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This Building Is Supergreen. Will It Be Copied?

This Seattle building, a project by the Bullitt Foundation, is said to be the world's greenest office building. It uses a weather station to conserve energy, creates lighting via photovoltaic cells on the roof and features composting toilets.
Courtesy of John Stamets
This Seattle building, a project by the Bullitt Foundation, is said to be the world's greenest office building. It uses a weather station to conserve energy, creates lighting via photovoltaic cells on the roof and features composting toilets.

One of the world's greenest office buildings formally open its doors Monday — Earth Day. It's a project of the environmentally progressive Bullitt Foundation. Its ambition is bold: to showcase an entirely self-sustaining office building hoping that others will create similar projects.

The first thing that strikes you about the new Bullitt Center is the windows. Walking up to the building in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood, six stories of floor-to-ceiling glass soars above you.

And there's an emphasis on walking up to the building — there's no on-site parking. Once inside, there's more walking.

"In a building this size, any place else in Seattle it would have two elevators, and that's what would face you as you walked in the front door. Here, the stairway is obvious and it's attractive," says Denis Hayes, president and CEO of the foundation.

He explains there is an elevator, but it's tucked away. The staircase encourages exercise and the concept saves money both in energy use and construction costs.

Integrating Green Technology

This is one of dozens of decisions and trade-offs that went into this building — a building Hayes describes as a living organism.

"It has eyes, it has ears, it has a nervous system, it has a brain and it responds to its environment in a way that seeks to optimize things," he says.

He points across the street to a mini weather station. It sends data to the building so it can decide what it should do to maximize comfort and conserve energy.

Hayes says the building customizes windows and external shutter positions so natural lighting can be maximized to its potential and "give you day lighting at your desk."

Just about everything in this building is off-the-shelf technology — from composting toilets to photovoltaic cells, which create electricity from sunlight, on the roof. But never before has all this technology been integrated into a single building quite this way.

"I think it's fair to say we were all a bit skeptical in the beginning," says Chris Rogers, the founding partner of Point 32, the firm that developed the $30 million project in conjunction with the foundation.

Photovoltaic cells on the office building's roof.
/ Courtesy of John Stamets
Courtesy of John Stamets
Photovoltaic cells on the office building's roof.

Rogers and the others set out to meet the rigorous goals of the Living Building Challenge — including total self sufficiency in energy, water use and building materials that are free of toxics.

"Down here in the basement is where you'll find the majority of the building's systems — our composting toilets system, our underground water storage cistern," he explains.

Tenants And Energy Budgets

But beyond the systems, the 160 or so people working inside will have a huge role in meeting the sustainability targets. The foundation occupies half of the top floor; the rest of the building is being leased out.

The rent is at market rate for a top-tier building, though many amenities you might expect for the price don't exist. And tenants have to live within an energy budget.

Rob Pena with the University of Washington's Integrated Design Lab says energy use can be measured down to an individual socket.

"That's quite unusual," Pena says. "There probably isn't a building in the country that's metered to the level this building is metered."

Clearly this building is not for everyone.

If you think of it as simply an office building, it was relatively expensive to design and build. But if you view it as a laboratory, an educational center and a bold effort to change how things are built, the calculus changes.

'The Market Has Changed'

Still, one could ask, is it possible to replicate the self-sustaining features at a reasonable cost?

"If this building isn't replicable, then this experiment will have failed," says Rogers, the developer.

But if it is successful, he's optimistic others will follow the foundation's lead.

Rogers points out that over the past couple of decades, many builders began incorporating green elements into their buildings.

And Chris Cole, a construction cost analyst at the global engineering firm AECOM, says the industry has incorporated the use of green technology.

"The market has changed," he says. "The market started to expect new buildings to have some of these features," he says.

And the supply chain began to adapt. New products and services were created and some costs began to fall. Cole believes the Bullitt project could foster additional shifts in the marketplace "as business and organizations seek to clean up their footprint."

Trade-offs between cost, fancy features and sustainability will undoubtedly be made, and developers and tenants will make those decisions differently.

Still, the Bullitt Foundation is encouraged by all the attention its building is getting from people around the world.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Wendy Kaufman