Bullitt Center: The World’s Greenest BuildingApr.18.2019
Throughout history, people have sought connections with nature. In particular, designers have observed nature, investigated its materials, and abstracted its forms and qualities.
The Garden of Secrets, a collaborative project between TEALEAVES and UBC Botanical Garden, dives into the realm of plant-inspired biomimicry and biophilic design with the goal of celebrating nature beyond its edible, visual and medicinal properties.
Denis Hayes is the President of the Bullitt Foundation, located in Seattle. He is an environmental advocate and also 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—the world’s greenest office building—which it operates as a commercial enterprise.
How did you first get interested in environmental advocacy and what has inspired you to take on this role?
When I was in high school, I was offered an opportunity to go to an ecology institute that was underwritten by the National Science Foundation. I had never heard the word ecology, basically nobody had back then, but this was a chance to get away from the small paper milling community that I had grown up in and meet some other people. I had always been decent at science and I thought that it would be a chance to learn something. I went there and I planted the seeds.
The Cuban Missile Crisis happened the year that I graduated from high school. We were beginning to have a war in Southeast Asia that I was convinced my country was on the wrong side of. There was a civil rights movement going on down south. There were all of these bad things happening and I couldn’t figure out any way in my own little world that I could have any impact on any of that. I got a backpack and went hitchhiking around the world for three years. During that time I read a lot of literature. I went hitchhiking down the west coast of Africa and spent a lot of time in southern Africa, up the east coast, all throughout India.
One night, in what is now Namibia, I had an epiphany that, if you speak of it today, it sounds so obvious that you think, “How in the world can anybody think this was a great insight?” Back then, it sort of was. It was the recognition that humans are animals. The recognition that we too are part of the global biosphere that we need to abide by principles of ecology. If we did, it would not solve all of the problems that we have out there. There’d still be war, there’d still be racism but there were a whole bunch of things that created dysfunctional cities and unhealthy people that we can cure if we began to not fight nature but figure out how to work with nature.
What is the Bullitt Foundation?
The Bullitt Foundation is a philanthropy set up with the estate of a Dorthy Bullitt who was an exceptional pioneer in broadcasting, had the first network television station west of the Mississippi, won Pulitzer Prizes, and had the first television station to editorialize against the war in Vietnam. Just a very unusual sort of empire in the Pacific Northwest. When she died, her children put the bulk of her estate into a foundation to protect the environment of this region, so we basically used to operate every place that the signal of King Broadcasting use to reach. That was her company.
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.
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 and since we invested about one third of the total assets of the foundation in building this building, we had to succeed. 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.
How has the creation of the Bullitt Center driven change in the built environment in the United States?
The most important contribution of the Bullitt Center to the built environment is that prior to building it, when we met with real estate developers, including very green real estate developers, and told them what we were aspiring to do, getting all of our water from rain, producing more electricity on any given year than we use and yet doing that in a tall building, the uniform response was, “That’s just not possible.” I made the mistake of taking the Chair of my board to one of my first meetings with such a developer and he just scoffed at it. He said, “You wouldn’t be able to generate enough electricity to meet the plug loads of your tenants, much less operate the building from the sunlight that falls on it.” I spent a fair amount of time convincing my Chair that he was wrong, although he built 30 buildings and I never built any buildings. This was an uphill intellectual struggle.
How is it possible to design our cities like ecosystems and why should we do it?
We should design all of human society around ecological principles and that includes cities. 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. All these sorts of things should apply to us as well. We too have carrying capacities, we too need to be making far more efficient use of energy.
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 proved vulnerable to whatever has happened, 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.
As a huge proponent of solar power, in what ways can learning from plants help advance this area of research?
There’s a marvelous phenomenon that takes place in a variety of different ways where a photon of sunlight will excite some material and split off an electron by giving it a burst of energy. Then that electron can go someplace where it can do some work, if it’s an electrical circuit it will return to where it was. In the plant world, that’s what is of course existing for most of the last billion years until the last 100, 150, that was all done through photosynthesis. A relatively inefficient process that has the marvelous characteristic that it reproduces itself. It produces its own support structure for the active part of the plant, its stems.
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.
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