The Bullitt Center—First of Its Kind in Sustainable Living

Paloma Basilio

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Credit: Ben Benschneider

Sustainable building, The Bullitt Center, opened its doors on April 22, which also happened to be Earth Day. The building, located in Seattle, Wash., has rapidly gained attention all over the world for its eco-friendly qualities.

“The 6-story, 50,000-square-foot building is the nation’s first urban mid-rise commercial project to meet the rigorous goals of the Living Building Challenge, the most ambitious benchmark of sustainability in the built environment,” as stated in a document provided by the center. There are 575 solar panels located on the building’s roof that generates 230,000 KWH, or kilowatt hours, a year.

What is the Living Building Challenge?

A collection of environmentalist groups came together to develop the Living Building Challenge to motivate contractors around the nation and world to build green buildings. The challenge lays out a set of guidelines that are to be followed during the building process. The idea is to eliminate as many harmful substances to the environment as possible. The Living Building Challenge consists of seven performance areas—site, water, energy, health, materials, equity and beauty—that are subdivided into 20 “imperatives.”

What are “Red List” Materials?

According to the challenge’s website, the project cannot contain any materials or chemicals included in the “red list.” There are hundreds of red list materials which are separated into 14 different categories including asbestos, cadmium and mercury to PVC, CFCs and cadmium.

Why did the Bullitt Foundation build The Bullitt Center?

“The era of cheap abundant energy, plentiful fresh water, and localized impacts of human activities is over,” according to the foundation’s document. “Yet virtually no new buildings—even ‘green’ buildings—are being built to function harmoniously in the conditions we know will prevail.”

“The Bullitt Center is being designed to still make sense 250 years from now,” the document further states. “The first Prius cost more than the [ten thousandth]. But before you can build the [ten thousandth] of anything, you need to build the first.”

Being the first to build this type of green building is a difficult task, but the Bullitt Foundation is a strong believer in breaking out of the mold to showcase a sustainable future for humanity.

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Credit: Ben Benschneider

The Bullitt Center is located on a busy corner where parking is limited, but the Bullitt Foundation decided on a bicycle, rather than car, garage. There are 21 bus routes and 24 Zipcar locations within half a mile of the building. The Bullitt Center not only wants to provide green living inside of the building, but also wants to promote the use of green transportation such as metro buses, bicycles, walking, and Zipcars.

The Bullitt Center was created to teach the public that it is possible to build a fully functional building that is not harmful to the environment.

“The Bullitt Center is inherently about learning and discovery,” according to the document. “From building design and the interactive resource center to the new community green-space, the Bullitt Center will be a place for people to gather and learn about green building and urban sustainability. And it will serve as a highly visible example of what’s possible when a team of people come together to advance uncommon wisdom.”

Inside the Bullitt Center

The main entrance is off of Madison and 15th Avenue, located in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. There is a public area on the first floor for anyone who wants to learn about the building’s functions and goals. This open area has a wall filled with hundreds of photographs taken during the construction of the building. On display there are samples of the materials used in the building’s structure. Hanging from the ceiling is an enormous scroll listing all of the red list materials.

This is also where the tours of the building begin. Tour guide Brad Kahn is a communications professional at the Bullitt Center and has been focused on communicating environmental issues for the past 15 years, working with the Bullitt Foundation and many of their grantees. He has been involved with the Bullitt Center since 2010. Kahn says he is “honored and thrilled to be part of this project because the goal is for other contractors to replicate the Bullitt Center’s model.”

On the tour, visitors use the stairwell to get from floor to floor, which can seem a bit strange at first, because as a society we are so used to using escalators and elevators. “In most buildings the stairs are rarely used because they are hidden deep within the building or because the access door is locked,” Kahn said.

The Bullitt Foundation wants its tenants to use the stairs regularly, so they put a lot of thought into the stairwell. The stairs are on the outermost part of the building with floor to ceiling windows allowing views of the Space Needle. The stairs are made out of cedar wood lined with a thin strip of metal because cedar tends to be a softer wood. Not only does the cedar bring a nature element in, but the metal allows for the cedar to last longer.

