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November 29, 2012

‘Teaching building’ offers lessons on urban sustainability

  • Capitol Hill site was selected for its proximity to homes and schools, and to help attract new commercial development.


    As a once-in-a lifetime project opportunity, the Bullitt Center is designed to be anything but that.

    The Bullitt Foundation conceived the project to advance what is possible with green building technology today, but more importantly, to arm future building projects with the potential to transform our urban environments into truly sustainable communities. This potential is the project’s guiding principle, and has informed every decision, from site selection and building program to public policy change and building materials research. It has resulted in a stunning new landmark that will continue to further the region’s leadership in green building.

    The location at 15th and Madison was driven by the desire for a site that was visible, highly accessible, with very good solar access. The proximity to private and public schools and universities strengthened the center’s ability to become a teaching building.

    Photo courtesy of the Bullitt Center [enlarge]
    The glass-enclosed stair tower on the left side of the building is intended to encourage people to skip the elevator.

    It has the power to attract new commercial development along the Madison Street corridor, and with it new higher-income jobs. It is close to where people live, offering a less costly commute and a higher quality of life.

    The building lies within the city’s urban village overlay zone, where we had the opportunity to build with parking for bikes only, reflecting trends from cities all over the world where younger generations are choosing healthier ways of traveling.

    The recently published Capitol Hill EcoDistrict report shares an interesting factoid: Where one car per household is Seattle’s average, it drops to 0.8 per household on Capitol Hill, and 0.6 in the Pike-Pine neighborhood. I suspect this figure will drop even more with the arrival of light rail, the streetcar and possibly bus rapid transit right on Madison, currently under review by the city.

    Land-use help

    It goes without saying that the project could not have been possible without strong leadership within the public sector, and support from the Department of Planning and Development’s Living Building Pilot Program in particular. The program was designed to identify “roadblocks” to advanced sustainability within the city’s land use code, and to further a high-performance “climate-based design vernacular” that looks beyond proscriptive codes.

    Thus, the Bullitt Center’s narrow shape and increased floor-to-floor heights resulted in no additional floor area, but helped dramatically reduce the amount of energy required for lighting and ventilation. Operable windows (and big ones at that) create a more energy-efficient environment and one that has been shown to increase productivity, reduce sick days and is generally a more pleasant place to be.

    As we continue to work through codes that govern our use of captured rainwater and allow us to manage wastewater on site through constructed wetlands, I envision the pilot program broadened to include other city departments and public agencies, allowing our civic aspirations to be met with greater efficiencies and shared thinking.

    Speaking of health, the Living Building Challenge — the project’s sustainability standard authored here in Seattle — includes a material “red list” imperative to eliminate the use of building products that contain known toxins — the carcinogens, hormone-mimicking endocrine disrupters and other really gross stuff that make people and our planet very sick.

    A recent study first brought to us by National Public Radio revealed that Puget Sound’s orca population has the highest concentration of halogenated flame retardants and pesticides of any mammal on earth. My colleague Joe David spearheaded an in-depth vetting of over 1,100 products, eliminating toxins where possible, and in some cases working with manufacturers to reformulate products that will forever eliminate the identified hazards.

    What’s possible

    As you travel down Madison Street, you will see the building’s grand staircase distinct from the main building form. Occupying the building’s best real estate, it offers views of the mountains and city skyline, providing joyful access to upper office floors and reducing energy-consuming elevator rides.

    When tenants move in early next year and the building opens to the public on Earth Day 2013 (April 22), it will mark this moment in time by showing what’s possible. And through continued research and education at the building’s public resource center, which will open onto a new neighborhood park, the opportunity to advance high-performing living buildings and build more sustainable urban neighborhoods throughout the Northwest will continue long into the future.

    Nonprofit partners and institutions, including Cascadia, the International Living Futures Institute, the University of Washington, Seattle University and the Seattle Parks Foundation, are working with us to ensure that happens.

    At a recent gathering, I heard a developer of downtown properties tout the accomplishments of the Bullitt Center but advocate for the next project to encompass more buildings at a district-wide scale. At another, our state commissioner of public lands remarked that a return to structured timber-framing makes good environmental and economic sense, and that Washington state should have been able to provide 100 percent of the Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood needed at the Bullitt Center (as opposed to shared sourcing from Idaho and Oregon).

    They’re absolutely right. With one nearly completed project under our belt, this and more is possible. It is precisely this level of transformation the Bullitt Center was designed to inspire.

    Chris Rogers is CEO of Point32, development partner for the Bullitt Center.

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