Decoding Design

In Seattle, a new office building strives for Living Building status

In Seattle, a new office building strives for Living Building status

Posting in Architecture

By late next year, Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood will be home to a new six-story office building that strives to be the greenest commercial building in the world.

By late next year, Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood will be home to a shiny, new six-story office building that strives to be the greenest commercial building in the world.

The new structure will hold the offices of the environmentally-focused Bullitt Foundation, as well as other tenants who share Bullitt's environmental philosophy. The Bullitt Center was designed to meet the requirements of the Living Building Challenge, and if it passes a self-sufficiency test after its first year, it will receive Living Building Status.

The criteria for a "living building" are determined by the International Living Future Institute, a Seattle-based organization dedicated to changing green building standards. The ILFI's standards are considered to be the world's hardest to meet. So far, only three buildings have been fully certified as Living, though about 100 other projects are in the works.

The building's design aims to have net-zero emissions, meaning the building was designed to produce just as much energy as it uses. The building also must supply and treat it's own water, using a 50,000-gallon underground stormwater cistern. The challenge also stipulates that a Living Building may not use certain materials, including lead and cadmium.

The roof of the building will be topped with photovoltaic panels that, if all goes as planned, will produce enough energy in the summer to offset wintertime deficits and break even over the course of the year. Even in gloomy Seattle, with increased panel efficiency and a smaller amount of energy needed by the building, the architects believe their goal

The New York Times reported last month that the Bullitt center is expected to use less than one fourth of the energy of a normal building of its size.

One problem reported in the piece was regarding water treatment. Currently, the plans for the center show that it will collect rainwater for showers, sinks and drinking fountains, then filter the used water though a lower level green roof and landscaping. The raw sewage will be composted and sanitized before it's shipped offsite to be coverted into fertilizer. The problem, however, is that Washington State's Department of Public Health requires public use buildings like this one that get water from anything other than the city, to chlorinate it.

Chlorine is on the prohibited list of the Living Building Challenge. The building's designers are petitioning for ozone purification, which is a less toxic method. Even if their wishes are granted, the building will remain hooked up to the city's system, just in case.

Financing for projects like these, especially one that is pioneering many technologies, can be hard to find. According to the Times:

The Bullitt Foundation challenged a design firm, the Miller Hull Partnership, and their collaborators to develop a core of steel, concrete and timbers with a life expectancy of 250 years, a nearly unheard-of number in an industry that typically uses 40-year life spans in appraising the value of commercial buildings. With no comparable structures to point to, banks were at a loss for how to value many of the building’s central features, including its expected longevity and its energy and water self-sufficiency.

The Bullitt Center already has commitments from tenants for four of its six floors, and according to the foundation, rent will be comprable to those of other new, LEED-certified buildings in the area.

The building itself even offers its occupants incentive to be more active: it will not provide car parking spaces, but there will be ample space to lock up bicycles. There will also be a glass enclosed stairwell at the building's high point-- giving its climbers views of downtown Seattle and the Space Needle.

Denis Hayes, the president and CEO of the Bullitt Foundation and a national coordinator of the first Earth Day in 1970, said in a statement about the project that the Foundation hopes the building will "open a wedge into the future so that we, and others can see what is possible in a contemporary office building."

More from SmartPlanet on the Living Building Challenge:
Q&A: Brenda Sheer, Dean, College of Architecture and Planning, University of Utah

In Portland, can a gas station become the Next Living Building?

[NYT]
Image: Bullitt Foundation

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Beth Carter

Contributing Editor

Beth Carter is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. She has worked for Catalyst magazine, the New York Times Syndicate, BBC Travel and Wired. She holds degrees from the University of Oregon and New York University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure