by Michael Sarko
– Capitol Hill Times Magazine –
“Everything develops in narrative,” says Denis Hayes as he sits in the conference room of the Bullitt Foundation building in First Hill. The narrative of his own endeavors is one of dissatisfaction with the way things are and ambition for the way things could be. He’s sitting under a light fixture with photoelectric cells that dim the bulb according to the amount of natural light in the room at any given moment. He’s reclining after a day of meetings about how to use new information technology to tell how much power each device in his office is using. He’s sitting in the converted hay loft of one of the oldest buildings in Seattle that has been conserved, retrofitted and kept in the ideological wheelhouse of the family that built it. And in the end, none of that is enough.
Hayes has as many sustainable culture credentials as anyone in the world. He coordinated the very first Earth Day with Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, eventually bringing the observance to 180 nations. He was the head of the Solar Energy Research Institute when the technology was in its infancy. Since 1992, he has been the president of the Bullitt Foundation, an organization that is dedicated to pioneering new technology and educating others about sustainability.
Now Hayes is moving his operation from its home at the house beside the Stimson-Green Mansion on Minor Avenue where the Bullitt Foundation’s creator, Dorothy Bullitt, once lived. He calls the historic site where he has worked for two decades a lovely building in the same breath with which he laments the impossibility of heating the place, the lack of natural light in its old-fashioned design, and the general inefficiency of the whole package.
“We aren’t walking our talk in this building,” Hayes says. That’s why he’s overseeing the construction of the Bullitt Center on 15th and Madison. Given the opportunity, he is devoting this period of his life to creating the so-called “greenest building in the world.”
The Bullitt Center will be a six-story building with a total of approximately 50,000 square feet of space for offices, educational facilities and, most importantly, an entirely self-contained resource system. The idea of the Bullitt Center’s design is to prove the concept of performance-based development and demonstrate that it is indeed possible for a commercial property to generate as much electricity and water as it uses, all with green building materials and the ideals of sustainable living.
It’s a tall order and not one taken lightly. A significant portion of the building’s $30 million price tag has gone to research every aspect of its design, from the wood that makes up the frames, floors and ceilings, to the toxicity of all its construction materials, to the best way to create an efficient skylight. If the Bullitt Center performs as promised, all that research will save other green building developers the time and money the Bullitt Foundation put into its own project – they’re publishing all of their findings on the foundation’s website. That appeal to the bottom line of commercial development is all part of the push to make sustainable construction the new standard.
“If you can make a building by borrowing 90 percent, spending 10 percent and winning it all back after three years, that makes you Donald Trump,” Hayes says of the commercial development business. Thanks to the sale of the Bullitt Foundation real estate portfolio, the new building isn’t a 90/10 case, but profit isn’t the aim. Hayes and company are trying to knock this one out of the park for the Living Building Challenge, a sustainable construction ideal created by Jason F. McLennan and Bob Berkebile of the Cascadia Green Building Council.
The Living Building Challenge lists seven areas with 20 imperatives or “petals” in its criteria for success: site, water, energy, health, materials, equity, and beauty. With the Bullitt Center and its internal workings bare, many of its petals are plain to see.
The site of the Bullitt Center was selected in large part for its Walk Score, a rating of its ease of access for the people who come to and from the building on foot. Walk Score is an advisory service with a board made up of sustainability-focused organizations like The Sightline Institute and independent research foundations like the Brookings Institution. Fifteenth and Madison has a Walk Score of 97 out of 100, making it just one point shy of the most walkable neighborhood in Seattle (the Denny Triangle area rates a 98). As density in Capitol Hill increases, walking, biking and mass transit become even more vital.
In the basement of the Bullitt Center, massive cisterns are currently being installed to hold tens of thousands of gallons of water that will be gathered through a rain-collection system starting on the building’s roof and integrating in the piping throughout the structure. All water, including that from the composting toilets and the showers intended to make biking to work more attractive, will be treated on-site. If the system functions as intended, the Bullitt Center will be water-neutral, collecting as much as it uses.
