Happy Earth Day! Wait, you didn't know it was Earth Day? You probably aren't alone. The 43-year-old fauxliday has declined in popularity over the past few years, perhaps because it's been so thoroughly co-opted by companies interested in associating with sustainability—it's easy to be cynical about greenwashing.
But in Seattle today, a sincerely exciting development is taking place: the opening of the Bullitt Center, a building that may end up being the world's greenest office space. Its tentative title comes thanks to the Living Building Challenge, a new, more thorough measurement system that tells us more about just how Gaea-friendly our buildings truly are.
The six-story structure, located in Seattle's Capitol Hill, is designed to be a "living laboratory" for green design, operated by the sustainability-minded Bullitt Foundation. What makes it so efficient? For starters, the center's photovoltaic roof array will generate as much energy as the building uses. A huge rainwater filtration system will collect and filter every bit of rain that falls. Five gigantic composting bins process "matter" from the toilets, and the structure itself was built using completely non-toxic materials—a rarity in construction. All of these systems are packed inside of a glass wall, where the public is free to stop by and inspect them.
The center is also the first heavy timber office building to be built in Seattle for decades. "[It's] designed to last 250 years, sequestering tons of carbon in its heavy timber structure," explained the Foundation's leaders in a recent press release. But the wood serves another purpose—it absorbs sound, helping to keep the building quiet. "Part of the challenge, beauty, and success of the Bullitt Center is that the structure is also the finish material," says architect Nina Smith-Gardiner.
Behavioral elements abound, as well; a beautiful stairwell that leads to a eye-boggling view of Puget Sound encourages taking the stairs, while the only garage is a small one for bikes, and a precise gauging system will be used to keep track of electricity use among tenants.
So, why is the Bullitt Center any different from other claimants to the greenest-building-ever throne? Because the Living Building Challenge bases its certifications on an entire year of performance data, looking at the structure as a whole rather than a series of green details. Right now, most American buildings are judged using LEED, which awards clients and architects "credits" for green elements ranging from daylighting schemes to showers for employees who cycle to work. But the Living Building Challenge plays to the concerns of a growing number of critics who argue that we need to think bigger, slower, and more holistically about green space.
If and when the Bullitt Center is crowned as "the greenest commercial ever built," it'll be ratified by months of data, rather than a preliminary estimate based on a checklist (though according to one commenter, LEED is now implementing a similar year-long analysis). It sounds minor, but the shift could change how we think about sustainability in the long term.
Right now, there are less than 200 Living Building Challenge-certified buildings in the world—and according to the New York Times, only three of them are located in the United States. That's admittedly a small sample size, but in the same way that SEALs are a small sample of the Navy. And beyond any certifications or awards, we know for a fact that the Bullitt Center is 83% more energy efficient than Seattle's average commercial site. For a city where LEED-certified buildings are plentiful, that's saying a lot.