Going well beyond green

Bryn Nelson / New York Times News Service /

Published Apr 7, 2013 at 05:00AM

SEATTLE — When an office building here that bills itself as the world’s greenest officially opens later this month, it will present itself as a “living building zoo,” with docents leading tours and smartphone-wielding tourists able to scan bar codes to learn about the artfully exposed mechanical and electrical systems.

Tenants have already begun moving into the six-story Bullitt Center, in advance of its grand opening on Earth Day, April 22. With the final touches nearly complete on the 50,000-square-foot office building, its occupants are about to embark upon an unparalleled — and very public — experiment in sustainability.

Once settled in, they will be guinea pigs in a $30 million living laboratory distinguished by its composting toilets, strict energy and water budgets and a conspicuous lack of on-site parking. To earn its environmental bragging rights, the Bullitt Center must complete a rigorous one-year certification process called the Living Building Challenge, which requires both water and energy self-sufficiency, among a list of 20 demands.

Provided that the building clears a few remaining regulatory hurdles, all its water will be supplied by rainwater collected in a 56,000-gallon cistern before being filtered and disinfected.

A rooftop array of photovoltaic panels, extending beyond the building like the brim of a graduation mortarboard, will produce an estimated 230,000 kilowatt-hours a year, hopefully just enough to break even for a building that is 83 percent more efficient than the city’s typical commercial site.

A model for others

The project’s backers, led by the environmentally minded Bullitt Foundation, hope to demonstrate that a carbon-neutral office space can be commercially viable and aesthetically stunning without saddling its occupants with onerous demands. And they are determined to make their strategy and performance so transparent that it can be easily copied.

The Bullitt Center, in fact, will be one of the planet’s most closely monitored commercial buildings, allowing managers to single out energy hogs down to the level of individual plugs, said Robert Pena, an associate professor of architecture in the Integrated Design Lab at the University of Washington.

If the building is still the highest-performing of its kind 10 years from now, said Denis Hayes, president and chief executive of the Bullitt Foundation, the experiment will have failed.

The Living Building Challenge’s imperatives go far beyond those of the better-known LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification. Its yearlong vetting process is designed in part to avoid the embarrassment suffered by some LEED certified buildings, where seemingly efficient buildings have proven to be much less so after the buildings have been completed and undergone energy audits.

While a number of states, counties and municipalities provide tax credits and fee reductions for LEED structures, only a few municipalities have followed suit so far for the newer Living Building Challenge. Nevertheless, proponents say that avoiding energy and water utility bills for 250 years, the expected life span of the Bullitt Center, offers its own compelling financial incentives.

The Living Building challenge has 143 registered projects, including one in Bend, in 10 countries. Its process is so demanding, however, that only three buildings in the United States have been fully certified so far; the largest of those is an eighth the size of the Bullitt Center.

So much potential energy savings has already been wrung out of the building in its construction that nearly half of the expected electricity use will depend on what’s plugged into the outlets. Every tenant will be expected to abide by strict annual usage budgets or pay for overages, but extra-fine electrical circuits and detailed outlet metering can help diagnose problem spots down to, say, a malfunctioning printer.

Attracting tenants

Hayes is keenly aware that the building’s success depends upon its attractiveness to tenants, and his development team is promoting several distinctive features, including the fact that it may be the first heavy-timber midrise building erected in Seattle since the 1920s. The timber and steel frame uses native Douglas fir certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. The exposed wood ceilings on the 13-foot-high upper floors also contribute to an airy loftlike feel, with exposed steel cross braces and 10-foot-high windows that maximize daylight.

Another signature feature, a glass-enclosed stairwell that Hayes has named the “irresistible stairway,” rewards climbers with panoramic views of downtown and Puget Sound. The behavioral carrot, aimed at promoting both health and energy conservation, has been juxtaposed with the stick of a slow and less conveniently located elevator that requires key card access.

With advertised lease rates of $28-$30 a square foot, the building is in line with comparable properties.

Intentional Futures, a technology and software-focused design and engineering studio founded by former Microsoft executives, has leased the 7,900-square-foot fifth floor. Ian Sands, a co-founder and managing partner, said the 20-employee company had outgrown its office directly beneath a local broadcaster’s helipad and was looking to tap into the creative energy emanating from the city’s bustling Pike-Pine Corridor.

Although Sands admires the decision to forgo a traditional garage, he said the lack of on-site parking, coupled with Seattle’s inadequate mass transit, could create commuting headaches for employees who live in the city’s eastern suburbs and who may “have to figure out other methods or places to park nearby because they will have to drive.”

Hayes said the decision to not have on-site parking generated “spirited conversation” during the design phase. Instead, a space about the size of a three-car garage will be reserved exclusively for bicycles, while commuting bicyclists can wash away the morning sweat in one of the rainwater-fed showers on each floor.

Steve Whitney, the Bullitt Foundation’s program officer, said he had adapted to his new work space by buying a second bike.

Seattle’s Bullitt Center is aiming for environmental bragging rights by becoming — by far — the largest building to be certified through the Living Building Challenge, an initiative that requires participants to meet a lengthy and demanding set of criteria for sustainability.