Beyond Sustainability

When it opens later this year, the Bullitt Center in Seattle will take the ideas of sustainability and “green” building further than they have ever gone before for office buildings.

“This is designed to be the world’s first living office building, and the most efficient commercial building in the world,” says Casey Schu­chart, a project manager with Schuchart, the general contractor.

The building’s owners and eventual occupants expect nothing less. The Bullitt Foun­dation, a nonprofit group focused on environmental issues, is led by CEO and President Denis Hayes, an author and activist best known for coordinating the first Earth Day observation in 1970.

“Our foundation’s mission is to encourage sustainable development throughout the Pacific Northwest,” Hayes said during an interview with Construction Today. “We’re now in an era where energy will be more scarce and water will be a less predictable resource, and there is a need to manage our forests with more care. We set out to create this building with an aspiration to do everything right.”

In addition to serving as the Bullitt Foundation’s headquarters, the $30 million building also will house the Center for Energy and Urban Ecology, a collaboration of several nonprofit agencies including the University of Washington’s College of Built Environments and the Cascadia Green Building Council, as well as four floors of commercial tenants. Center features will include an open resource library, classrooms, interactive exhibition space and a research laboratory.

Construction on the Bullitt Center started in August 2011 and will conclude in November 2012. The building is designed to have a 250-year life span.

The Bullitt Center is composed of a concrete and steel frame foundation with a heavy timber superstructure. Wood used in the building is sourced locally and certified to standards set by the Forest Stewardship Council. Other building exterior elements include a triple-glazed curtain wall system.

Model of Self-Sufficiency

The 52,000-square-foot, six-story building is built to meet the goals of the Living Building Challenge, an initiative of the International Living Building Institute that addresses seven performance areas – site, water, energy, health, materials, equity and beauty.

The challenge has more stringent performance requirements compared to the LEED certification program administered by the U.S. Green Building Council in that it requires buildings to meet tough performance standards, including “net zero” energy and water, Schuchart says.

To achieve this, the building will feature a photovoltaic array that, at 14,000 square feet, is larger than the footprint of the building itself. The roof below the array will capture rainwater that will be stored in a large, below-grade cistern. Grey water will be treated and filtered onsite, while wastewater will undergo an on-site treatment process that will ultimately produce compost.

While Hayes acknowledges that portions of the building such as the solar array and windows will be significantly more expensive than traditional office buildings in Seattle, the foundation is confident that the methods it is pioneering with the center will become more accepted and less costly with time.

“The Bullitt Center is being designed to still make sense 250 years from now,” he adds. “The first Prius cost vastly more to produce than the 10,000th Prius, but before you build the 10,000th of anything, you must build the first.”

The Bullitt Foundation chose to adopt Living Building Challenge standards because of their emphasis on building performance. “We wanted to set the highest possible bar for ourselves and be judged not on the basis of our aspirations but on the basis of our success,” Hayes says. “The foundation has long urged builders, appraisers and architects to go further than they’ve ever been in terms of sustainability, and it was time for us to put up or shut up. This was the toughest set of challenges we had seen in the building community.”

While sustainability is first and foremost, the Bullitt Center is also designed to be aesthetically pleasing and to fit in well with its urban environment in downtown Seattle. “The Living Building Challenge recognizes that while buildings can perform well and be free of hazardous chemicals, they should also be beautiful,” Schuchart says.

Key design features include a glass staircase in the main entry that is meant to draw visitors into the building. “This building is visually striking while being literally emblematic of the idea that form should follow function,” Hayes says. “The form is driven by an ecologically-based desire for super efficiency.”

Staying Out of the ‘Red’

One major element of the Living Building Challenge is the “red list,” a list of hazardous materials commonly found in buildings, such as PVC, cadmium, mercury and formaldehyde. One alternative material used on the project is HDPE plastic in place of PVC piping.

All materials used on the project underwent an extensive vetting before they were used, and the team regularly engaged the International Living Building Institute to confirm that products complied with the mandate. Both the institute and Bullitt Center are compiling a database of conforming products that can be drawn upon for future use by other contractors and designers. 

“The development team created a process for vetting materials that didn’t exist before, as the Living Building Challenge requirements are still very new,” Schuchart notes. “We’re working to educate the industry on these imperatives to develop solutions that can be used moving forward.”

The building itself will also serve as an educational tool. The Center for Energy and Urban Ecology, housed on the Bullitt Center’s ground floor, will feature a number of displays showing the energy consumed and produced by the building. Hayes and officials from Point 32, the project developer, are hosting workshops and seminars with architects, financial institutions, appraisers and others explaining the building’s inner workings, he notes.

In addition to serving as the project manager, Schuchart is also taking on an ambassadorial role for the foundation.

“This is an incredible learning opportunity for everyone involved,” he says. “It’s exciting to be a part of a project that could be a model of sustainable building worldwide.”

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