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Touring Seattle’s Bullitt Center: The greenest commercial building in the world

Charles Clark & Jacqueline Sussman  /  February 1, 2016  /  6 Min Read  /  Design

Bullitt Center 3_2

“… after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be
a functioning cog in some great machinery,
serving something beyond me.”
             –Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes, “Helplessness Blues

On a far from average Wednesday, we arrived to work at Patagonia Seattle for a morning meeting led by brand responsibility analysts, Paul Hendricks and Logan Duran, from the Ventura headquarters. Reviewing the multiple types of environmentally responsible materials in our products (e-fibers), the use of third-party auditing for environmental performance standards and our ongoing environmental campaign efforts is a valuable reminder that our company is in a higher league of environmental responsibility.

Above: The Bullitt Center in Capitol Hill, Seattle. All photos by Charles Clark and Jacqueline Sussman.

For the two of us, the day was just beginning as we were offered the opportunity to tag along with Paul and Logan on a tour of the Bullitt Center—the greenest commercial building in the world—in Seattle’s Capitol Hill Ecodistrict. Outside of the Center we were warmly welcomed by Jill Dumain, Patagonia’s Director of Environmental Strategy. She introduced us to the man leading our tour: Ron Rochon, Managing Partner at Miller Hull and principal architect of the Bullitt Center.

Standing outside of the Bullitt Center, your eye is swiftly drawn upwards to the massive solar array that extends beyond the six-story building’s roof. The 575 solar panels generate more than enough electricity to sustain the needs of the Center’s tenants, storing surplus energy from sunny summers in Seattle’s electrical grid to be used during the winter months when sunlight is lacking. After a brief summary of what we’d soon be witnessing inside, Ron led our group through the Center’s main entrance into a place unlike anything either of us had ever seen.

Bullitt Center 1_2

Solar Array_2575 solar panels generate approximately 230,000 kilowatt hours per year. The panels hang over the edge of the building like the canopy of a tree.

Assiduously designed and constructed with the imperatives of net-zero energy, net-zero water, net-zero carbon, toxic-free materials and the implementation of eco-principles such as biomimicry and biophilia, the Bullitt Center is an environmental professional’s dream work space. It is also a remarkably beautiful and profound representation of how humans can live and work in tandem with the natural environment.

Of the numerous striking features of the Bullitt Center, possibly the most awe inspiring was completely intangible. As we rose through the building by our choice of an energy-neutral elevator, or the “Irresistible Staircase,” it became apparent that while worthy of admiration on their own, the components of this building are truly working in harmony. From top to bottom this building regulates itself using a central brain. During the summer months, excess heat is drawn 400 feet underground by polyethylene tubes filled with water and glycol. It then dissipates into thermal wells that remain at 53 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. The process is naturally reversed in the winter.

Thermal energy_2Thermal images of the radiant heating tubes embedded in the concrete floors.

Bullitt Staircase_2
Miller Hull’s “Irresistible Staircase.”

The most important part of the Center is that it’s not a standalone project. The goal of everyone involved is to lay the groundwork for a future where living buildings become the rule, not the exception. One of the ways this is accomplished is by showing that the building can contribute sustainable resources to a larger system, in this case the surrounding community. One example we were all especially intrigued by was the composting toilets. No-flush toilets that don’t smell? A mid-tour break was necessary to verify this claim (despite our best attempts, they indeed remain odorless). After a two-month process that uses aerobic digestion to convert the waste into fertilizer, the liquids are taken to King County Liquid Waste facility in Carnation, Washington where they are used in a bird sanctuary and the biosolids are taken to GroCo in Kent where they are mixed with sawdust and made into fertilizer.

The Bullitt Center is participating in the Living Building Challenge, an international certification program that requires the most rigorous environmental performance standards for the human-built environment. While discussing the Living Building Challenge, a man walked through the hallway and nodded to our group. It was none other than Bullitt Foundation President, Mr. Denis Hayes—totally serendipitous. Hayes became the president of the Foundation in 1992, but he is widely recognized worldwide for his role as the principal organizer of the first Earth Day in 1970. We couldn’t help but notice that Denis was donning a Nano Puff jacket.

Water Catchment_2One of the several constructed wetlands used to filter greywater.

It seems foolish to take aim at the world of commerce and decry it as the absolute enemy of the environment. Just as there exist checks and balances in a healthy ecosystem, it is possible to find a balance that promotes environmental responsibility in for-profit business. This visit to the “greenest commercial building in the world” illustrated for us that although there are higher investment costs up front, a well-planned system can produce a far greater positive impact over time that reaches beyond singular institutions.

In certain ways, “the system” has become synonymous with something we should fight or, at the very least, be wary of. Exemplified by corporate greed, government gridlocks and the environmental costs of globalization, this sentiment does hold merit in some arenas, but not all. The Bullitt Center is a living breathing reminder that in order to achieve any sort of equilibrium between society and the natural environment we hold so dear, the components must work in tandem to mirror a balanced ecosystem. Experiencing the Bullitt Center and witnessing the passionate vision of our own Patagonia co-workers left us inspired to strive towards becoming not just a cog in the wheel but an influential, dedicated part of the system.

Charles Clark lives in Seattle and holds a Geography degree from the University of Oregon. His outdoor highlights include guiding hikes in Northern California, working on organic farms in New Zealand and currently learning how to fly fish.

Jacqueline Sussman recently moved to Seattle and works in the environmental nonprofit field researching and writing on urban ecological restoration. In addition to her environmental efforts, she most enjoys spending her free time trail running, kayaking and cooking.

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