The green movement thinks big. It thinks in terms of entire ecosystems, of how thick the layers of the Earth’s gaseous atmosphere are, of what’s left of impossibly ancient glaciers. It calculates: if we use LED lighting, then the nation’s infrastructure can power millions of homes with the energy saved. It conjectures: if we use green cleaning solutions, then we won’t send chemicals into the ocean to meet with unsuspecting plankton.
This industry’s passion and persistence in the journey toward sustainability has only increased despite facing such large, systemic issues. But green building’s efforts are experienced on a smaller scale. What about the people who live and work in our buildings? Does net-zero energy and sustainable, local materials improve a person’s quality of life as much as they do for plankton? We decided to find out.
The Bullitt Center has been called the “greenest commercial building in the world” and has received as much buzz as a new Frank Gehry design—all for good reason. Located in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, it’s the first urban mid-rise office building to go for the industry’s most stringent and results-based accolade, the Living Building Challenge. If the Bullitt Center passes the certification’s year-long test, which begins only after it is fully occupied, it will have absolutely zero impact on the environment. Zilch.
But let’s focus on the impacts the Bullitt Center does have—the positive kind. The idea of sustainability—to be able to maintain or balance at a desired level—can be as easily applied to a human being as to the environment. The Bullitt Center’s tenants are sold on that forward-thinking vision.
“It’s a self-selecting thing,” says Denis Hayes, who is the CEO of the Bullitt Foundation and the visionary behind the building. Hayes began working in the Bullitt Center after its grand opening on Earth Day 2013 and says his fellow tenants, from public relations firms to engineering startups, “have longed for something like this.”
Although certain design choices help the office spaces feel comfortable and familiar, a day working at the Bullitt Center just isn’t like one anywhere else, thanks to systems and features that have, at their heart, the occupant in mind.
Seattle gets fewer sunny days annually than any other major city in the lower 48, and although the overhanging 14,300-square-foot solar array—a unique form-follows-function design element like a flat-brimmed hat atop the building—is designed to maximize whatever light peeks through the clouds in the sky, those clouds are actually a boon for the interior, creating a softly filtered light perfect for working.
“The ambient lighting is almost entirely set by natural daylight,” says Joe David. David was the point person on the project for developer Point32, whose office now occupies a portion of the Bullitt Center’s co-working floor. “That’s one thing people notice right away when they walk into the space—the office floors are truly floor-to-ceiling glass, 13-and-a-half feet of glazing from the slab edge to the ceiling,” David says.
FOR YOUR COMFORT
The building has a deft response to thermal comfort. By the time a person begins feeling too warm, an automated system has responded by cracking a window and letting in the breeze—not to mention the song of birds, the whoosh of cars passing by on the street, and the tap-tap of people playing table tennis in the neighborhood park nearby, which the Bullitt Foundation rehabbed for the public. On chillier days, a water-source heat pump transfers solar heat back to the building. The building mechanical system is so minimal that it nearly escapes the eye. “The beautiful wood ceiling has virtually no ductwork,” says Craig Curtis, a partner at The Miller Hull Partnership, the lead design architect on the project. “Because the building uses a geothermal exchange and radiant floors, we only have one simple little duct that runs a small amount of fresh air into these spaces for air quality.”
The huge windows were a challenge for Miller Hull. Curtis says it was a balancing act to weigh aesthetics and views against the Living Building Challenge’s demand for a super-efficient skin and infiltration rates. “Green or sustainable buildings often come with a preconceived idea of what they will look like,” Curtis says. “But when designing these super-efficient, low-impact buildings, you have to do more with less.”
To meet an ideal energy use intensity of 16 kBtu per square foot—about a third of what the current Seattle Energy Code requires for office buildings—a supertight, responsive curtainwall system by Schüco was the perfect solution. The triple-paned windows, insulated with Technoform’s TGI-Spacer, are two inches thick, and the largest units weigh 468 pounds each. A pressure cap completes the seal on the exterior as Schüco flaps keep every wisp of cold air out.
The Living Building Challenge’s Red List of forbidden chemicals is, for any building project, one of the toughest challenges. Materials containing lead, mercury, CFCs, and other harmful chemicals are prohibited anywhere in the building. “It’s 14 chemical groups, but when you actually get down to it, that list quickly expands to be over 350 chemicals—for example, formaldehyde has 40 or 50 aliases and compound variations,” David says. “We’ve gone to great lengths to make sure we have extremely healthy, clean air.” Take Prosoco’s conversion layer, a fluid treatment that creates a weather and air barrier for the building’s envelope. Originally the product contained phthalates, which are plastics that increase flexibility but that are on the Red List. After hearing from David, the company reformulated the product to meet the requirements.
“Denis challenged us to put an ‘irresistible staircase’ in the building from the very beginning,” Curtis says. “And not only because the elevator uses power, but also to utilize the building itself to encourage healthy habits in the work environment.” The glass-enclosed staircase extends over the sidewalk at the point of entry, and offers panoramic views of the surrounding cityscape. Between this and a total lack of car parking, “it’s so much better than the lethargic life of a typical office worker,” Hayes says. Hayes even reports losing a few pounds since moving into the building.
Energy use in the building capitalizes on our innate love for games. Meters in clear public view show how much energy each floor is consuming, creating a friendly competition among tenants as they strive to meet their objectives, which are based on square footage and calculated against the building’s annual goal of 230,000 kilowatt-hours. Tracking kilowatts becomes a fun daily mission of shaving down any energy-consuming activity, and every little bit counts. If employees walk away from their desks for even a couple of minutes, they reportedly will put computers into sleep mode rather than let the screen saver pop up.
THE LIGHT SHOW
Studies have shown that exposure to daylight makes people feel happier and sleep better. Yet in most office buildings, employees close the blinds against the sun’s glare and turn on the electric lights. If the sunlight shifts to a more comfortable level, it’s likely that no one remembers to readjust. As a result, a lot of offices have their blinds drawn 24/7. “The first thing you typically do when you go to an office in the morning is turn on the lights,” Hayes says. “Nobody does that here. I’ve had a light on near my desk”—a small seven-watt desk lamp available to all tenants—“for maybe a total of two hours since moving into the building. And that was all in one night.”
Because Seattle’s sun can flit in and out of the clouds within the span of minutes, the windows of the Bullitt Center are fitted with exterior solar shades that take their cues from a weather station on the rooftop. By tracking the angle and brightness of the sun as it shifts throughout the day, these shades can deploy to deflect direct sun and heat from the appropriate façade. Small slats in the shades adjust to angle that sunlight and bounce it off of the interior ceiling—giving workers all of the daylight, and none of the glare. “The blinds are moving and living in response to the climate throughout the day,” David says. “As a tenant, the experience is pretty cool.”
It’s accepted wisdom that a dishwasher is more efficient with your water than you are, and at home, those with a garbage disposal often skip the pre-wash in the sink and stack dishes straight inside the machine. But with a closed-loop waste-treatment system, some of those norms have to be rehashed. “At home, food waste eventually goes into the sanitary sewer,” Hayes says. “But in our building, there is no sanitary sewer. Everything goes into our greywater system.” At the Bullitt Center, tenants scrape their plates into composting bins before loading them into the dishwater in order to prevent overloading the greywater system with too many biological compostables.
Speaking of composting, there are 10 Phoenix R-200 composting units in the basement of the Bullitt Center. These are the foundation of the world’s first six-story composting toilet system. The units get about a gallon of wood chips added per week and can produce 12 cubic feet of compost every 18 months for use as fertilizer, which is commingled with other compost streams at a separate facility. The toilets use environmentally friendly foam to wash the waste away with a fraction of the water, but other than that, employees hardly notice a difference—they’re designed to masquerade as run-of-the-mill johns.
DIALOGUE : Denis Hayes
What was your vision for this project at the beginning? I wanted to build a super-green building back in the late 1970s for the Federal Solar Energy Research Institute, but the plug was pulled on that project by the federal government, so it’s been a secret dream since then.
Why the Living Building
Challenge? Ultimately, I would love to see the built environment be very much like the natural environment—covered with things that perform photosynthesis, harvesting energy from all surfaces with light falling on them. That’s the direction I want to see society move, and the Living Building Challenge is a big and important step toward that.
What’s something you really wanted to see in the building’s design? I feel pretty forcefully that where wood is appropriate, it should be used. Beyond being beautiful, helping the local economy, and helping the Forest Stewardship Council certification process, it’s also a great way to sequester carbon, it’s enormously resilient in an earthquake, and it’s part of the design aesthetic of the Pacific Northwest.