Oct 18, 2012

Photo Diary: Touring the Construction Site of the Greenest Building in the World

Bullitt Foundation president and CEO Denis Hayes wasn't kidding when he said the Bullitt Center is "a bold attempt to do everything right." A group of us were fortunate to tour the six-story, 50,000 sq. ft. office space owned  by the Bullitt Foundation.  The building is only two and half months away from being occupied and is truly the world's most progressive, self-sufficient building.

At first glance, the 15th and Madison building in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood looks like any other construction site.  People in hard hats, cranes, ladders, tarps, fenced-off location... the look of any upcoming architectural space.  But as you look up to the roof, you realize why this project is being internationally recognized as the "world's greenest commercial building".  PV arrays, solar panels, are apparent and numerous, extending out past the sidewalk to cover a roof made entirely from green-technology.  Camera crews interviewing Mr. Hayes upon arrival set the perfect tone for entering this big green territory.  The Bullitt Center is the first structure to attempt the strictest of all living building standards in the built environment: the Living Building Challenge. The standard was created by the International Living Future Institute, who will be one of the building's first tenants.  The challenge calls for 100% on-site renewable energy, net-zero energy and net-zero water, harvesting all its own water and an on-site treatment plant.  Our group was thrilled to put on hard hats and tour a project that will demonstrate possibilities for buildings to come.  

Take a look at our photo diary below and learn about the building's exemplary featuresincluding cisterns, geothermal wells, green roof, even human waste compost binsand how incentives and complete transparency play a big role in making the Bullitt Center not only the greenest building in the world, but also a place for education of sustainable development.

That's our tour guide, Joe David, from Point32.  Point32 is the real-estate development firm building the Bullitt Center.  Joe works closely with the Bullitt Foundation, the University of Washington College of Built Environments (also a first tenant), Miller Hull Partnership and Schuchart Construction to ensure all requirements of the Living Building Challenge are being met.  The ground floor is the area continuing energy efficiency and green building training.  It will be a community hub and education center, to include an open resource library, classrooms, exhibition space where the project's story and lessons learnt will be shared, in addition there will be a research laboratory.  This space, named the Center for Energy & Urban Ecology,  will serve as a real community and education center for the Living Building Challenge.

There they are! The 575 solar panels that make up the roof of the Bullitt Center.  All the building's energy is being produced by these panels.  Tenants will divide their energy use and use an online dashboard system to help track how much is being used.  Point32 is staying on after completion of the project to assist tenants with this system.  The tool even tracks inventory of office supplies, projecting an organization's expected energy use.  If tenants stay within their allotted energy boundaries, they won’t have to pay a single dime on energy bills.  That’s an incentive if we’ve ever heard one!  Another role the solar panels play is in the design of the roof itself, the panels slant and are spaced apart in places so that rain water gravitates towards cisterns.  We'll explain more about the cisterns and on-site water system below.

As we walked past the main entrance, Joe explained the building's heating system.  Now this is not your traditional electric or oil system, all heat is generated by 26 geothermal wells.  Pipes reach 400 ft. underground to capture natural occurring thermal energy produced directly underneath the building.  To make the heating system even more efficient,  heat will be transferred into building materials, like the flooring, instead of circulating hot air through a ventilation system.  Typical traditional systems were avoided because they make cold and warm air compete with each other.

Impressed with the ground floor plans, our group moved upstairs for questions.  It was apparent this tour was filled with architects excited to ask technical questions.  This is where Joe pointed out the electrical room (located in the picture above, far right corner where the light shines brightly), a wood panel will soon be replaced with a store front glass window giving the often used sustainability term of transparency a literal definition.  Most buildings hide this room but not the Bullitt Center!

An empty elevator shaft, placed at the back of the building.  Looks boring and does not compare to it's well planned competitor: a simple, functional, yet attractive glass stairwell with a garden and north facing view of a busy Madison St.

The empty space above will soon be home to a beautiful glass stairwell providing balcony space to tenants.  Perfect for lunch breaks, or working outside during the summer months, this patio space will be the place to be!  The stairs also serve another purpose, an incentive to ditch the elevator and live a healthier lifestyle.  This feature also holds a 3rd floor green roof to include a planted wetland.  The green roof is highly functional, capturing rain water.  80% of water collected is estimated to evaporate, the rest makes up part of the black water being used for irrigation and toilet water.  

