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World's 'greenest' office building opens in Seattle

April 22, 2013 at 5:00 AM ET

The Bullitt Foundation, whose mission is to safeguard the environment, spent $18.5 million to construct this uniquely sustainable office building.

It’s a beautiful building, sleek and stylish with big glass windows and a funky roof made from solar panels that hangs way beyond the exterior walls. This energy-efficient building doesn’t scream that it’s green. And that’s by design.

“It’s absolutely amazing,” said Robert Pena, an associate professor of architecture at the University of Washington who was part of the design team. “There isn’t a building like this anywhere else.”

The six-story, 50,000-square-foot Bullitt Center shows what can be done when you dream big and don’t back down. This unique structure gets its power from the sun, its water from the rain and composts all of the waste from its toilets.

“This is not one more cookie-cutter building that does things the way everybody else does it,” said Denis Hayes, president of the Bullitt Foundation. “This is a stretch building. We’re doing things that haven’t been done and certainly haven’t been in combination with each other before.”

The design team was told to create a structure that would last 250 years. That meant figuring out what would wear out and how it could be easily replaced. So the exterior of the building is made in a way that it can come off at some point.

The Bullitt Foundation, whose mission is to safeguard the environment, spent $18.5 million to construct this uniquely sustainable office building.

They put it on a hilltop in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood overlooking the downtown business corridor, with views of the Space Needle and the snow-capped Olympic Mountains. The location was critical because the building can never be shaded by other structures – sunlight has to hit the 575 solar panels on the roof.

While the building is designed to be “net-zero” for energy use, it’s still connected to the city’s power grid. Some days it will buy electricity; some days it will sell it. If all goes as planned, they will cancel each other out at the end of each year.

“Showing that it can be done with solar in cloudy Seattle proves that it can be done almost anywhere in the country,” said Paul Schwer, president of PAE, the lead engineering firm on this project.

To reduce the demand on sun power, the building was designed to be 80 percent more energy efficient than the typical new building in the Seattle area.

“We didn’t develop any new technologies for this,” Schwer said. “We just combined existing technologies in a very, very, very efficient way.”

The building’s computer system constantly monitors the weather conditions and decides if the 10-foot by 4-foot windows should be opened slightly to let cool air in or hot air out. The building also knows where the sun is and automatically adjusts the over-sized window shades – attached to the outside of the building – to reduce glare and bounce as much light as possible to the ceiling.  Sunlight reduces the need for artificial light.

Electricity usage is metered down to the individual socket.  If something is drawing more power than normal, the system will sense it and alert the building manager. Every tenant has an energy budget that’s based on the space and number of people in the office. If they meet that goal, the power is free.

The building is almost fully leased. The rent is market rate for new Class A office space: $26 to $28 per square foot.

Intentional Futures, a company that specializes in future design and engineering, will move into the fifth floor next month. 

CEO Ian Sands likes the design and is excited about taking part in this experiment.  

“It was a good fit for us,” he said. “This is clearly the path forward.”

Wood, wood everywhere

You can’t miss all the wood in this building. It’s everywhere.

The first thing you see when you walk into the building is the six-story wooden staircase, referred to as the “irresistible stairway.” By putting it upfront, rather than hiding it inside the building, tenants and visitors are encouraged to get some exercise. Yes, there is also an elevator to comply with ADA rules.

The floors are made from beams of Douglas fir lined up on edge. Wood beams, which are more environmentally friendly than concrete or steel because they require less energy to make, support the upper four floors.

A heavy timber building hasn’t been built in Seattle for more than 50 years. Back then, they used old growth timber. These wooden beams are made from locally grown wood from responsibly harvested forests.

Other cool features

Most landlords don’t showcase their bathrooms, but the no-flush compost toilets are another special feature of the Bullitt Center. These are high-end units, like you’d find on a luxury yacht, which use mostly foam and just a cup of water to get the job done.

“You get used to it. It’s not really all that different,” said spokesman Brad Kahn, who led a private tour of the building last week.

Kahn made sure to emphasize that there were no “nasty smells” and that all the waste went down to giant compost bins in the basement instead of into the sewer system.

Challenges everywhere

Nothing comes easily with a project this radical. 

For example, the Bullitt Center is designed to harvest rain collected on the roof. That water is stored in a 56,000 gallon cistern under the building. It will be filtered and purified and used as drinking water, if the state health department approves.

A variety of rules and regulations had to be changed in order to allow this experiment in construction to move forward. The foundation leadership says they could not have succeeded without the cooperation of the Seattle mayor and city council.

Hayes said the biggest challenge turned out to be the incredibly aggressive goal of constructing a building that had virtually no toxins in it.

That’s why the building contains no PVC pipes, brass plumbing fixtures (which contain lead) nor traditional composite board made with formaldehyde.

An expert spent two years checking out the building materials to ensure they didn’t harm the environment, the people inside the building or the workers who made them.

A classroom for the future

The Bullitt Foundation estimates it cost about 20 percent more to create this one-of-a-kind building. Despite the extra cost, other similar projects are already on the drawing board.

Experts at the University of Washington Integrated Design Lab believe this is crucial to solving the climate crisis. Three-quarters of the electricity produced in America is used to power buildings.

“We’ve got to make energy conservation as easy as falling off a log, and this building will makes it easy for people who work here to do the right thing,” said Pena, the university professor.

The Bullitt Foundation wants to share what it’s learned, so it will give guided tours several times a day. Many of the building's unique features are behind glass so visitors can see them. Tours will start once all the interior work is completed in a few months.

If you plan to come, you might want to take a bus or ride your bike. The greenest office building in the world doesn’t have a parking garage for cars, just a small space for bicycles.

Herb Weisbaum is The ConsumerMan. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter or visitThe ConsumerMan website. 

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