“World’s Greenest Office Building” Makes Net-Zero Look Easy

It’s a commercial office space equipped with composting toilets, rainwater showers, and a stairway designed to be so beautiful that no one ever takes the elevator.
Bullitt Center

The Bullitt Center in Seattle. Photo by Ben Benschneider.

Peering down Seattle’s Capitol Hill, the Bullitt Center appears to be just another high-end commercial building—until you look up and notice the roof, which is overlaid with shiny silver photovoltaic panels that extend far beyond the building’s exterior walls. Even in the cloudiest of cities, the panels generate all the electricity the six-story structure requires.

The building is a project of the Bullitt Foundation, which calls it “the greenest commercial building in the world.” The foundation, which was founded in 1952, has focused since the 1990s on helping to create cities that function more like ecosystems. Its new building provides office space for eco-conscious tenants, but also functions as a learning center that demonstrates how people and businesses can exist in harmony with nature.

The Bullitt Center was built according to a demanding green building certification program called the Living Building Challenge, which lists net zero use of energy and water among its many requirements. The standards specified by Living Buildings far surpass those of the better-known Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, program, which even at its highest level still produces buildings that harm the environment.

Jason McLennan, the founder of the program, says the goal of the Living Building Challenge is to create a structure that is in harmony with nature. “Even when buildings are promoted as 10 to 30 percent greener than the traditional code, the building is still extremely harmful to the environment.”

A tour of the world’s greenest office building

It turns out that making a building beautiful can help to make it green. In an effort to encourage people to take the stairs instead of the elevator, the architects of the Bullitt Center created an “irresistible stairway” encased by floor-to-ceiling glass walls that allow for an abundance of light and offer captivating views of Puget Sound and the Olympic mountains.

Office spaces are airy and bright, so the center requires no artificial illumination even on the dreariest Seattle days. And since most of the walls are made of glass, employees can see straight through one side of the building to the other, creating a feeling of community and openness.

What do tenants think of the space? “Everybody seems to be wildly enthusiastic,” says Bullitt Foundation president and CEO, Denis Hayes. “Psychological studies show that people perform better when they have the diorama going by outside—they are happier, healthier, take less sick leave, and are more productive.”

With no on-site parking for cars, tenants are encouraged to ride bikes to work and park them in a space the size of a three-car garage. And for those who arrive sweaty from the bike ride in, rainwater-fed showers are available on every floor.

While some developers may argue that it is too expensive to build this way, the Bullitt Center’s initial costs were only one-fifth above average for an office building of its class. And that’s not mentioning savings from energy and water bills, which will amount to zero when measured across 12 months.

The sewage bill is also zero because the building requires no hookup to the city’s sewer system. Composting toilets produce biologically pure waste, which is mixed with King County’s compost facility to produce agricultural grade compost.

The Bullitt Foundation hopes others will replicate their building. Bankers, developers, appraisers, insurance companies and government officials are invited to visit the center to learn more about building and investing in sustainable buildings.

McLennan concludes by suggesting that the Bullitt Center demonstrates the viability of taking a stronger approach to sustainability. “Washington is the least sunny state in the United States, and this building is still able to obtain 100 percent solar,” he says. He hopes that the Bullitt Center’s example will help to encourage others to build more enjoyable, sustainable, and affordable buildings around the world.


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