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The Bullitt Center in Seattle is showing that a six-story, 52,000 square-foot building can meet the net-zero-energy, net-zero-water Living Building Challenge

The new Bullitt Center with its cantilevered cap of PV modules. Click to enlarge.
Photo Credit: Alex Wilson

I’m just back from a week in Seattle, where I attended the Living Future Conference, which this year had a theme of resilience and regeneration—a major focus of mine with the Resilient Design Institute. While there I visited what is almost certainly the greenest office building in America if not the world.

The Living Future Conference was created initially to provide a networking and learning venue for designers and builders involved in creating buildings that achieve the Living Building Challenge. Unlike its better known cousin, the LEED Rating System (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) of the U.S. Green Building Council, the Living Building Challenge (LBC) is not a points-based system, but rather a collection of very specific, very challenging requirements.

To achieve LBC certification, buildings must:

  • operate on a net-zero-energy basis—using no more energy, on an annual basis, than is collected by the building (LBC certification can not be earned until a full year of data is collected proving that it is actually operating to be zero-net-energy);
  • operate on a net-zero water basis—using no more water on an annual basis than is collected on the site;
  • contain no “red list” chemicals—the LBC maintains a long list of chemicals that cannot be used, including polyvinyl chloride (PVC), brominated flame retardants, and heavy metals like the mercury found in fluorescent lights; and
  • address various other requirements related to the building site, health, equity, and beauty (yes, beauty). Each of these categories (energy, water, materials, site, health, equity, and beauty) are referred to as petals in the program.
Denis Hayes, president of the Bullitt Foundation, explaining features of the building.
Photo Credit: Alex Wilson

Needless to say, achieving LBC certification is very hard. Since the launch of the program seven years ago only a handful of buildings have achieved full certification (4 and counting), and another half-dozen have been recognized for achieving LBC requirements in individual petals. When it comes to larger, multi-story office buildings, the requirements for LBC have seemed almost out of the realm of possibility—at least until now.

The Bullitt Center

The Bullitt Center is a remarkable building that is well on its way to becoming the first sizable commercial office building to achieve LBC certification. The six-story, 52,000 square-foot commercial building, which is owned by (and houses) the Bullitt Foundation, had its grand opening on Earth Day this year (particularly appropriate, since the long-time president of the Bullitt Foundation, Denis Hayes, was the director of the first Earth Day in 1970).

The building was designed by the Miller Hull Partnership in Seattle, with other members of the integrated design team including Point32PAE Consulting Engineers, FousheeLuma Lighting Design, 2020 Engineering and Berger Partnership.

Among the building’s features:

  • Highly energy-efficient building envelope. The mostly glass building has a modeled energy-use intensity (EUI) of 16 kBtu per square foot per year. This makes it 83% more efficient than typical office buildings in Seattle. This is achieved with such features as triple-glazed, low-e, argon-filled windows, automated exterior shades, and high insulating values for non-glazed portions of the building.
  • A triple-glazed, low-e, operable window. The exterior shades can still be deployed with the windows open.
    Photo Credit: Alex Wilson

    Solar-electric system. A rooftop 242-kilowatt (kW) photovoltaic (PV) system is projected to deliver 100% of the building’s electricity needs on an annual basis. Denis Hayes told me, however, that since Seattle isn’t known as one of the sunnier places, this net-zero-energy performance will depend on the weather each year. On a good year, the PV array should have no problem meeting that goal, but some years there is a lot less insolation than average. To get a large enough PV array on the roof to supply electricity for six floors, the PV array cantilevers out over the walls. (Incidentally, Hayes knows what he’s talking about relative to solar, as he served in the late-1970s as director of the Solar Energy Research Institute—now the National Renewable Energy Laboratory—in Golden Colorado.)

  • Ground-source heat pump heating and cooling. Twenty-six, 400-foot-deep wells drilled beneath the building provide a heat source and heat sink for the building. Both heating and cooling are delivered through radiant systems. This all-electric system is projected to use only 5% of the electricity produced by the building’s PV system.
  • Lighting and plug loads. Daylighting will provide the vast majority of lighting in the building. Power consumption for electric lighting and plug loads (computers and other devices that plug into outlets) is kept low in part through a unique, internal “cap-and-trade” system in which tenants have specific energy budgets. If they use less electricity than their budget, they can trade with other tenants in the building who may need more. Tenants sign a thick contract that includes penalties if their energy budgets are exceeded. (The International Living Future Institute, which manages the Living Building Challenge, has just moved into the building so will be able to walk the talk.)
  • Rainwater filtration system.
    Photo Credit: Alex Wilson

    Operable windows. Many of the large triple-glazed windows that comprise much of the wall area of the building are operable. Rather than hinging open, the German Schüco mechanisms keep the windows parallel to the wall as they open, which improves the ventilation. The mechanisms are automated but have manual override. To achieve the LBC requirement for local materials, Schüco partnered with a local glazing fabrication company to produce the units, and that company is now going to be a regional producer of high-performance curtainwall systems.

