The Greenest Commercial Building in the World

Jason Page : Thursday April 25, 12:58AM

Earth Day 2013 will be remembered as a pivotal day in the history of the United States commercial building sector as it was the grand opening of the Seattle’s Bullitt Center, the self-proclaimed “Greenest Commercial Building in the World.”

Built by the Bullitt Foundation under the leadership of its President, Earth Day founder and 2011 Hero of Sustainability Dennis Hayes, the Bullitt Center takes the concept of a “green building” to the next level. Specifically, the 50,000 square-foot Bullitt Center, located in Seattle, aims to prove that a living or self-sustaining building is possible today and, in doing so, lead the way for other buildings to follow in its footsteps.

So What Is a Living Building?

The Living Building Challenge, the built environment’s most rigorous performance standard, certifies a building as a “living building” if it meets a series of performance requirements. Most importantly, a building must prove that it is a living building by meeting these requirements over a minimum of 12 months of continuous occupancy. Designing an efficient building is not good enough; a living building must actually prove that it is meeting these requirements and does not have a negative impact on the environment.

Some specific performance requirements include:

  • Net Zero Energy – 100 percent of the a building’s energy needs must be supplied by on-site renewable energy
  • Net Zero Water – 100 percent of a building’s water needs must be supplied by water from the building’s footprint without impacting downstream eco-systems
  • Car Free Living  – The building contributes towards the creation of walkable, pedestrian-oriented communities
  • Fresh Air and Daylight – Every occupiable interior space must have operable windows that provide access to fresh air and daylight
  • Rights to Nature – A building may not block access to, nor diminish the quality of, fresh air, sunlight and natural waterways for any member of society or adjacent developments
  • Inspiring – The building must contain design features intended solely for human enjoyment

In short, a building should not have a negative impact on the world outside its own property boundary. It is not enough for a building to be efficient in its resource use, but it must focus improve its local community, inspire and educate its visitors and also weigh such non-traditional areas like social justice and people’s right to nature.

For the Bullitt Center, these performance requirements led to the following features:

  • A 14,303 square foot solar array that will generate roughly 240,000 kilowatt hours per year, as much electricity as the building is expected to use.
  • Rainwater collected on the roof, stored in an underground 56,000-gallon cistern and used throughout the building.
  • The world’s first six-story composting toilet system to minimize water usage
  • First commercial building in the United States to earn the Forest Stewardship Council’s certification for using 100 percent FSC-certified wood.
  • No on-site parking. Instead, the building has ample bike parking and showers on each floor.
  • An attractive, glass-enclosed “irresistible stairway” to encourage usage of the stairs over an elevator
  • A green roof and other native plantings, large structural timbers and a revitalized neighborhood park to help beautify the surrounding streetscape.

If it meets its goals, the Bullitt Center will be 83 percent more efficient than Seattle’s typical commercial building and be by far and away the largest building in the United States to be deemed a “living building” by the Living Building Challenge; the next largest is an eighth the size of the Bullitt Center.

Worth It?

With a project price tag of $30 million, $55 more per square foot than a typical Seattle office building, there are plenty who question business case for such an endeavor.

Time will tell, but, as with all things sustainability, taking the long term view puts these costs in a different light. Mr. Hayes expects the building to be around in 250 years. Over that period, the savings enjoyed by a net-zero energy, waste and water commercial building may make the higher initial price tag look like a prudent upfront investment.

Admittedly, the Bullitt Center is meant to be much more than an office building. It is meant to inspire others to embrace the concept of a living building and show them technologies that can make it possible, today.

As Mr. Hayes said in a recent PBS News Hour article, “It’s impossible to say that something is impossible if it exists.”

Our Common Goal

We at the Alliance Center are inspired to follow the lead of Dennis Hayes and our friends at the Bullitt Center as we embark on the next chapter of our own building.  While our budget is smaller, our goal is the same.  Specifically, we want to demonstrate what is possible for a commercial building, and specifically an existing, historic building, to achieve in the way of resource efficiency and human productivity.  We are very excited to join a growing list of exciting projects that aim to push the commercial building sector to the next level of sustainability.

Look for more details on our project soon!    In the mean time, please come down and join us for a tour on the first Friday of every month at 2pm.

For more information on the Bullitt Center, please read the following articles about the building and its recent grand opening.


Author Bio:

Jason oversees all aspects of the Alliance Center to ensure it fulfills its mission as a hub of collaboration, enabling all of its tenants and partners to be more effective. Jason also carries a dual role as the point person for all technology needs; this involves managing the Alliance Center’s shared internet, phone and printing services as well as the Alliance for Sustainable Colorado’s website, database and IT infrastructure. Jason has administered microcredit loan programs for Denver entrepreneurs, explored fair trade and international development first hand in South and Southeast Asia, and assisted his family business in caring for elderly individuals with dementia. He is a firm believer that our society must establish a deeper sense of community and accountability and looks forward to working towards expanding this view across the state. As a Colorado native, Jason loves the beauty and simplicity of the outdoors and welcomes any opportunity to get outside the city limits. He graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder with a degree in Finance/Economics, and was two courses short of an Information Systems degree.

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