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Bullitt Center Highlights Benchmark for Sustainable Design Amid Concerning Lack of Regional Leadership

Seattle, Bullitt Center, Living Building Challenge, International Living Future Institute, Miller Hull Partnership, University of Washington
Image courtesy of www.bullittcenter.org

By Jack Stubbs

The Puget Sounds region is often thought of as forward-thinking when it comes to the implementation of sustainable design strategies into commercial development projects. Sustainability initiatives like LEED and Living Building Challenge have in recent years gained more transaction among the architecture/engineering/construction (AEC) community—and certain current and in-the-works projects indicate that progress continues to be made.

However, the implementation of sustainability strategies in projects does not come without its associated challenges: rising construction costs and the difficulties in navigating city- and state-implemented code requirements and legislation mean that there are challenges in harnessing regional leadership and scaling these green building strategies across Seattle and the wider region.

“I think that before the Bullitt Center was built, the perception that the Living Building Challenge was only possible for off-the-grid environmental learning centers and not commercially viable buildings at the scale of five or six stories. The Bullitt Center was a partnership where the Bullitt Foundation wanted to walk the talk in terms of what they stand for and support in our region,” said Amanda Sturgeon, CEO of the International Living Future Institute (ILFI), an organization that spearheads sustainability programs including the Living Building Challenge (LBC) initiative that promotes greener building strategies in the built environment.

The Bullitt Center, located at 1501 E. Madison St. in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, is a 5-story, 52,000 square-foot building that is widely recognized as the greenest commercial building in the world. It features energy-efficient heating and cooling system (comprised of 26 closed-loop hydronic radiant tubes embedded in the building’s concrete floor plates); electricity generated through 575 photovoltaic solar panels comprising 14,000 square feet on the roof of the building and adaptive reuse of wastewater, which is stored and recycled into a 500-gallon grey water tank in the basement of the building. Additionally, the Bullitt Center is predominantly constructed with heavy timber framing, 100 percent of which is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, meaning that it is sourced from a responsibly-managed forests.

The Bullitt Center exceeds several benchmarks when it comes to sustainable energy. For example, the EUI (energy usage intensity) per square foot for a typical office building in Seattle is 92; the EUI for a typical office building built to Seattle Energy Code is 57. The current EUI for the Bullitt Center is 13.9. Furthermore, the typical office building in Seattle uses 14.2 gallons of potable water per square foot per year, while the Bullitt Center uses 1.1 gallons per square foot per year.
The University of Washington Integrated Design Lab, a department of the Center for Integrated Design at UW, worked with Miller Hull on the design of the building, and currently occupy the space as tenants along with Hammer & Hand, Intentional Futures, ILFI, PAE, and Sonos.

And The Bullitt Center—on which construction began in 2011 and was completed in 2013—recently underwent a landmark moment. In mid-May 2018, the team for the project celebrated the building’s 5-year anniversary. The Bullitt Center was a collaborative effort that included the International Living Future Institute, the Bullitt Foundation, the University of Washington’s Integrated Design Lab, Miller Hull Partnership (architect), Point32 (development partner), PAE (MEP engineering), Schuchart (core and shell general contractor), Berger Partnership (landscape architect), DCI Engineers (structural engineering), Foushee (general contract and tenant improvements), Geoutility (geothermal well drilling and installation), Luma Lighting Design (lighting); Northwest Wind and Solar (solar panel construction and installation), PSF Mechanical (mechanical engineering), RDH (building enclosure and performance testing), Solar Design Associates (photovoltaic engineering and design); 2020 Engineering (water systems) and Keithly Barber Associates (commissioning).

Various city and state agencies—including the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections, Seattle City Light, Seattle Public Utilities, Seattle Department of Transportation, the Department of Parks and Recreation, Seattle-King County Public Health and the Washington State Department of Public Health—were also involved with efforts around various sustainability elements of the project.

