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Brian Court to speak at Architectural Record Webinar on December 3, 2020
Eco Terrace: Creating the energy blueprint for a more equitable future
Challenge & Change: Miller Hull’s Living Building Practice
The era of harm reduction, half steps and lesser evils is behind us. As a society, we need to be bold in ways that were once unimaginable. Luckily in the building sector, we now can imagine where we need to go. In fact, we don’t need to just imagine it. We can touch, experience, learn from, and replicate it.Denis Hayes
The Bullitt Center has drawn people from around the world to see its precedent-setting sustainability features, creating a sort of architectural “pilgrimage site” that proves the capabilities of regenerative architecture and the potential it has to lessen humanity’s environmental footprint. Although much of its technology has been built upon, it remains a true marvel in the built environment and AEC industries, forever changing the way we build with its zero-energy footprint and its adherence to the Living Building Challenge, the most arduous and ambitious sustainability certification in the industry.
An urban office building, the Bullitt Center is conceived as a replicable model to drive change in the marketplace, intending to demonstrate a commercially-viable structure that can be used again and again for a building of any function and purpose. In partnership with the City of Seattle, the six-story building is the first to participate in the Living Building Pilot Program, designed to identify current barriers to sustainability and leverage learning for future building projects. As the first of the program, Bullitt Center is also the nation’s first urban mid-rise commercial project to meet the goals of the Living Building Challenge, revolutionizing codes and building practices.
The Bullitt Center achieves Net Zero energy using 100% on-site renewable energy generation from photovoltaic technology. Designed as a leasable Class A office building, Net Zero water is also achieved using a 50,000-gallon rainwater cistern, efficient vacuum flush toilets, and an on-site constructed wetland to treat graywater prior to infiltration. At the same time, the project acts as a catalyst for regulatory change, allowing use of rainwater for potable water in urban areas. In 2018, after regulatory updates, the Bullitt Center turned on their system to provide drinking water from captured rainwater. Native plant restoration, bio-swales and pervious pavement, as well as storm water runoff are retained onsite, reducing pollutants that endanger the health of Puget Sound. Even the adjacent park became the world’s first certified Living Building Challenge park by supporting stormwater management and biodiversity enhancements within the urban landscape.
In 2021, the building’s composting toilets were replaced with water efficient vacuum flush toilets to provide a better user experience and less maintenance for staff. Rather than considering this move a failure, our team sees it as a triumph. “The Bullitt Center is a giant science experience” said Denis Hayes, CEO of the Bullitt Foundation and leader of the project. “We integrated lots of bleeding-edge technologies. If everything had worked perfectly, that might have meant we hadn’t been bold enough.”
The attention-getting elements of the Bullitt Center—onsite renewable energy, water and waste management, as well as a safe, naturally day-lit and ventilated work environment built to last 250 years—follow from an equally exciting integrated design process that enabled us to move beyond the traditionally linear design, engineering and construction process. In considering first and foremost how to design a building with essentially no environmental footprint, it was energizing to identify imaginative and elegant ways to beautifully express the building’s core performance functions through design strategies using a mix of existing and new technologies, systems, and materials. While in one sense we had to do more with less, as an integrated design team, we happily found that designing to high-performance targets actually opened up numerous formal design opportunities. As we have found useful over the years, the building technology, envelope, and supporting structure are designed as separate components that can easily be updated to meet needs of the next generation users as advancements are made without seriously impacting other key aspects of the building.
The Bullitt Center takes cues from nature and has been compared to a living organism incorporating simplicity and efficiency in its interconnected systems. Open concept floor plates with operable floor-to-ceiling windows maximize daylight and natural ventilation; heavy-timber framing—which has not been used in a downtown Seattle office building since the 1920’s was selected given its prominence as a renewable regional material offering strength, beauty and carbon sequestration; a required exit stair, normally buried in the center of a floor plate is brought to the perimeter and named the ‘irresistible stair’—because of the stunning views to the Seattle skyline that encourage occupants to take the stairs instead of the elevator; highly efficient windows and fully automated exterior blinds which provide an interesting, layered façade while adjusting throughout the day; and most visibly, the overhanging photovoltaic panel array on the roof which provides all power for the building with a nod to Northwest regional design vernacular. The building has been operating on a net positive basis since it open in 2013.
As the first urban structure of its kind, educational outreach, learning, and discovery about the buildings’ environmental story is at the core of the Bullitt Foundation’s mission. The lower floor of the building houses the Center for Energy and Urban Ecology and the International Living Future Institute – the organization that created the Living Building Challenge. Programmed by nonprofit and public agency partners—including the University of Washington’s College of Built Environments—the Center features an open resource library, classrooms, exhibition space and a research laboratory dedicated to the training of pioneers who will lead our green economy.
Through regularly scheduled public tours, thousands of visitors – government officials, developers, designers, and students — have traveled to see the Bullitt Center, making this project a vital resource for people to learn about green buildings and urban sustainability, and then go design and build their own.
Serving as a living laboratory of environmental awareness since its opening, the Bullitt Center highlights the interconnectedness of sustainable design to architecture, energy use, materials sourcing, government policy, and financing; and will continue to be marveled at as a game-changing project for years to come.
© 2023 — The Miller Hull Partnership, LLP