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The Bullitt Center and the Future of Sustainable Buildings

The Bullitt Center, designed by the Miller Hull Partnership. Drawing © Douglas Wittnebel

Have you heard about the Living Building Challenge? To quote the description on its website, the LBC is “the built environment’s most rigorous and ambitious performance standard.” I’d say that’s a fairly accurate description of the initiative.

My first introduction to the LBC took place in February 2012 during a kickoff meeting for Gensler’s sustainability design group. Jason McLennan, CEO of the Cascadia Green Building Council, spoke about the guiding principles of the LBC, the projects under way, the seven petals of the LBC, and the Bullitt Center in Seattle, designed by the Miller Hull Partnership, one of the LBC’s most notable projects.

Inspired by the conceptual approach, which prioritized beauty in addition to functionality, I drew up a diagram/cartoon that was circulated through our sustainability design group.

The seven petals of the LBC. Drawing © Douglas Wittnebel

Then in the late summer of 2012, our Northwest design directors group took a tour of the Bullitt Center during its construction. We marveled at the use of timber frame, typical of Seattle before the 1920s. We also admired the below-grade spaces for the composting toilets—the Bullitt Center is one of the first multi-story buildings in the world to use composting toilets. Floor-to-floor heights were generous, and the building employed wonderful wood frames with ganged 2x6s on the ends.

The Bullitt Center will be the first building in the world to use composting toilets. Drawing © Douglas Wittnebel

When our sustainability design group toured the building again on April 26, 2013, it was open and the first tenants had moved in. We were treated to an operating building with breathing window walls, monitored energy systems, and even some occupied tenant floors.

There are several unique features in the project, but the signature element is the cantilevered roof canopy, which incorporates photovoltaic (PV) panels. The expanse of the panels allows for capture and retention of solar energy, even in the cloudy setting of Seattle. The roof also captures rainwater for seasonal storage in a cistern.

The owner demanded an external, glass-enclosed staircase with great views to lure tenants away from the elevator, because taking the stairs saves electricity while promoting health through exercise.

A cross section of the floorboards used at the Bullitt Center. Note the laminated beam support, the 2x6s laminated together for the deck, and the 4” topping slab of concrete with embedded pipes for hot water circulation. Drawing © Douglas Wittnebel

At $265 per square foot, the $30 million facility is expensive, but it is also a first. And it’s important to note that trendsetting buildings always cost more than the subsequent efforts.

I did marvel at the details and the overall qualities of light and air within the tenant spaces and the grand staircase. But during my final tour I focused on the water petal of the LBC and the complex issues with fresh water storage. Water conservation is of dire importance to future generations of building in areas with limited liquid resources.

Denis Hayes, who coordinated the first Earth Day and is now the president of the Bullitt Foundation, has said the Bullitt Center will be “the first office building in the United States to capture rainwater, store it and purify it, and then use it for potable drinking water.” The building will use rainwater in coffeemakers, dishwashers, showers, and other functions. It will filter the resulting gray water and pump it into rain gardens at the front of the building, which greet visitors with an array of lush vegetation. And here’s the truly amazing part: The building will make no use of the Seattle public water supply.

The other water feature that resembles liquid legs of the building are the 26 geothermal wells that extend 400 feet into the ground, where the temperature is a constant 55°F. Circulated water will be used to help supply heat to the building in the colder months of the year.

The Bullitt Center will capture rainwater, store it, purify it, and use it for potable drinking water. Drawing © Douglas Wittnebel

So where is this going? Well, for starters, the Bullitt Center will serve as an educational tool for designers and architects and for businesses that want to reduce utility costs and boost conservation efforts. It’s more than appropriate that the Center for Energy and Urban Ecology will occupy the Bullitt Center’s ground floor and will feature displays showing real-time updates of energy both consumed and produced by the building.

Hayes put it best when he said, “This is an incredible learning opportunity for everyone involved. It’s exciting to be part of a project that could be a model of sustainable buildings worldwide.”

He’s right. Net-zero buildings are sprouting up like mushrooms in urban centers across the world. There’s a growing desire for tunable building systems that mitigate the consumption of resources and combat climate change.

So the question facing Gensler is: Can we rise up and meet the challenges from net-zero, LBC, and AIA 2030?

Virginia Pettit
Douglas Wittnebel is a Principal and Design Director for Gensler’s San Ramon office. With over 29 years of design and management experience, his work is characterized by his creativity, expressive sketches and ability to translate ideas into functional design. Contact him at douglas_wittnebel@gensler.com.

Reader Comments (8)

Beyond excellent. I'm inspired by the design, the clarity and the graphics. Marc Schiler's Building Science Course at USC talked about composting toilets and capturing geothermal heat, its taken 13+ years for me to finally see a project fully realize that idea. Nice work and thanks for sharing.
05.22.2013 | Unregistered CommenterChris M.
Great little article and I couldn't agree with you more.

Washington and Oregon are making great strides and pushing the envelope with the LBC and there is a lot we should learn from them. Next time you visit Seattle check out the Bertschi Living Building Science Wing.

05.23.2013 | Unregistered CommenterRyan Sur
Thank you for sharing the outstanding project vision and experience. I am happy to see the major focus on water as well as energy as there is no more time left on ignoring the water conservation just because its cost is yet not as high as it could be to justify the right measures that you have described.

Best Regards,
05.28.2013 | Unregistered CommenterMoh Heidari
Thanks for this in-depth look - great sketches, too. While reading, I was drawing comparisons to Atlanta's Southface Eco Office which I recently had the opportunity to tour. Many of their sustainable features were donated. Glad that these technologies are being pioneered!
05.29.2013 | Unregistered CommenterC. Price
thanks Doug, great stuff. I work with high energy use buildings and still believe in net zero. Huge industry changes need to occur to support the r+d and pilot facilities i am accustomed to seeing. The culture of pharmaceutical engineering is slow to change but embraces "greenwash". Trying to change this level of commitment needs strong lifecycle cost analysis that influences board members of different generations.
05.30.2013 | Unregistered Commenterscott williams
These are beautiful illustrations of this building. However, it should also be mentioned that Seattle has a pilot code approval program for 12 LBC projects. See here: http://clerk.ci.seattle.wa.us/~scripts/nph-brs.exe?d=CODE&s1=23.40.060.snum.&Sect5=CODE1&Sect6=HITOFF&l=20&p=1&u=/~public/code1.htm&r=1&f=G
A building like this, off the grid -- has to be granted multiple complicated code exceptions in order to be built in most urban areas. And, a project like this cannot be built in the shoreline management area of the city because of concerns about waste water. These projects are not just design challenges, but also legislative challenges that can spark conversations about the value of municipal services, not unlike the conversations regarding public versus private schools.
06.1.2013 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Whitacre
Thanks so much for your article, Douglas, and all the great comments it inspired. I recently saw a presentation at the Living Future conference (the annual gathering about the Living Building Challenge) and heard a speaker say that he never asks his clients whether they want "green design" because its the only way to design - anything else would be irresponsible. The Bullitt Center sets the bar exceedingly high, but also demonstrates that the principles it has pursued are physically attainable (just think - we didn't know that before!). Wouldn't it be nice to think of the Bullitt Center as the new status quo!
06.11.2013 | Unregistered CommenterOphelia Wilkins
Thank you for sharing this spectacular design, and of course the achievement of your objectives. All of the comments are prudent, particularly wrt to code exceptions, legislative issues, costs, etc., however, I do believe it is a given that Developers worldwide must move in this direct, particularly wrt to water, energy and waste. Would be great to view this building, and similar, first hand!
02.14.2014 | Unregistered CommenterAngeline Devoti

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