Blog Post

America’s Greenest Office Building

The Bullitt Center in Seattle is showing that a six-story, 52,000 square-foot building can meet the net-zero-energy, net-zero-water Living Building Challenge

The new Bullitt Center with its cantilevered cap of PV modules.

Photo: Alex Wilson

I’m just back from a week in Seattle, where I attended the Living Future Conference, which this year had a theme of resilience and regeneration—a major focus of mine with the Resilient Design Institute. While there I visited what is almost certainly the greenest office building in America if not the world.

The Living Future Conference was created initially to provide a networking and learning venue for designers and builders involved in creating buildings that achieve the Living Building Challenge. Unlike its better known cousin, the LEED Rating System (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) of the U.S. Green Building Council, the Living Building Challenge (LBC) is not a points-based system, but rather a collection of very specific, very challenging requirements.

To achieve LBC certification, buildings must:

  • operate on a net-zero-energy basis—using no more energy, on an annual basis, than is collected by the building (LBC certification can not be earned until a full year of data is collected proving that it is actually operating to be zero-net-energy);
  • operate on a net-zero water basis—using no more water on an annual basis than is collected on the site;
  • contain no “red list” chemicals—the LBC maintains a long list of chemicals that cannot be used, including polyvinyl chloride (PVC), brominated flame retardants, and heavy metals like the mercury found in fluorescent lights; and
  • address various other requirements related to the building site, health, equity, and beauty (yes, beauty). Each of these categories (energy, water, materials, site, health, equity, and beauty) are referred to as petals in the program.

Denis Hayes, president of the Bullitt Foundation, explaining features of the building.

Photo: Alex Wilson


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Needless to say, achieving LBC certification is very hard. Since the launch of the program seven years ago only a handful of buildings have achieved full certification (4 and counting), and another half-dozen have been recognized for achieving LBC requirements in individual petals. When it comes to larger, multi-story office buildings, the requirements for LBC have seemed almost out of the realm of possibility—at least until now.

The Bullitt Center

The Bullitt Center is a remarkable building that is well on its way to becoming the first sizable commercial office building to achieve LBC certification. The six-story, 52,000 square-foot commercial building, which is owned by (and houses) the Bullitt Foundation, had its grand opening on Earth Day this year (particularly appropriate, since the long-time president of the Bullitt Foundation, Denis Hayes, was the director of the first Earth Day in 1970).

The building was designed by the Miller Hull Partnership in Seattle, with other members of the integrated design team including Point32PAE Consulting Engineers, FousheeLuma Lighting Design, 2020 Engineering and Berger Partnership.

Rainwater filtration system.

Photo: Alex Wilson

Among the building’s features:

Rainwater harvesting

The building has a 56,000-gallon cistern for storage of rainwater that is harvested on the roof. This water, after filtration and multi-stage treatment and polishing, can supply 100% of the building’s water needs, including drinking water, the three ounces of water used per flush in the foam-flush toilets, showers for bicycle commuters (there are showers on each floor), and landscape irrigation. (Permitting issues are still being worked out to allow the building to use only site-harvested water, but hopefully that will be resolved.) Interestingly, while Seattle is cloudy a lot of the time (225 cloudy days per year) and it rains a lot (150 days per year), Hayes told me that the total rainfall is modest: only 37 inches per year on average, compared with 43 for Boston and 49 for New York City. The exception to the self-contained water system is the building’s sprinkler system, which the city required be on municipal water pressure.

Composting toilets

To get the building’s water consumption low enough to satisfy it entirely with site-harvested water required composting toilets. The four foam-flush toilets on each floor (24 total) deliver waste to ten Phoenix composting units located in the basement. As far as I know, this is the only building over four stories to rely exclusively on composting toilets.


The building’s timber structure is designed for a 250-year life, and the building envelope (or skin) has a projected life of 50 years before it will need replacement—which can happen without affecting the structure.

Phoenix composting toilet vessels in the basement. The first "harvest" should be in about 18 months.

Photo: Alex Wilson

Local materials

Reflecting the Pacific Northwest’s timber resource as well as a desire to minimize embodied energy of materials, all of the structural wood for the building is local Douglas fir from forests that were certified to Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) standards. Glulam beams are produced from two-by dimension lumber. Incidentally, the Bullet Center is the largest heavy-timber building constructed in Seattle since the 1920s.

