The Bullitt Center is a six-story, 50,000 square-foot building that is utilizing never-before-seen technology to be the most sustainable building ever built.

That tech includes 100% onsite energy use from solar panels, all water provided by harvested rainwater, natural lighting, indoor composting toilets, a system of geothermal wells for heating, and a wood-framed structure.

"If you can do [solar power] for a six-story building in Seattle, that sends a powerful message to Santa Fe and Los Angeles."

Bullitt’s composting toilets come with air compressors, a soap solution, and water. Once a toilet has been used, waste migrates through the building and down into one of its 10 composters located in the basement. The waste decomposes with help from wood shavings and water.

The Bullitt Center is so out there that the Seattle city council had to pass a special Living Building Ordinance just so that it could stray from the city’s prescriptive design standards.

2013-01-11

Co.Exist

The Greenest Office Building In The World Is About To Open In Seattle

The Bullitt Center is made from totally clean materials, has composting toilets, and catches enough rainwater to survive a 100-day drought. And it’s 100% solar-powered, in a city not known for its sunny days.

Seattle’s Bullitt Center is being heralded as the greenest, most energy-efficient commercial office building in the world. It’s not that the six-story, 50,000-square-foot building is utilizing never-before-seen technology. But it’s combining a lot of different existing technologies and methods to create a structure that’s a showpiece for green design--and a model for others to follow.

A project of the Bullitt Foundation, a Seattle-based sustainability advocacy group, the Bullitt Center has an incredibly ambitious goal. From the website:

The goal of the Bullitt Center is to change the way buildings are designed, built and operated to improve long-term environmental performance and promote broader implementation of energy efficiency, renewable energy and other green building technologies in the Northwest.

Credit: Miller Hull Partnership

"The most unique feature of the Bullitt Center is that it’s trying to do everything simultaneously," says Bullitt Foundation President Denis Hayes. "Everything" includes 100% onsite energy use from solar panels, all water provided by harvested rainwater, natural lighting, indoor composting toilets, a system of geothermal wells for heating, and a wood-framed structure (made out of FSC-certified wood). These are all positive things for the Bullitt Center and its future inhabitants--they may even meet the goals of the ultra-tough Living Building Challenge--but they could also change the way buildings are designed elsewhere.

Think about the Bullitt Center’s location. When I spoke to Hayes, he told me that it was 42 degrees in Seattle--cloudy, of course--and it had been raining hard for the last four days. He notes that most people would laugh at the notion of a building in the city getting all of its energy from solar power. "If you were to choose the single location in the United States where solar makes the least sense, it’s arguably Seattle," he admits. "Because though you have less sun in Alaska, you have really expensive electricity. In Seattle we have a combination of very little sunlight and really cheap electricity."

That won’t necessarily be the case for long; Seattle’s cheap and clean power comes from its dams built in the 1930s, but dirtier sources will likely start coming online as electricity needs grow. And if the environmental impacts of coal and other dirty energy sources make them politically unattractive (still waiting on that one to happen), building designers might opt for solar. Says Hayes: "If you can do it for a six-story building in Seattle, that sends a powerful message to Santa Fe and Los Angeles."

Credit: Miller Hull Partnership

Solar installations don’t usually face big legislative hurdles. But rainwater harvesting is a little more difficult. Hayes believes that the Bullitt Center, which was designed by the Miller Hull Partnership, is first conventional office building in the U.S. to get all of its water from rain--specifically, from a cistern in the basement that can hold 56,000 gallons of water. Tenants are expected to use about 500 gallons of water per day, so the cistern should theoretically be able to keep the building hydrated during a 100-day drought (not that that’s likely to happen in Seattle anytime soon).

Rainwater harvesting was actually illegal in Washington state--as it is in many places in the Western U.S.--up until a couple years ago. "You didn’t have the right to build a dam much less a cistern to save [water]," explains Hayes. "There was this weird moment in time where it was against the law to use rainwater on your roof but the government of Seattle would give you rain barrels for free to capture water."

Rainwater capturing isn’t flat-out illegal anymore, but Bullitt still had to face some hurdles. "You can do a lot of things in your own house, but we had to set up an independent water district. The city of Seattle is a water district," laughs Hayes. Bullitt implemented a strict water treatment system that filters bacteria, viruses, and ultraviolet radiation before chlorinating the water in pipes (required by federal regulations). When water reaches the tap, activated charcoal filters in the faucets clean out chlorine--necessary since chlorine is a red-listed substance. The process is a little much for most building designers and architects to deal with at the moment, but as droughts around the country increase in the coming years, it’s not impossible that rainwater capturing could become required by law. If that happens, everyone will look at the Bullitt Center as an example.

Some of the Bullitt Center’s features have made it easier for others to follow in their footsteps. The Bullitt Foundation took on the challenging goal of constructing a building without using any red-listed materials--materials deemed harmful by the Living Building Challenge. The building materials industry is notoriously opaque, so Bullitt often had to call companies directly to ensure that their products didn’t contain, say, pthalates or polyvinyl chloride (PVC)." In the end, we were making some acts of faith that people are not lying," says Hayes. "We did the very best job that we could, and we are reasonably confident that it’s the very best job anyone has done today."

