How To: Build the World’s Most Sustainable Office Building

Denis Hayes Explains the Intricate Functions of the Bullitt Center

Denis Hayes
Carly Williams

50 years after founding Earth Day, Denis Hayes is still pushing the environmental movement forward.

The Bullitt Center is a fully operational and tenanted office building that produces more energy than it consumes. In the interview below, Denis reveals what aspects of nature based design were applied to the building, and what environmental strides they have led to.

How does the Bullitt Center set a positive example for blending ecological environments?

The Bullitt Center is quite a remarkable building. It’s a place that, despite the fact that it’s right smack in the middle of a major urban area, it tries to function like an organism. It has a skin that operates a lot like the skin of an animal. When it’s getting too hot inside, the windows pop open automatically.

The computer that is the brains of the building knows where the sun is on the horizon at every hour of every day of the year because the sun’s at the same place every day of the year. But without having sensors, the brain wouldn’t know whether it’s cloudy, whether it’s hot, whether it’s raining, whether the wind is blowing. We’ve got sensors inside the building that tell you what the internal temperature is and whether the building is starting to get a little bit stuffy as carbon dioxide is building up.

In short, it functions like an organism that is designed to maintain a certain set of conditions that are optimal for human beings.

What functions, from looking at the Douglas Fir forest, were applied to the design of the Bullitt Center?

I started talking about the relationship between the Bullitt Center and Douglas Fir forests early on because I was treating it mostly as a metaphor. Living buildings that are responsive to their environment have to be designed for a particular locality. A building that would be excellent in Phoenix wouldn’t work in Anchorage or in Chicago or in Atlanta.

You can get some insights as to what conditions prevail in various places by looking at what was there before Western civilization showed up and started turning it into a barren mono-culture. This area used to be filled with Douglas Fir forests. We spoke about trying to design a building that would do well in a place where the skies are grey for seven or eight months of the year. Where there’s not a huge amount of rainfall but there’s a little bit of rainfall every day for most of the year. There are things that are similar in the Bullitt Center to the way that a Douglas Fir tree operates, as are in any living building, they all live off of the sunshine that falls off of them, they all use only the rain that falls on their roofs.

You can get some insights as to what conditions prevail in various places by looking at what was there before Western civilization showed up and started turning it into a barren mono-culture.

How is it possible to design our cities like ecosystems and why should we do it?

We tend to forget that we’re animals.

We think of animals as dogs and cats and cows and deer and zebra but we’re not vegetables, we’re not minerals. We are what’s left. Animals are dependent on the ecosystems that they live in, all series of ecological principles.

Dealing with the resilience that comes out of diversity, dealing with carrying capacity, the most profound ecological lesson is probably about energy efficiency. Photosynthesis is between half a percent and two, two and a half percent efficient, meaning that the energy that it captures is enormously valuable. All of the real animal world is driven by the need to make the most efficient possible use of that captured energy that it gets directly or indirectly from plants. We too have carrying capacities, we too need to be making far more efficient use of energy.

As a huge proponent of solar power, in what ways can learning from plants help advance this area of research?

We have to use those new generations of flexible solar cells, drive the cost down cheap enough that we can put them on the south face of the building, on the east face of the building, on the west face of the building, where all can be harvesting sunlight as well as the roof, and turn those cities into something that looks like a biologically based ecosystem that’s got photosynthesis capturing sunlight from every direction except we’ll be capturing it through solar cells.

How has the Bullitt Center broken environment sustainability records?

The Bullitt Center set out to be the most environmentally sustainable building in the world. That’s a fairly ambitious goal to set for ourselves.

I wasn’t confident that we would make it; every developer that I talked to before we got started said that our goals were impossible but we swallowed hard and went for it. The kinds of things that have been achieved are, for example, on the energy front, we use about one fifth as much energy per square foot as a building built to code in Seattle. Seattle has one of the three or four toughest energy codes in the United States. We use one half as much energy per square foot as the second most efficient building in Seattle, that’s the LEED Platinum building, that’s on the other side of town.

We are the only six story structure in the world that has net energy positive from sunlight that falls on our roof. Remember this is Seattle, there’s not that much sunlight that falls on the roof. There are a lot of 1 story and 2 story buildings that are net energy positive. We’re the only one that is 6 stories and we’re quite proud of having done that in Seattle.

In terms of water, we use 5% as much water per square foot as the average office building in Seattle. We get all of our water for all purposes, including potable drinking water, from the rain that falls on the roof. We are less troubled by a lack of rain than we are by a lack of sun. We treat all of our sewage right on site, we don’t send it out to a sanitary sewage treatment facility. We treat our grey water on site as well and inject it into the water table right outside the building after it’s been filtered and run through a green roof a few times.

It’s the only commercial office building in the United States that is project certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. Every piece of wood in the building, literally all of the structural mass that you see, the ceilings, has all come from an FSC certified forest. We were the first major project in the United States to not use anything that is carcinogenic, endocrine-disrupting, in any way toxic or harmful either to the tenants in the building or to the workers that were building the building or to the people in the factories who made the things that the workers assembled to put the building together. In general, I think it is not only the most environmentally sustainable but arguably the most comfortable and the most productivity enhancing building that probably that exists.

What is the case for biomimicry towards building a sustainable future?

Mother Nature has been wrestling with life under a variety of conditions for a very long time on the planet. Life has survived huge volcanoes that knocked off much of it. It’s survived huge meteor strikes that knocked off much of the life on the planet and yet there’s been a resilience that pops through. It seems to be founded upon having a wide diversity of different kinds of things so that even if something has proves vulnerable to what happens, other things will survive. I think that’s just an enormously important lesson for us. We, as a species, have tended to strive to produce mono-cultures.

We wanted to produce more and more and partly that was to grow a population that got bigger and bigger and bigger but at some point, I recognize the controversiality of all of this but it’s not very scientifically controversial. The population cannot continue to grow forever on a finite planet and you can build a pretty compelling case that we are already well beyond the carrying capacity of Planet Earth for a lifestyle that is equal to that of Switzerland or Sweden or Japan, much less the United States. We have to adjust to that hopefully voluntarily, bring our numbers down beneath that carrying capacity and then begin to meet it with broad, diverse crops as opposed to striving for maximum production with all of the vulnerabilities that that entails.

Denis Hayes is the President of the Bullitt Foundation, located in Seattle. He is an environmental advocate and the founder of Earth Day Network. As president of the Bullitt Foundation, Denis leads an effort to mold the major cities of Pacific Northwest and British Columbia into models of sustainability for a rapidly urbanizing planet. The Foundation applies ecological principles to the design of healthy, resilient human ecosystems. Under his leadership, the Foundation designed and constructed the Bullitt Center.


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