The Most Eco-Friendly Building In The World

The chief innovation behind this eco-friendly building design is the unique way the ideas are combined in one place at the same time.

By Judith Stapleton

Right at the crossroads of Capital Hill and the Central District neighbourhoods of Seattle, Washington, the Bullitt Centre was designed to be the greenest, most eco-friendly building in the world, and in celebration of this achievement it opened officially on Earth Day, April 22, 2013.

While the Bullitt includes many innovations, in reality every feature of the building is now used elsewhere in the world, as part of the toolkit of a twenty-first century architectural practice. Building design must now be informed by the harsh realities of global warming—particularly water management.

Well-known environmental advocate, coordinator of the first Earth Day, and the brain-behind-the-project, Denis Hayes said that the Bullitt Centre did not invent sustainable architecture; rather, the “chief innovation is that we brought all these ideas together in one place at the same time” – net zero energy and water, composting toilets, toxic-free building materials, FSC wood, and other conscientious ingredients.

It has been certified a “Living Building” by the International Living Future Institute, and by all measures, it has lived up to its name.

The project was built by one of the city’s many non-profit organizations, the Bullitt Foundation, which is dedicated to urban ecology, and now occupies half of one floor in this six storey commercial centre. The rest of the tenants include the University of Washington, Hammer & Hand, Sonos, Intentional Futures, and PAE Consulting Engineers. Tours of the building are conducted by PhD students in  UW’s Centre for Integrated Design Discovery Commons. More information can be found here.

The Bullitt was designed to last 250 years, and to produce its own energy. Even in this rainforest region of Cascadia, and using only solar panels on the roof, in 2016 the building produced 30 percent more energy than it consumed. Consequently, it is in fact one of the largest “net positive” energy buildings in the world.

The roof array is composed of 575 solar panels, and these, as well as energy conservation measures in the building’s infrastructure, reduce overall consumption to about 15% of that used by comparable commercial buildings in this region. In Seattle, the average commercial building has an energy intensity use (EIU) of 90 or more, whereas the Bullitt’s energy use is 12.

Year-round efficiency is achieved because sunshine contributions to the electricity grid overwhelm cloudy day withdrawals, leaving an annual net positive energy.

Water management is impressively efficient, with rainwater converted to potable water onsite, and a composting toilet system—the only 6 storey system of its kind in the world.

Twenty-six geothermal wells extend 400 feet into the ground beneath the Centre, and this temperature consistency produces water at 13 degrees C. The wells heat the building in winter and cool it in the hot summer months.

To achieve such a high level of ecological performance, and to be located at the cutting edge of green construction, many innovations were required at the legal, technical, political, and social level. Bank backing was hard to enlist in the beginning, since the long term of 250 years lifespan of the structure was nothing like the usual 40 year structural term of all other local urban commercial buildings.

The UV light filtration system and the 52,000 gallon rainwater collection systems met challenges with public health regulations, which demanded that water be chlorinated—the usual purification process that is cheaper than ozonization. Ceramic filters have been instrumental in satisfying these standards.

Most commercial construction materials contain over 360 toxins, and one by one, the Bullitt has dealt with suppliers to eliminate these chemicals. The sealant supplier, for example, agreed to remove phthalates from their product. All of the building’s lumber meets certified standards set by the Forest Stewardship Council.

A real-time dashboard tracks energy use, and keeps the public informed about the efficiencies of the city’s model building. Transparency is literally a constant feedback to the people of Seattle, and points the way for building projects that push the envelope of old-school practices, back-room development deals, and arcane municipal codes.

Without the concerted support of urbanites everywhere, wholly green buildings will not win out over the well-worn route of standards that were set in stone a century or more ago. The value of complete transparency in politics and in planning is that everyone wants to survive the global threats of extreme weather and unplanned disasters. An informed public makes smarter decisions. Jared Diamond’s famous book, Collapse, makes the case that the single factor in the collapse of every civilization is that the “rich are sheltered from the consequences of their decisions.”

The Bullitt Centre invites the world to come and see green for itself—but don’t come by car. There isn’t even a parking lot at the greenest building in the world. But there are plenty of racks for bikes.

Publisher’s Note: Judith Stapleton is a writer in the fields of science and medicine.