9 to 5 Just Got a Whole Lot Cooler: Seattle Unveils the World’s Greenest Office Building

The specs for this six-story structure could inspire other designers and herald a return to regionally appropriate architecture.
A rendering of the Bullitt Center in Seattle. (Miller Hull Partnership)
Jan 22, 2013
A former Gourmet staffer, Lawrence enjoys writing about design, food, travel, and lots of other stuff.

I’m always skeptical when I hear the phrase “in the world” attached to any description. But it really is unmistakably accurate to say that the Bullitt Center, opening this month in Seattle, will be the greenest office building in the world.

The 50,000-square-foot building will generate all of its energy using solar panels, and all of its water will be provided by harvested rainwater. There will be indoor composting toilets, a system of geothermal wells for heating, and the building’s wood-framed structure is made out of Forest Stewardship Council certified wood.

“Now that fossil fuels face serious constraints, it makes sense to turn back to ecology for lessons on how to best organize our cities and industries,” Bullitt Foundation President Denis Hayes told TakePart. “We started asking what a building might look like if we viewed it as an organism with a brain, a nervous system, a respiratory system, a digestive system, etc., and that provided for its own needs without harming its neighbors.”

Hayes, who was the National Coordinator of the first Earth Day when he was only 25 years old, added that, “Thinking that such a building would be well-adapted to the world of the future, we looked through the copious materials available of green design but couldn’t find a single truly sustainable building of urban commercial scale. Some were great on energy, others on water, others on toxics or wood. But none tried to do it all.”

What Hayes and his team did find, however, was the Living Building Challenge (developed by a grantee of the Bullitt Foundation) that Hayes said had a set of design criteria that sought the same goals as he did. “So we decided to design and build the first Living Building at scale—50,000 square feet. It turns out that 95 percent of office buildings, and more than half of office square footage, in the U.S. is in buildings that size or smaller.”

Which is not to say the architects didn’t face any challenges.

A lot of what they wanted to do was illegal at the time, but the forward-thinking City of Seattle created a Living Building Pilot Program that Hayes said freed them from prescriptive codes as long as they could demonstrate that their building would perform better than a building "built to code."  

Hayes noted another hurdle explaining that, “The only way to harvest large amounts of energy onsite inside a city is with solar photovoltaics. Seattle is probably the worst city in America for PV because we have little sun and conventional electricity is very cheap. So we designed a solar canopy that extends out beyond the walls of the building like a mortar board and paid a premium for our power.”

“Comparatively easy, but difficult in real terms, was finding enough Forest Stewardship Council certified wood of the correct species to meet 100 percent of our wood needs,” said Hayes. “For the largest beams, we needed to use FSC certified glulams [a type of glued laminated timber] made with non-toxic glues.”

“These things, and others, were difficult for the first building. But we are making all our research available for free to anyone interested, and the legal precedents have now been set, so future buildings will be much easier—and we hope this approach to buildings will soon become commonplace.”

He added that, "We intentionally set a very high bar—a building that integrated every sustainable feature we could think of. We realize that not every developer is going to immediately start building only 'living buildings.' But many will start incorporating lots of our features—especially those that provide tangible benefits to clients."

In the long run, Hayes has said that one of his objectives was to herald the beginning of a return to regionally appropriate architecture. He expanded on this saying that, "If I showed you photographs of office buildings in Phoenix, Minneapolis, and Atlanta from a hundred years ago, you would immediately know where the buildings were located. Today, they all look alike. One of them uses energy for cooling, another for heating, and the third for dehumidifying."

“As we move toward sustainable design, some of that old regional wisdom will resurface to increase comfort and saved energy. I would expect to see a new regional vernacular arise, offering great opportunities for architects to produce more interesting, diverse designs, informed by thermodynamics and constructed of innovative modern materials.”

Do you think the Bullitt Center has earned its moniker as the greenest office building in the world? Tell us in the COMMENTS below.

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