The Bullitt Center is built to sustain itself for 250 years. Of course, this is just an estimate and there will be some parts of the building which will need maintenance, such as the windows and solar panels, which have a 25-year warranty. Wood, steel, and concrete are the three main exposed fundamental materials that make up the foundation of the building and can be seen throughout.

According to Kahn, the building was built to withstand a 9.0 earthquake. This is crucial because this region experiences an earthquake every 300 years, and Seattle is reaching its mark. He explained that the foundation is in the middle of the building, so the frame is built from the innermost part and goes out. That way, when there is an earthquake the frame swivels around the center, unlike most buildings where the foundation is on the outer parts causing the building to shake from side to side.

Automated Windows

The Bullitt Center has more windows than any other building around it. The building depends on them to bring in natural sunlight, which helps conserve electricity that would otherwise be wasted on lighting.

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Credit: Ben Benschneider

The Bullitt Foundation wanted to work with Schüco, a German company, to engineer the curtain wall window system. But the company only had locations in Europe, and it didn’t seem reasonable to have 700-pound windows shipped to Seattle.

“In a remarkable example of creating real change, a partnership was established between Schüco and Goldfinch Brothers, a family-owned company based in Everett, Wash. Goldfinch Brothers developed a licensing agreement with Schüco to fabricate, distribute, and install Schüco products in the United States. These high-performance curtain wall systems are now available for future projects in North America, providing high-performance windows for U.S. buildings and raising the bar on domestic manufacturers to compete in this market,” the building’s document states.

The building has six stories, each of which is occupied by a company. The third floor is currently vacant, so visitors are allowed to view that space while on the tour. As the tour guide was explaining the functions of the windows, the blinds of the windows on the opposite end automatically went up. Kahn explained that the blinds are automated to a weather system located on a building across the street that senses the weather patterns. The sun was hitting the windows, so the weather system sent a signal to open the blinds to let in the sunlight. The windows also open and close automatically depending on the weather to maintain a comfortable temperature.

As the greenest commercial building in the world, every detail of the construction of the Bullitt Center has been carefully planned, including how to incorporate human waste into fertilizer. On the tour, the group was taken to the basement where the human waste is collected and stored in tubs after it is filtered and rid of any harmful viruses. It doesn’t smell like you might think. Everything is cleaned and stored behind glass walls or gates to keep people from accidentally coming in contact with the switches, which could cause a flood of human waste.

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Credit: Ben Benschneider

“Waste for toilet flushing is nearly eliminated in this building by composting human ‘waste’ on-site using 10 large composting units in the building’s basement,” according to the Bullitt Center document. “Foam flush toilets using less than a cup of rainwater and natural soap convey solids and liquids through piping to the basement.”

“Wood chips are added to the composting units as an additional carbon source, and to help manage moisture levels,” the document further states. “The compost is rotated about once a week and air is circulated through the composters to help accelerate the composting process. Temperatures maintained in the range of 135 degrees Fahrenheit to 165 degrees to ensure all pathogens and contaminants are sterilized or killed.”

History of the Bullitt Foundation

The Bullitt Foundation was founded in 1952 by Dorothy Bullitt. The foundation’s website states she was “a prominent Seattle businesswoman and philanthropist. Dorothy’s family set an example of civic and cultural leadership by helping to found many of the city’s most significant institutions, including Children’s Hospital, the Seattle Symphony, and Cornish School of the Arts.”

Bullitt made her money by investing in broadcasting television in Seattle. After her death, Emory Bundy, former Director of Public Affairs for KING Broadcasting, worked to keep the foundation’s purpose going.

The Bullitt Center is inspired by its surroundings, which reflects on the inside of the building. There are many windows allowing for natural lighting, which is great on those rare sunny days. The building is proof that being eco-friendly is very possible in the heart of a modern city.

Not only is the Bullitt Center interested in the environment, but also in buying locally. Most, if not all, of the materials used to build the Bullitt Center were found locally. Climate change is a very real factor in our world and we must start changing the way we build our homes and buildings.

“As for my hopes: I am excited by what leaders like the Bullitt Foundation are already doing. Many examples of big changes are already underway,” Kahn concluded. “My hope is that we can act fast enough as a society to maintain a high quality of life for future generations, and stave off the worst impacts of a changing climate.”

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