The Science of Sustainability

From High-Rise to Low Impact: A Building That Mimics a Forest

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Bullitt Center Seattle Green Building Living Building Challenge

The Bullitt Center, a six-story commercial structure that opened this summer in Seattle, is considered the world's greenest office building. Photo courtesy KCTS 9

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.

Bullitt_forest

Photo courtesy KCTS 9

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.”

Bullitt Center Seattle Green Building Living Building Challenge

The 600-panel solar array is expected to supply all the energy the building needs. Photo courtesy KCTS 9

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.”

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Category: Blog, Energy, Engineering

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Michael James Werner

About the Author ()

Michael Werner is an award-winning independent filmmaker, photographer and writer. His work has been featured in/by: The PBS NewsHour, HBO Films, The Associated Press, Earthfix, Oregon Field Guide, KCTS-9 Seattle, Voice of America TV, The World Channel, the U.S. Olympic Committee and the Cannes International Film Festival. In addition he is a former faculty member at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and holds a master’s degree in narrative journalism. In 2010 he spent five weeks exploring the Democratic Republic of the Congo for a documentary project and developed an appreciation for the taste of curried caterpillars.
  • suzie

    unique. innovative. Keep up the good work. I'm so happy to hear such musical words "local" "non-toxic" "biomimicry" etc.

  • Kenny Sommer

    Very to see this on twitter and then read about it here. I hope this way of building grows and grows in the near future. I don't see any of the small wind mills but sweet. I love seeing labs like Argonne and others getting funding for continued research and development of even better green technologies.

  • Dan J

    80% better than typical building? Not in Seattle. Per Bullitt's own marketing materials, it is only 60% better than worst project you can legally build there (and most exceed that)

    • rbicknese

      80% better than a typical office building and 60% better than Seattle's energy code (one of the most stringent in the country) is exceptional. And to make up the difference with renewable energy is fantastic! And then to achieve so many other far reaching environmental goals such as using rainwater for all its water needs and treating its own human and greywater "waste". Starts to eliminate the concept of waste when waste is not waste anymore. Inspiration from a Douglass fir forest. Tree-mendous!

  • Kate D

    This is timely, thrilling. Let's see the results after the first year.