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Originally published August 27, 2011 at 8:12 PM | Page modified August 29, 2011 at 11:04 AM

Ultra-green office building breaking ground

The Bullitt Center on Capitol Hill will set a new standard for green development. The building will generate as much energy as it consumes.

Seattle Times business reporter

Breaking ground

A groundbreaking ceremony for the Bullitt Center is scheduled Monday at 3:30 p.m. at the site, 15th Avenue and East Madison Street, Seattle

More information: bullittcenter.org

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Workers are digging a hole on Seattle's Capitol Hill for a new office building unlike any commercial structure the planet's ever seen before.

You want green? There's never been anything greener.

The Bullitt Center, which celebrates its official groundbreaking Monday, has been designed to produce as much energy as it consumes.

Provide all its own water.

Process all its own sewage.

It aims to move green building forward a quantum leap. Maybe two.

Timbers for the six-story building's frame will come only from forests certified as sustainable by the world's toughest review body. To reduce the project's carbon footprint, the steel, concrete, wood and other heavy materials all will come from within 300 miles.

The center, at 15th Avenue and East Madison Street, will use less than one-third as much energy as the average building its size. Parking will be provided for bikes — but not for cars.

Common building materials that contain PVC plastics, mercury, cadmium and about 360 other substances considered hazardous won't be used.

"We set out to build the greenest office building — by far — in the world," says Denis Hayes, president and CEO of Seattle's environment-oriented Bullitt Foundation, the center's owner.

But building something this green requires lots of that other kind of green. The center, known until recently as the Cascadia Center for Sustainable Design and Construction, will cost more than a typical office building of similar size, Hayes says — partly because it's the first of its kind.

The solar panels that cover the roof, the self-imposed limits on building materials and other super-green features will increase the building's upfront construction costs by nearly one-third, Bullitt estimates.

So why do it? Why has Hayes, who organized the first Earth Day and remains a giant in the environmental movement, become a (gasp) developer?

Because the unprecedented environmental crisis confronting the planet dictates that someone take this plunge and pave the way for others, he says.

Conventional office buildings are getting greener, Hayes acknowledges. Many developers are designing their projects with green features to qualify for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, then marketing that label prominently.

But change isn't happening fast enough to respond to climate change and other looming environmental problems, he says: "If the world had three or four centuries to address these challenges, we would be right on track."

So, sure, the Bullitt Center will cost more, Hayes says: But it's making investments now to avoid imposing burdens on society and the planet that other projects impose, burdens with real economic costs that developers usually foist off on others. Economists call them "external costs."

For instance: The pollution from a new fossil-fuel power plant built to meet the energy demand new office buildings create, and the medical bills of people who might get asthma from that plant.

What's more, Hayes says, unlike most developers, the foundation views the center as a very long-term investment — up to 250 years, the building's projected life span. Its value will only increase as the world changes, he believes.

"This [project] makes a great deal of sense if you are not trying to maximize your returns over a two-year period," Hayes says.

"I am not Donald Trump."

Skin in the game

For all the altruistic talk, the Bullitt Foundation expects to make money on the Bullitt Center.

The foundation is putting up half the $30 million cost of the project, and has borrowed the remainder from U.S. Bank.

The building, scheduled for completion late next year, will be one more asset in the foundation's diverse portfolio of investments. Hayes says forecasts indicate it will generate a positive return although it probably won't be the portfolio's best performer right away.

Income will come from rents. Tenants who have tentatively committed to lease space in the building say they're willing to pay a premium to locate there.

Four of the six floors already are spoken for, says developer Chris Rogers, who is overseeing the project for Bullitt. Rents will be comparable to many prime "Class A" buildings downtown, he says. The foundation is moving its headquarters to the building, leasing half a floor.

The other tenants all are deeply involved in green construction and design. Several say their mission compels them to move there.

The Seattle-based Cascadia Green Building Council, for instance, developed the rigorous performance standards — known as the "Living Building Challenge" — that the Bullitt Center aims to meet.

"I think this is the most important building being built in the country today," says Jason McLennan, the council's CEO.

The University of Washington's Integrated Design Lab, an arm of the architecture department, began brainstorming with Rogers and Hayes about the building three years ago. It advised Bullitt in choosing the center's architect, Miller Hull Partnership, and plans to help monitor and interpret how the building performs once it's finished.

"This is really about walking our talk," associate Professor Robert Peña says of the lab's planned move to the Bullitt Center. "This is exactly the kind of building we're trying to create. It's a living laboratory."

Peña and McLennan acknowledge their organizations aren't your typical office tenants. A law firm or an insurance company might balk, for instance, at Bullitt's plan for each lease to include limits on how much energy and water each tenant can use.

But time is on the Bullitt Center's side, Hayes says: The building's market appeal will grow as demand for electricity rises and utilities must build expensive new power plants to supply it, driving up rates.

If you compare the construction cost of the Bullitt Center's on-site, solar-powered system with the anticipated marginal cost of electricity from a new natural-gas-fired power plant, he says, solar pays for itself in eight to 10 years.

Likewise, he adds, if the Northwest's snowpack drops because of climate change and water utilities must build expensive new reservoirs, the Bullitt Center's capacity to provide its own water will insulate it from higher rates.

But Hayes and Rogers say the center's most important goal is to spark a radical overhaul in the way commercial buildings are designed and built. "Change is coming," Rogers says, "and we hope to be a part of it."

The project already is having an impact, they say: When one building-materials manufacturer was told the Bullitt Center couldn't use its product because it contained a suspected mutagen, the manufacturer reformulated the product, at minimal cost, to eliminate that component for good.

Developer Skanska USA is designing an office building in Fremont that aims to meet at least 70 percent of the Living Building Challenge's requirements. Lisa Picard, executive vice president and regional manager, says it was inspired in part by the Bullitt Center; she reviewed the building's plans as a member of the city's advisory Capitol Hill Design Review Board.

"It got me thinking, 'Is this really possible for a developer to achieve?' " Picard remembers.

Policy role

Governments must be part of the industry's transformation, too, the Bullitt Center's developers say: "This building was illegal to build in Seattle three years ago," says Hayes.

In 2009 the Seattle City Council agreed to let planners waive some regulations for projects like the Bullitt Center. For instance, the building needed to be taller than zoning allowed so each floor could have higher ceilings to admit more daylight and reduce power needs.

"The challenge for us as a city is to be flexible," Councilwoman Sally Clark said at a public meeting on the Bullitt Center this spring. "That's not something we do well."

Rogers still is trying to persuade health officials to allow the building's drinking fountains, sinks and showers to use treated rainwater collected on the roof. For now, the center will be built with a hookup to city water as well as its own self-contained system.

Government officials aren't necessarily resistant to the kind of innovation the Bullitt Center represents, Rogers says: "It's just that they've just never been asked before."

The green innovations the Bullitt Center incorporates may be cutting-edge now, but those involved in designing and constructing the building maintain that won't be true for long.

Technology is improving, Hayes says. Costs are dropping, attitudes changing.

Look at LEED, says McLennan of the Green Building Council, which administers that program.

When it started in the late 1990s, skeptics said the additional green features required for certification didn't make economic sense. Now LEED is the industry norm.

Hayes offers another analogy for the role the Bullitt Center hopes to play in transforming commercial construction and design.

The building that's going up at 15th and East Madison, he says, is the equivalent of the first Prius.

Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231 or epryne@seattletimes.com

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