Photo by John Stamets

Bullitt even convinced Prosoco, a company that makes water sealants that are sprayed on the outside of buildings, to create a new formulation of its product that doesn’t contain pthalates--or cost any more than the old version. Sometimes, it seems, all you have to do is ask. In order to make it easier for other buildings to follow suit, Bullitt plans to publish its findings online.

The foundation also made it easier for other buildings on the West Coast to get high-performing windows from Schueco, a German company. "We got the manufacturer to make windows with wonderful performance characteristics, and a local company got an exclusive license to make them for the West Coast," says Hayes. Now that manufacturer has multiple orders for the windows in the region.

Other buildings might be open to using Schueco windows and banning red-listed materials, but overcoming society’s squeamishness towards composting toilets will prove more difficult. Bullitt’s composting toilets come with air compressors, a soap solution, and water. Once a toilet has been used, waste migrates through the building and down into one of its 10 composters located in the basement. The waste decomposes with help from wood shavings and water. Tenants never have to smell the aftermath-- at least, no more than usual--of their coworkers’ bathroom trips.

"We try to put a mark that’s way out there that we don’t expect others to immediately replicate. The things I think we can get people to replicate provide meaningful, tangible benefits to tenants," says Hayes.

The Bullitt Center is so out there that the Seattle city council had to pass a special Living Building Ordinance just so that it could stray from the city’s prescriptive design standards. Now up to 12 buildings competing in the Living Building Challenge will be allowed to skirt building requirements over the next three years in the name of dramatically exceeding performance standards.

Hayes stresses that what worked for Bullitt won’t work for every building. A skyscraper couldn’t have a wood frame, for example (see PNC’s headquarters for an example of an ultra-green skyscraper). And what’s appropriate for Seattle isn’t necessarily appropriate for other parts of the world. "One of our objectives from the start was to herald the beginning of a return to regionally appropriate architecture," says Hayes.

Tenants will begin moving into the Bullitt Center in January 2013.

Miller Hull Partnership

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17 Comments

  • rodd

    I find the project very interest, and not every development in society is the be all and end all that delivers a return. It is the nature of progress that many steps lose money yet provide an unquantifable value to those who reflect upon those steps before heading on to develop the next.

    One criticism on the hype however, trumpeting that all the building's water requirements come from rainwater is not that exciting ...well not when the building is in Seattle, somewhere in Arizona or the Sahara yes, but not Seattle.

  • Fell Swoop

    Our office is about a mile from the Bullitt Center. Its exciting to see a net zero building being built in our backyard. Can't wait to check it out once it's finished. 

  • Cantilever

    Please tell us how much all of this perfection cost? And prove it. For some reason, a long list of sustainable features makes normally astute people salivate and abandon reasonable skepticism. The author will have to revisit the building in a year or two and let us know if it's performing as promised. Right now it's all potential and no reality. In the meantime, how much did all this cost? How much more than a LEED-certified building? Do not include the theoretical savings-over-time, because they are not real numbers. Thank you.

  • Michael Schimaneck

    How does that compare to other buildings of comparable size, and what is the expected ROI from these improvements?

  • Ariel Schwartz

    The cost is approximately $30 million according to Bullitt. Not sure exactly how you'd like me to prove that.

  • Matkones

    ...not everything that shines is gold! agreen building is responsive to the different orientations ,so that its elevations are different,not like those in this building!money is also a resource and making expensive buildings(as this one,if i'm not mistaken) to get LEED platinum is not GREEN!!!sorry...

  • Amber King

    This is one way of saving Mother Earth. I hope more and more businesses invest in these kinds of building. Not only are they saving earth but saving their pockets as well.

  • N Lashmit

    Wonderful advancement in living and working. Hopefully it will be cleaned in a green way, have a fragrance free policy/environment and avoid VOC producing ways of work.

  • Rob Goddard

    That's a great way for a city to attract positive attention and encourage visitors who will love to see such environments in action.

  • Dannen

    I hope more builders, develpoers and cities/counties/states will start incorporating some of these features and more buyers will step up to the plate to support those who are willing to be innovative.

  • Brett

    I couldn't agree more. A large part of the problem is that it can be difficult to convince a client that their investment creates value. The developers of this project could have very easily built a generic $200/square foot office building, but instead chose to invest $575/square foot...

  • Brett

    How about you give credit where credit is due? How sad, when a design-oriented website neglects to mention the name of the architecture firm responsible for this project. And no, two photo credits do not count as a mention.

  • Agreenguy

    Miller Hull is sited as stated in an earlier reply, but this type of building requires an integrative approach to design.  Long gone should be the days when only the Architect is mentioned.  Please understand that this amazing effort would not have been possible without the engineers (civil, mechanical, electrical,lighting, landscape, etc etc), contractors, developers, and owner working in concert from the earliest days.

  • Origin Nishi

     It looks like they give credit, paragraph 6 sentence 3:

    Hayes believes that the Bullitt Center, which was designed by the
    Miller Hull Partnership, is the first conventional office building in
    the U.S. to get all of its water from rain--specifically, from a cistern
    in the basement that can hold 56,000 gallons of water.

  • Michael P. Owens

    Ariel- Great job explaining this truly innovative building. I would suggest you check out Michael Green and his claim that we CAN build skyscrapers out of wood. He was just announced yesterday as a featured speaker at TED 2013. You can view an abbreviated talk he gave here:
    http://talentsearch.ted.com/vi...