April 21-27, 2014

Behold: The Greenest Office Building in the World

Seattle's Bullitt Center will generate all the energy it uses with its massive solar roof and strict requirements for tenants

By Emily Feldman
|  Tuesday, Apr 23, 2013  |  Updated 8:43 PM PDT
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Behold: The Greenest Office Building in the World

The Bullitt Center's rooftop solar power system will generate all the power used by the building. Each panel will have enough juice to power seven lights for 8 hours a day.

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A Seattle office building billed as the greenest in the world and powered entirely by a massive solar paneled roof is celebrating its grand opening Monday under the city's usual threat of cloudy skies.

If the clouds hold up, they'll provide an appropriate backdrop for the official unveiling of a project that aims not only to abide by the world’s strictest environmental standards, but also prove that anyone, anywhere, can heed its example.

"We wanted to show that you could in fact harvest enough sun beams on the roof of a six-story structure in Seattle to give all of the energy that is needed by a super-efficient building," said Denis Hayes, CEO of the Bullitt Foundation, the lead backer of the Bullitt Center. "In Seattle, most people don't think they can power their one-story houses with the sun that hits their roofs, so doing a multi-story office, I think, is an important demonstration."

Proving that sunshine can take the place of the fluorescent light bulbs that hum above the heads of most office-bound Americans, the building is also equipped with floor-to-ceiling windows that provide natural lighting to 82 percent of the 50,000-square-foot building.

For the last month, Hayes points out, the Seattle skies have been filled with clouds, and still, no one at the Bullitt Center has found the need to flick on a light switch during normal business hours.

"We've never had to turn on even task lighting inside," he said. "From 7:30 in the morning until 6:30 at night, it's perfectly well lit."

Nature also fills the building’s ventilation needs. Rather than rely on a power-draining air conditioning system, the Bullitt Center is equipped with operable windows that automatically open and close to adjust to temperature changes, both inside and outside.

But the building's smart design and technology alone are not enough to achieve its ambitious energy goals. To qualify for the Living Building Challenge, the most rigorous sustainable building certification in the world, the building must produce as much energy (and water) as it uses, among a host of other requirements.

To meet the energy goals in particular, tenants are required to stick to a strict power quota and pay overage charges if they don't. They’re also encouraged to choose the stairs over the elevator and anything over driving to work. As an incentive to consider those transportation alternatives, the Bullitt Center does not provide onsite parking for cars, though it does provide a garage for bicycles. It also  highlights the number of bus lines and Zipcars available within a half mile of the building (21 and 24, respectively).

Living Proof: Building the Bullitt Center from Brad Kahn on Vimeo.

So far, the stringent requirements have not appeared to scare tenants away. As of Friday, the building was 80 percent occupied and Hayes predicted that it would be filled by summer.

"The now-completely outdated concept of environmentally-sound buildings as a little bit granola-ish, dark, cramped and uncomfortable, is just wrong," Hayes said. "What you have here is the healthiest building in which we will have incredibly happy people surrounded by daylight."

However the experiment plays out will play out transparently so observers mulling similar projects will be able to learn from the Bullitt Center's endeavor. The first two floors of the building will be open to students, policy makers, and the plain curious, who are interested in learning more about green living and construction. The Bullitt Center will also make public a database it researched and compiled that lists suppliers of toxic-free building materials and may guide others working on similar projects.

Hayes and his team didn’t set out to be role models. Initially the Bullitt Foundation, which was located in what was previously a carriage house, simply wanted to revamp their space so they could "walk” the environmentally-conscious talk. But since the structure was historically protected, they ran into roadblocks and decided it would be more reasonable to build a new structure from scratch so they could have the flexibility to be more innovative.

"We considered doing a small [project] that just would be suitable for us, but then we decided — no. Proving that an environmental foundation could be comfortable in an environmentally goal-oriented building doesn't prove anything,” Hayes said. “We had to build something and lease it out like a commercial person would. We invested a third of our total endowment. This is not a grant that we made. This is an investment and it has to perform for us.”

As of Monday, the foundation was advertising space for just two remaining units: A 2,077-square-foot space that boasts 11-foot ceilings with operable windows, and a 7,949-square-foot suite with an outdoor terrace and showers for bike commuters in need of a rinse.

Hayes, one of the founders of Earth Day who has seen major environmental victories over the course of his four-decade career, acknowledges, but is undeterred by the obstacles to green building. There are zoning and building code challenges, as he encountered when attempting to modify the historically protected carriage house. There are appraisers who often incentivize features that leave a larger environmental footprint over those that do not.

But he's optimistic that over time, pure demand will force the laws to change, incentivize banks to give loans to green projects and transform what is now a niche experiment into the norm.

"I really genuinely believe that during my daughter’s lifetime, this sort of building is going to be commonplace,” Hayes said.

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