From High-Rise to Low Impact: A Building That Mimics a Forest
It’s nearly 100 feet tall, fed by the sun and rain that fall on it, and is composed largely of wood. But it’s not a tree.
It’s the world’s greenest office building.
The Bullitt Center, finished in the summer of 2013 and located on the edge of Seattle’s downtown, is designed to mimic the Douglas fir forests that once stood on the site.
Powered by sun and fed by rainwater, the building doesn't produce any waste. Its automated window shades open and close like an organism’s pupil, regulating the amount of light that enters. The 600-panel solar array, which is expected to generate all the energy the building needs in a year, is arranged on the roof so that rays of sunlight can pass through and create a dappled pattern on the sidewalk below — similar to the way light passes through a forest canopy. And all the wood used in the structure came from local forests that harvest trees sustainably.
Designed to be as self sufficient as any arboreal ecosystem, the center also has a 56,000-gallon cistern, which will provide tenants with all their water needs. All waste generated will be treated on site thanks to the world's first six-story composting toilet system, and a rain garden will filter the wastewater from sinks, showers, and floor drains.
“Nature has had a long time to figure out how to live successfully on this planet,” says Jason F. McLennan, founder and creator of the Living Building Challenge, the most rigorous certification process for green building. “There is a lot we can learn from it.”
Imitating the processes, systems, and designs found in nature, or biomimicry, has inspired such things as swimsuits for Olympic athletes (sharkskin), hook-and-loop fasteners (burdock seed husks), and highly efficient turbines (humpback whale fins). Although biomimicry has been around for a while, it is attracting renewed attention as a way to create more eco-friendly designs.
“We thought we could circumvent the laws of nature with our cleverness and by our ability to manipulate materials and fossil fuels,” says Robert Peña, associate professor of architecture at the University of Washington’s Integrated Design Lab and a Bullitt Center design consultant. “But a lot of us are realizing that we circumvent those laws at our own peril. And we’re rediscovering biomimicry as an important part of the solution to our environmental challenges.”
One example of the discipline’s resurgence is the Living Building Challenge, which advocates for biomimicry-inspired design solutions. The Challenge has grown steadily since its inception in 2006, and now more than 200 projects around the world, including the Bullitt Center, are attempting to qualify for “Living Building” status. Unlike other green building certifications, living buildings must prove for a full year that they are in balance with nature. They must generate all their own energy from renewable sources; their water needs must be met by the precipitation that falls on them; and they must treat wastewater and sewage on site.
As a result of mimicking a Douglas fir forest, the Bullitt Center is 80 percent more efficient than a typical commercial structure. And building more efficient spaces has the potential not only to address many of America’s energy issues but also to blunt the impacts of climate change, Peña says.
“About 48 percent of the overall energy we use in the United States is consumed by buildings,” he says. “So we have a huge opportunity to reduce the carbon we put into the atmosphere by making more efficient and effective use of buildings.”
Peña hopes the Bullitt Center will inspire other builders and help spark a green building boom. For that reason, the structure was built in a way that could be replicated. And the Center’s designers plan on sharing their newfound knowledge with the wider building community.
“If this building is still the greenest of its type in a decade, we’ll have utterly failed,” Peña adds. “It’s all about inspiring the next generation of designers, builders, and rule makers to do it and do it better.”