2020 Engineering goes deep green on Seattle's Bullitt Center

A six-story building using solar panels, a rainwater cistern, composting toilets and a constellation of other systems to achieve what might be the most arduous certification process in sustainable building today.

This is the Bullitt Center, extolled as the planet’s “greenest” office facility.

And one Bellingham firm played a key role in its development.

2020 Engineering, which has headquarters on Dupont Street in Bellingham, designed a highly specialized sustainable water system for the $30 million, 50,000-square-foot Bullitt Center that opened in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood on Earth Day, April 22, 2013.

The Bullitt Center is among the most high-profile U.S. projects to have attempted the Living Building Challenge, a rigorous sustainable-building certification launched in 2006 by the Cascadia Green Building Council.

For Mark Buehrer, 2020’s founder and director, taking part in a project considered the most ambitious eco-friendly commercial development ever envisioned was a consuming process involving several years of planning and permitting.

“Whenever you’re the first at doing something, it takes a lot of effort,” Buehrer said.

But if the commitment pays off, 2020 will have helped prove that self-sustaining, carbon neutral office buildings can be financially viable on a grand scale. At least, that’s what the Bullitt Center’s backers hope.

2020’s involvement in the project included water conservation and demand estimates, as well as designs for rainwater harvesting using a specialized rooftop surface and a 56,000-gallon cistern, composting toilets, and a treatment and reuse system for “greywater”—the used water from household activities such as doing laundry, washing dishes or bathing.

The Bellingham firm has worked on a number of other developments with building designs geared toward low environmental impact. Recent projects include the the Wilkes Elementary School in Bainbridge Island, the Bertschi Elementary School in Seattle, and the Greenfire Campus office and apartment complex in Ballard.

The Living Building Challenge is an element tying these projects together.

Considered far more demanding than its better-known compatriot, LEED (which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), the Living Building Challenge requires projects to be self sufficient in energy and water use. It divides itself into a series of components—nine “petals” the break down further into 20 “imperatives”—that list the requirements projects must meet in order to receive certification.

Some of the key imperatives include car-free living, use of locally sourced building materials and a clean energy supply, and—this is where 2020 comes in at the Bullitt Center—a “net zero” water system that emphasizes efficiency and on-site supply, treatment and reuse.

The Living Building Challenge has registered more than 140 projects in 10 countries.

Only three buildings in the U.S. have received full certification. But when it comes to sheer scale, the Bullitt Center surpases all.

From designer to monitor

Projects attempting the Living Building Challenge must survive a yearlong monitoring process that ensures they can hold up to the challenge’s standards after the buildings have been completed.

So from now until April 2014, 2020’s involvement in the Bullitt Center will continue.

Future work will include fine-tuning the water-system designs and handing over control of the systems to the building’s operators, said Colleen Mitchell, a project manager with 2020.

Professionals working inside the Bullitt Center will be some of the most closely monitored office tenants in the entire world.

Real-time data can pinpoint the building’s air quality, energy and water levels, along with a variety of other measurements. The monitoring technology provides so much detail that building managers can determine exactly where resources are being drained, right down to a particular electrical outlet or shower nozzle.

Mitchell said a major part of her current work with the Bullitt Center involves education and outreach to tenants, helping them understand how the building’s water systems function and how they require different care and attention compared to those found in more traditional buildings.

She said this type of education is common when introducing 2020’s sustainable designs to new users.

“I think even just the basic concepts are beyond what a lot of people think about,” she said.

Meeting challenges

Mitchell said one of the most difficult aspects of designing and planning the Bullitt Center was squaring the building’s sustainable features with the multi-level array of permitting and regulatory rules that come with any development.

From the start, the Bullitt Foundation—the driving force behind the project, led by Earth Day founder Denis Hayes—wanted to have the center’s construction align with Seattle building codes and regulations, rather than request a special waiver, Mitchell said.

While the project had the support of local, state and federal government officials, working through the pile of necessary regulations was time consuming, she said. Some issues, including how the building can discharge some of its wastewater into Seattle’s municipal system, are still being worked out.

Mitchell said finding the “sweet spot” for all the building’s various sustainable systems to work together as one unit was a key to the design process. Specific requirements for one element of the Bullitt Center would mean changes or accommodations for others.

One example involved 2020’s composting toilets, which needed to be built off the ground to have functional plumbing. Doing so required input and modification from the project’s architectural and mechanical engineering teams.

Since the Bullitt Center is essentially an ecosystem of green-design features, reigning in the different aspects of the project and getting all of the development’s partners on the same page was difficult, at times, Buehrer said.

“Any of the ideas that any of the partners threw out there had a ripple effect through all the different components,” Buehrer said. 

Evan Marczynski, staff reporter for The Bellingham Business Journal, can be reached at 360-647-8805, Ext. 5052, or evan@bbjtoday.com

Read about another Pacific Northwest firm that played a role in the Bullitt Center’s development from our partners at The Herald Business Journal in Everett. 

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