ago, Seattle’s Bullitt Center is nearing completion and tenants have begun to move into what is being billed as the greenest office building in the world. The grand opening is set for Monday, which is Earth Day.

Joe David is standing beneath a sprawling ceiling made entirely of 2x6 wooden beams lying on edge like rows of popsicle sticks. And it’s all being held up by thick timber columns.

  

The Bullitt Center, which opens this week in Seattle, is expected to be the greenest office building in the world and is built to last 250 years.
The Bullitt Center, which opens this week in Seattle, is expected to be the greenest office building in the world and is built to last 250 years.
Credit Michael Werner

  David: “So the first thing you may have noticed is the wood ceilings and the heavy timber structure. It’s pretty atypical of new construction.”

David is giving a tour of the nearly complete Bullitt Center, a six-story structure at the edge of the Capitol Hill neighborhood in Seattle.

It looks like the hull of a futuristic ship emerging at the intersection of two busy streets. And it’s the most ambitious green commercial project ever attempted.

What makes this building unique? Well, for starters, it’s the first U.S. commercial building to use 100 percent sustainably harvested lumber.

David works for the building developer Point 32. He explains what that means.

David: “So we can go pallet by pallet and figure out what forest the wood was extracted from and where it was processed and guarantee that the harvesting practices, labor practices at those locations meet the FSC, Forest Stewardship Council standards.”

The Center was commissioned by the Bullitt Foundation. It’s a Seattle-based charity that promotes environmental causes.

And this new center was the foundation’s response to the Living Building Challenge, the world’s most rigorous standard in sustainable building. To be deemed a Living Building, it must generate all its own energy, harvest all its own water and deal with all its own waste.

Going to these lengths comes at a price. The $18.5 million Center runs about $355 a square foot in construction costs – that’s about $55 more per square foot than a typical commercial building. But the Foundation president, Denis Hayes, says it’s worth it. After all, he expects the building to still be around in 250 years.

Hayes: “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 then rip down a few years later and haul off to the dump and build another one.”

In addition to being built to last, the structure will be 80 percent more efficient than the average office building in downtown Seattle.

It has to be super efficient in order to be powered by the sunlight that falls on the building’s 575 rooftop solar panels.

These panels extend beyond the building like the brim of a sombrero. They also collect rainwater and funnel it into a 56,000-gallon cistern in the basement. There it will be filtered until it’s clean enough to drink.

And how will they manage all human waste? With the world’s only six-story composting toilet system.

Unlike other green buildings, Living Buildings must prove themselves over a full year. That means each of the building’s tenants will follow a strict water and energy budget.

Rob Pena will be one of those tenants. He’s a professor of architecture at the University of Washington and part of the Integrated Design Lab that’s moving into the Center.

Today his team is arranging desks in the basement of the building, in a space that will be used as a classroom.

Once their offices are set up, Pena’s team will treat the building as a living laboratory -- testing and monitoring every dimension of the structure.

So what’s life like so far in a living building?

Pena: “Some of the things that we’re really noticing about being in the space is that it’s so comfortable. Thermally it’s really lovely. The heating is all by warming the slabs with geothermally heated water. So there’s this evenness to the temperature that’s really quite pleasant.”

Pena says many of building’s green aspects actually make it a quiet and 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 appealing than the fluorescent lighting in most office buildings.

So far Eighty percent of the Bullitt Center has been leased. And tenants will continue to move in over the next couple months.

Denis Hayes, who coordinated the first Earth Day, says the success of the Bullitt Center won’t be measured in the first year alone.

Hayes: “I would really like 20 years from now to have buildings that are better than this one. And for people to come to it and say, ‘What was all the fuss about? It looks like all the other buildings.’”

If that’s the way people regard the Bullitt Center a couple of decades from now, Hayes will consider it a spectacular success.

Copyright 2013 Northwest Public Radio