Safe materials

Tremendous effort was expended to avoid the use of several hundred red-list chemicals. Manufacturers whose products were used have to go through the International Living Future Institute’s Declare program or produce a Health Product Declaration to certify that red-list chemicals are not used. This feature of the Living Building Challenge is having a huge influence on product manufacturing today, leading to greener products. A number of manufacturers altered their manufacturing to comply with LBC requirements, so other (non-LBC) projects using those materials will benefit.

A triple-glazed, low-e, operable window. The exterior shades can still be deployed with the windows open.

Photo: Alex Wilson

Occupant comfort and daylighting

All tenants in the building will have access to daylight, either from adjacency to outside walls or through glass interior partition walls. Even the stairwell is fully daylit, a particular requirement of Hayes, who calls it the “irresistible stair” that will encourage occupants to walk rather than taking the elevator. Views of downtown Seattle from the stairwell make the walk worthwhile.


As might be expected, the Bullitt Center wasn’t an inexpensive building. At $18.5 million dollars, or $355 per square foot, this is about $50/sf above the average for high-quality, Class-A office buildings in the region, according to the Bullitt Foundation. But it is a demonstration of pushing the envelope and proving that the environmental impacts of buildings can indeed be dramatically reduced.

Office space in the building is being leased at $28–30 per square foot per year, slightly higher than average for Seattle, but tenants get free electricity and water at that price—as long as they keep within their allotted limits.

The Bullitt Center is indeed a milestone building—I believe one of the most important commercial buildings of the past 50 years.

Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. In 2012 he founded the Resilient Design Institute. To keep up with Alex’s latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed.

Published May 21, 2013

Wilson, A. (2013, May 21). America’s Greenest Office Building. Retrieved from

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May 29, 2013 - 4:31 am

No doubt the owners are minimizing the toxic content of furniture, but I think it's important to be clear that the Living Building Challenge is about buildings only and does not apply to furnishings. Also, it may well be the case that Bullitt did not request exceptions, but there are several exceptions built into the rating system from the get-go. The all-timber structure is made of glulams, which have a phenol-formaldehyde binder; someone familiar with the project told me there is an exception regarding PF binders in glulams in LBC 2.0, although I don't see that noted in 2.1.

May 28, 2013 - 11:16 pm

In the sixth floor offices of the Bullitt Foundation, the desks and tables were all crafted locally of locally milled hardwood, and the conference room on that floor includes a gorgeous conference table made from huge slabs of an American Elm that died of Dutch Elm Disease. As for chairs on that floor I saw some molded, laminated chairs, an Aeron Chair (I think), and one chair with upholstry that I would bet was red-list compliant. I didn't get as much of a chance to look at the furniture on other floors, but Denis told me that tenants have to sign a thick contract, and I suspect guidelines for acceptable furniture are a part of that.

May 28, 2013 - 7:21 pm

Check the Living Building Challenge at Look at section 11 on materials.

The Bullitt Foundation says they did not ask for any exceptions and that none of the materials on the Red List are in the building.

May 28, 2013 - 1:08 pm

This is exciting news, and shows what can be done with proper planning from the beginning.  However, I noted that nothing was said about the furniture, carpet, etc. used in the building.  I'd be very interested to know what they did for upholstery, since there are no mainstream alternatives to upholstery foam, all of which is made from petroleum, much of which is full of carcinogenic flame retardants, and much of which breaks down molecularly and is either inhaled or absorbed through the skin.  It's at least theoretically possible to get furniture custom-made with latex foam, but I don't know if that works for people with latex intolerance.  Most contract (i.e., non-residential) upholstery is also made of petroleum, and has a large-carbon-footprint manufacturing process.  Very few fabrics are made by processes that aren't environmentally toxic.   Interior Design is one of the last bastions of super-unhealthy, super-non-eco-friendly materials and manufacturing.  I hope LBC addresses these issues, but I wouldn't be surprised if it doesn't.  Maybe the building has no carpets and only wood furniture?  Be good to know.