Ready to hear how the toilets work?  Be ready to be amazed.  This is the first site to have 6 stories of toilets attached to a system like this!  Here's how it works: when someone enters the bathroom stall, a sensor lets black water gloss over the toilet bowl, a tablespoon of special foam makes its way in there as well, then, after, well...you know what...waste heads to 10 compost bins each holding 4,000 gallons that combine with water and wood chips.  Most converts to carbon dioxide and water vapor.  Solid waste on the other hand takes 2 1/2 to 3 years for full on compost.   The leachate gets resprayed into the tank to be turned and rotated and the excess is treated on the wetland.  Sensors and alarms will monitor this operation.   Some of the compost will even make it's way onto fields in our State. Learn more about the system here.

Next, Joe explained how rain water is harvested and filtered.  Water is being collected into underground cisterns that can withhold a year supply including a 3 month drought, which is a total of 56,000 gallons.  Rain water will be filtered through a process that includes UV filters, carbon segregation and pH buffering.  The building is attached to public water utility, however, the Living Building Challenge only allows a one-time tank fill.  They don't plan on doing this anytime soon.  Don't fret future tenants, they would bend the rules in case of  fire.


Onto the open floor office spaces.  These large rooms with floor to ceiling windows will make for a wonderful work space.  Hmmm...we wouldn't mind working here!

All the wood, including the panels on the wall and ceiling is forest stewardship certified pure.  Being sourced within a 600 mile radius.  Our group roamed around in awe!

Hello, breathtaking views!

There's the Space Needle!

Meet a few of our staff (left to right) Rachel, Hannah and CEO Terri!  Wonder if they were talking about the wiring, containing no PVC and listed on the Red List of materials of the Living Building Challenge.  Or, just maybe... they were talking about all the steel, concrete, and other heavy metals purchased within a 300 mile radius from towns such as Centralia and Bremerton...

The Bullitt Center is built to last 250 years.  The facade is expected to outlast the windows, windows typically need replacement after 70 years.  These windows can be easily replaced.  The window design itself, of course, is made for highest efficiency.  Gaskets will release equal pressure on both sides of the windows, creating a tight seal so that one side doesn't wear out before the other.

The building's ventilation system is created by operable windows, allowing for 100% of the space to be ventilated or cooled.  I have to admit, this system is my favorite feature!  Long rectangular windows open horizontally, being hooked onto thermostats to determine the best place to let air flow.  Cool air can pass through the whole office floor!  Want even more fresh air?  Tenants can open the west facing glass panels (the enite empty space in the photo above) to transform a whole office floor into a balcony!

(Quick interesting story about the windows that brought top of the line European green-tech to Seattle:  Wanting to use a German company called Schueco they were restricted to source from such a far away place.  So, they called a local place, Goldfinch Brothers to help out.  Goldfinch worked with Schueco and now Goldfinch holds the type of windows the project desired!)

82% of the Bullitt Center is naturally lit.  Pictured above are the top floor skylights.

Our tour ended right back where it started, on the ground floor, grand enterance and Center that will continue the legacy of the first building to meet the Living Building Challenge.  Once fully occupied with tenants, the Bullitt Center can start measuring usage and will submit utility bills of a full year to gain official certification. We'll leave you with a couple valuable lessons this groundbreaking, bold built environment plan taught us:

  • people are happy to compromise if incentives add value to their well being
  • engaging the community is vital, especially when educational
  • transparency should be resonated in all aspects of a sustainability project 
  • There always has to be a first, a group with a big hairy audacious goal that sets standards high!  $13 million, is the cost of constructing this building, but it's inevitable for production prices will lower as more buildings of this kind are replicated. 
Huge thank you goes out to Dave, our board member who organized the tour! 

Interested in learning more about the Bullitt Center?  Join us as Point32's co-founder and CEO Chris Rogers presents the keynote for our annual fundraiser, the Sustainability Leadership Awards Dinner on November 15th at Daybreak Star.  Mr. Rogers will speak to us about the project in a presentation titled, "The Bullitt Center: The Greenest Building in the World".  More information and tickets available here.  

 All photos owned by Sustainable Seattle, please ask for permission to use by sending a message to info@sustainableseattle.org.


  1. Worth to be called the Greenest Building in the world.

  2. This is very informative and sites like these should always practice safety measures.

  3. Great post. Nice to see all the different photos - thanks!
    -Jon @ inlet filter

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