The most extensive part of the Bullitt Center’s design is its energy profile. A rooftop solar array will generate enough electricity in the power system in the building’s core to ease its electricity demands in the cloudy winter and create a surplus in the summer, resulting in an energy-neutral profile, Hayes promises. The building will still be connected to the Seattle grid and Seattle City Light will have domain of the generator room. The building’s nearly end-to-end windows will make the most of natural light and heat. As for electric lights and other powered devices, Hayes has a simple, low-tech solution: task usage. Plainly, almost every lamp, computer, fan or other energy-consuming device in the building will demand the flip of a switch to use. If it’s not being used, it’s not on and if it’s not on, it’s not consuming electricity.
“Look out the window. It’s a sea of green,” Hayes says. “Nature builds itself to capture the most sunlight it can. We’ll do this, too. It may be comparatively inefficient at first, but it’s also cheap.”
The figures for solar power’s long-term outlook support Hayes’s claims. A study by George Washington University in 2011 of the comparative costs of solar and coal or natural gas power not only showed a steady decline in the price of solar systems over the past decade, it also indicated a very positive prognosis for solar into the next century. The heaviest burden of cost for solar energy systems is found in the purchase and installation of the hardware. This can come out to as much as $3 per watt in the first year. But the maintenance costs of solar are low, the cost of continued power generation is minor and the systems themselves have roughly five times the lifespan of coal or natural gas systems.
Walking up to what is currently an empty shaft gazing out at Madison, Denis Hayes envisions what he calls “the irresistible stairway,” a window-encircled staircase that will catch a panoramic view of Seattle that increases with each floor. The entrance level looks at the immediate neighborhood. The second level looks down Madison into the heart of the Pike/Pine corridor. After that it’s a significant portion of the rooftops in Capitol Hill, then the downtown skyline, then the whole of the city, its hills, and Lake Washington. Hayes hopes the stairway’s view and the inconspicuous design of the elevator will encourage people to get some exercise in his new building.
“Just don’t make a habit of forgetting something in your bike’s saddle bag,” he says.
Much of the Bullitt Center consists of lumber certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, a group that promotes sustainable wood farming practices. FSC-certified lumber meets criteria ranging from the long-term use of farming land to the rights of the workers who maintain it and many other environmental and social justice ideals. These extra steps in sourcing and certification naturally make the lumber more expensive, though how much more expensive depends on the kind of wood. According to the Rainforest Alliance, FSC-certified luxury varieties like cherry wood may cost as much as $200 more per thousand feet of board, but maple, oak and ash lumber will only run $15 to $40 more per thousand feet.
FSC wood products are growing in popularity. Many in the sustainability community are hoping this increases demand and lowers the associated costs. The Bullitt Center certainly contributes to this demand, but its plans haven’t been able to touch one particular order from 2007. Scholastic Press printed the majority of the final volume in the “Harry Potter” book series on FSC paper, accounting for some 16,700 tons of paper.
Some of the trees associated with the Bullitt Center are still standing, though. The park across from the building site, which is seldom used and full of litter, will soon be a public plaza designed and planted as part of the project. It will contain local vegetation, benches and other features as a gift to the community.
When the Bullitt Center opens its doors in November, Hayes and the foundation will rent the space to other organizations like the United States Green Building Council – Cascadia Division and the University of Washington. Other potential tenants are touring the space today. If the building performs as intended, and Hayes is confident that it will, the Bullitt Center will be the first commercial Living Building in Seattle. This distinction, as Hayes told the attendees at the EcoDistrict community forum in Capitol Hill earlier this year, is one he hopes it will maintain “for about six months.”
“We want to introduce Seattle to how to integrate these things into its grid,” he says. The point of the Bullitt Center for him, his foundation and their partners throughout the city, is to prove the concept of the energy-neutral, water-neutral, attractive commercial building in a 21st century American city. A lot is riding on the building’s success above and beyond the $30 million the foundation is spending on it. Hayes has been working with the government of Seattle and the state of Washington to create an alternative building code that makes performance-based sustainable construction legal and viable for developers all over the city. The Bullitt Center has attracted the attention of everyone from the Army Corps of Engineers to Kaiser Permanente. It would also be the first success in the Seattle Department of Development’s Living Building Pilot Program that seeks to create 12 Living Building structures around the city.
But as big as this project is, both physically and conceptually, the tone of the narrative for Hayes is ultimately still local.
“We really want to be good neighbors,” he says. Then he turns off the lights in his conference room and heads downstairs in the Bullitt Foundation’s current office, about to prepare for an upcoming university debate on sustainable energy solutions. It’s a discussion he’s been leading since 1970 and an argument he just might win in 2012.