One of the most noteworthy elements of the Bullitt Center is that it is designated as a Living Building and achieves the goals of the LBC (a program created by the International Living Future Institute) meaning that the building produces as much energy as it uses in a year, captures and treats rainwater for all its needs for at least 12 consecutive months and also meets rigorous standards for “Red List”-compliant materials to enhance the quality of its indoor environment, according to Bullitt Center’s web site. As a Living Building, the structure also meets 20 specific imperatives within seven performance areas (or “petals”) including site, water, energy, health, materials, equity and beauty.

Notably, the Bullitt Center is also zero-energy. According to ILFI’s web site, zero energy is recognized as one of the world’s highest aspirations in energy performance in the built environment. The program certifies that the building truly operates as claimed, harnessing energy from the sun, wind and earth to produce net annual energy demand through an analysis of performance data. The building also complies with the Materials Red List in the LBC, meaning that 14 chemical categories (such as cadmium, lead and mercury) were avoided in material products used for the project.

Environmental sustainability in the built environment is increasingly coming on the radar of members of the architecture/engineering/construction community in Seattle and the Puget Sound region, according to Chris Hellstern, Living Building Challenge services director at the Miller Hull Partnership, who thinks that projects like the Bullitt Center serve as a benchmark for building sustainability. “Buildings like Bullitt have really changed what’s possible in the industry for architects and clients. These projects that are certified in the city show that it’s possible,” he said. “We are now seeing projects coming to us that are specifically asking for the LBC [certification] in their Request For Proposals; a few years ago, that wasn’t even on clients’ radars.”

From a broader perspective, Hellstern thinks that the increasing prevalence LBC-certified buildings are helping to shape the trajectory of the industry. “We also see the project making a change to the industry itself. Architecture and construction firms are making shifts, both in terms of how they design and deliver projects based on some of the components of LBC, and how these buildings operate,” he said.

In terms of the prominence of projects meeting the LBC guidelines, the initiative is starting to gain more momentum from a legislative perspective around the city. “We’re seeing the LBC gaining traction in the city through legislative and policy initiatives, too. There’s a LBC Pilot Program, the 2030 Challenge District is using it as a benchmark for some of their work,” he said. Locally in the Northwest, the LBC is gaining traction, as well. In December 2015, at the Bullitt Center, the King County Council unanimously voted to approve its new Strategic Climate Action Plan, committing to complete 10 new LBC-certified projects by 2020.

And just as King County’s announcement was made at the Bullitt Center, so too Hellstern hopes that projects like Bullitt will show what is possible when it comes to designing sustainably. “In the legislative scenarios, people need to see that something is possible and have a policy roadmap of the building where they can see that it has been successful,” he said. “Projects like Bullitt, and cities that adopt these programs, allow a path forward and [show that] these standards [are] achievable.”

The Bullitt Center served in many ways as a testing template for sustainable design standards, according to Chris Meek, Director of the UW Integrated Design Lab. “One of the incredible opportunities of the project was that it served as a research test bed for us in all sorts of dimensions around sustainable design in terms of what works and what doesn’t work…we’ve shared that with designers, academics and policy makers,” Meek said. “We’ve collected fairly detailed energy usage data from the building. It’s really important to have that feedback loop to understand how the building is performing and how the occupants of the building affect energy use from a behavioral perspective.”

From a larger community perspective, and earlier on in the project process, the team is looking to educate the public about the potential of the Bullitt Center. “We’re trying to reach down into the earlier stages of education and people from senior groups, and people visiting Seattle, to give them the opportunity to see this building and learn from it,” Meek added. Since the building’s inception, the UW Integrated Design Lab has toured nearly 20,000 people through the building.