  • Rainwater harvesting. The building has a 56,000-gallon cistern for storage of rainwater that is harvested on the roof. This water, after filtration and multi-stage treatment and polishing, can supply 100% of the building’s water needs, including drinking water, the three ounces of water used per flush in the foam-flush toilets, showers for bicycle commuters (there are showers on each floor), and landscape irrigation. (Permitting issues are still being worked out to allow the building to use only site-harvested water, but hopefully that will be resolved.) Interestingly, while Seattle is cloudy a lot of the time (225 cloudy days per year) and it rains a lot (150 days per year), Hayes told me that the total rainfall is modest: only 37 inches per year on average, compared with 43 for Boston and 49 for New York City. The exception to the self-contained water system is the building’s sprinkler system, which the city required be on municipal water pressure.
  • Composting toilets. To get the building’s water consumption low enough to satisfy it entirely with site-harvested water required composting toilets. The four foam-flush toilets on each floor (24 total) deliver waste to ten Phoenix composting units located in the basement. As far as I know, this is the only building over four stories to rely exclusively on composting toilets.
  • Phoenix composting toilet vessels in the basement. The first "harvest" should be in about 18 months.
    Photo Credit: Alex Wilson

    Durability. The building’s timber structure is designed for a 250-year life, and the building envelope (or skin) has a projected life of 50 years before it will need replacement—which can happen without affecting the structure.

  • Local materials. Reflecting the Pacific Northwest’s timber resource as well as a desire to minimize embodied energy of materials, all of the structural wood for the building is local Douglas fir from forests that were certified to Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) standards. Glulam beams are produced from two-by dimension lumber. Incidentally, the Bullet Center is the largest heavy-timber building constructed in Seattle since the 1920s.
  • Safe materials. Tremendous effort was expended to avoid the use of several hundred red-list chemicals. Manufacturers whose products were used have to go through the International Living Future Institute’s Declare program or produce a Health Product Declaration to certify that red-list chemicals are not used. This feature of the Living Building Challenge is having a huge influence on product manufacturing today, leading to greener products. A number of manufacturers altered their manufacturing to comply with LBC requirements, so other (non-LBC) projects using those materials will benefit.
  • Occupant comfort and daylighting. All tenants in the building will have access to daylight, either from adjacency to outside walls or through glass interior partition walls. Even the stairwell is fully daylit, a particular requirement of Hayes, who calls it the “irresistible stair” that will encourage occupants to walk rather than taking the elevator. Views of downtown Seattle from the stairwell make the walk worthwhile.
Large banners in the open reception area show off features of the Living Building Challenge, including a list of all banned red-list chemicals.
Photo Credit: Alex Wilson


As might be expected, the Bullitt Center wasn’t an inexpensive building. At $18.5 million dollars, or $355 per square foot, this is about $50/sf above the average for high-quality, Class-A office buildings in the region, according to the Bullitt Foundation. But it is a demonstration of pushing the envelope and proving that the environmental impacts of buildings can indeed be dramatically reduced.

Office space in the building is being leased at $28–30 per square foot per year, slightly higher than average for Seattle, but tenants get free electricity and water at that price—as long as they keep within their allotted limits.

The Bullit Center is indeed a milestone building—I believe one of the most important commercial buildings of the past 50 years.

Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. and executive editor of Environmental Building News. In 2012 he founded the Resilient Design Institute. To keep up with Alex’s latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed.

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1 upholstery issues posted by Lydia Spitzer on 05/28/2013 at 01:08 pm

This is exciting news, and shows what can be done with proper planning from the beginning.  However, I noted that nothing was said about the furniture, carpet, etc. used in the building.  I'd be very interested to know what they did for upholstery, since there are no mainstream alternatives to upholstery foam, all of which is made from petroleum, much of which is full of carcinogenic flame retardants, and much of which breaks down molecularly and is either inhaled or absorbed through the skin.  It's at least theoretically possible to get furniture custom-made with latex foam, but I don't know if that works for people with latex intolerance.  Most contract (i.e., non-residential) upholstery is also made of petroleum, and has a large-carbon-footprint manufacturing process.  Very few fabrics are made by processes that aren't environmentally toxic.   Interior Design is one of the last bastions of super-unhealthy, super-non-eco-friendly materials and manufacturing.  I hope LBC addresses these issues, but I wouldn't be surprised if it doesn't.  Maybe the building has no carpets and only wood furniture?  Be good to know.  


2 RE: Upholstery Issues posted by Bill Burke on 05/28/2013 at 07:21 pm

Check the Living Building Challenge at Look at section 11 on materials.

The Bullitt Foundation says they did not ask for any exceptions and that none of the materials on the Red List are in the building.

3 Furniture at the Bullitt Center posted by Alex Wilson on 05/28/2013 at 11:16 pm

In the sixth floor offices of the Bullitt Foundation, the desks and tables were all crafted locally of locally milled hardwood, and the conference room on that floor includes a gorgeous conference table made from huge slabs of an American Elm that died of Dutch Elm Disease. As for chairs on that floor I saw some molded, laminated chairs, an Aeron Chair (I think), and one chair with upholstry that I would bet was red-list compliant. I didn't get as much of a chance to look at the furniture on other floors, but Denis told me that tenants have to sign a thick contract, and I suspect guidelines for acceptable furniture are a part of that.

4 Furniture is not part of LBC posted by Paula Melton on 05/29/2013 at 04:31 am

No doubt the owners are minimizing the toxic content of furniture, but I think it's important to be clear that the Living Building Challenge is about buildings only and does not apply to furnishings. Also, it may well be the case that Bullitt did not request exceptions, but there are several exceptions built into the rating system from the get-go. The all-timber structure is made of glulams, which have a phenol-formaldehyde binder; someone familiar with the project told me there is an exception regarding PF binders in glulams in LBC 2.0, although I don't see that noted in 2.1.

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