Building a Better Building: Seattle's New Bullitt Center Raises the Bar for Green Commercial Buildings

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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 (bullittcenter.org), 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 netzero 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-squarefoot, 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.

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. …