And in spite of the positive strides being made around sustainability in the built environment—with the Bullitt Center as one clear-cut example of a LBC-certified building success story—there is more work to be done when it comes to scaling these sustainable design practices through the wider community. Meek thinks that from an economic perspective and from the perspective of design firms, such practices are not always viable. “I think the effect of the 2009 recession is still being felt from the standpoint of sustainable design when it comes to transforming firms’ practices. Prior to the recession, I think there was a trajectory where firms were changing their fundamental practices across the board,” he said.

One of the obstacles preventing sustainable design projects like the Bullitt Center to proliferate more quickly throughout the city is the pressurized construction schedules and financial implications of delivering highly sustainable commercial projects, according to Hellstern. “Really, I think it’s the speed at which development is happening in the city…there’s not really an allowance for it in the construction schedules,” he said.

While the Bullitt Center in some ways means that a standard has been set for the potential for green buildings to make an impact, these sustainable design practices are not always at the forefront of designers’ and developers’ minds in their approach to projects in a rapidly-growing city, according to Brad Kahn, a spokespersons for the Bullitt Center. “One of the challenges with the Bullitt Center is that we have such a demand for real estate in this city, and frankly very little of [this demand] is for high-performance green buildings. Developers are looking at how to get a project done, so that they can lease it and get their return on investment in a short time period,” Kahn said.

Kahn thinks that the Bullitt Center remains, for the time being, an unfortunate paradox when it comes to strides being made with LBC-certified projects in the quickly-evolving city of Seattle. “The reality is that the Bullitt Center remains iconic, because there really aren’t other examples in the city to point at…and yet we have more cranes in the city and are growing faster than any other city in America.”

In the longer term, the onus is on leading companies in the region—who are not, as of yet, stepping up to the plate—to enact change when it comes to building sustainably, according to Kahn. “On one hand, there are companies and organizations like Amazon and the University of Washington saying ‘we’re still in,’ [with the Paris Climate Agreement] yet everything they demand is code. UW is about to spend $3 billion over the next five years on real estate development, but I don’t believe one of those projects is slated for any advanced level of green building,” he said. “The scale of the ambition we need to have is not matched by the projects on the ground.”

Kahn was referring to We Are Still In, a movement comprised of more than 2,800 organizations nationwide—including Amazon and the University of Washington—advocating support of the Paris Climate Agreement.

Worryingly for Seattle, a city in a period of rapid commercial and economic growth, the need for environmentally sustainable buildings is not being met by the development sector, either, according to Sturgeon of ILFI. “We’re seeing some movement in the higher education sector, but I don’t think we’re seeing the development sector having conversations about building net-zero,” she said. “The commercial development sector is nearly always the last one to move, because they only build what they think they’ll be able to lease, rent or sell as a commodity, rather than as a public resource or community asset.”

Looking ahead, the Bullitt Center represents a landmark for the city and the wider Puget Sound region of what can be achieved when it comes to sustainable development, but this momentum needs to maintained in the longer term, according to Sturgeon. “When we started the Bullitt Center project [in 2011], we were hoping for some catalysts who would understand that we’re trying to move the market…ultimately, it takes people time to adapt if you’re building and designing differently with net-zero,” she said. “I think we need another push in the building sector; we need to keep improving and moving forward in the coming decade.”

And while undertakings like Bullitt Center represent forward progress in a growing city, the project is also an anomaly in a hyper-active real estate and construction market. In some ways, the success highlighted by Bullitt Center—in terms of a cutting-edge sustainable design that implements various green features—is both a product of, and constrained by, the booming industry. “People are trying to build a lot of space fast and all at once; the market is very hot and expensive; construction costs have risen, and it’s very difficult to stretch a budget that might have been established two years ago or three years ago with state projects,” Sturgeon said. “It’s ironic that this busy boom time is causing a lot of stress in the construction industry to do anything innovative; this region is currently really suffering from that. I think buildings are getting cheaper and not as high performing as they have been because of that.” Now so more than ever, time is of the essence. “This is a time for Seattle to see how it can push these energy requirements and codes to go further,” Sturgeon added.