Why the Bullitt Center

Posted by Denis Hayes on Mon, Apr 04, 2011 at 11:05 PM

Denis Hayes stands in the construction site for the new Bullitt Center being built in Seattle, WA.A lifelong environmentalist, I did not have “becoming a real estate developer” on my bucket list.  So what led me to get behind the Bullitt Center?

Good question—one I often ask myself, generally late at night. The Bullitt Center was the product of a stream of seemingly unrelated events:

  • In the early 1990s, the late Stimson Bullitt gave the Bullitt Foundation a financial interest in the Harbor Steps apartments, a project he’d developed in downtown Seattle. In 2005, Harbor Steps was sold to the Equity Residential REIT, cashing out the foundation
  • Two of the foundation’s then-trustees strongly suggested that the foundation develop its own green building instead of simply diversifying its endowments into REITs or real estate funds. Urged on by the foundation board, I began to explore the possibilities, but with one caveat: If we were to proceed, this could not be just one more well-insulated building with CFLs and some solar panels. We had to aspire to a true landmark on the road to sustainability.
  • A variety of efforts—most notably LEED, the 2030 Challenge, the stalwart Environmental Committee of the American Institute of Architects, and Energy Star – had beta tested a wide variety of approaches to sustainable design, construction, and operation. Hundreds of “green buildings” had been built, and we could stand on the shoulders of that experience.
  • Chris Rogers of the Point32 real estate development firm showed us an available property that appeared to meet many of our needs. It is near downtown Seattle in a combined commercial/residential neighborhood. It has an unobstructed southern and southeastern solar exposure that is protected by zoning. It is convenient to numerous restaurants, stores, and all the amenities of modern urban life, with a Walkscore of 98 (out of a possible 99). There is a bus stop in front of the lot, and 68 bus routes are within easy walking distance. A trolley and a light rail stop are planned for the neighborhood. It is on a busy 4-lane arterial where any building will be highly visible.

The existence of a suitable site (not a perfect site, as we were to learn, but suitable) made the idea more concrete, and forced the foundation’s board to make a decision. Was this to be a daydream or a real project?

As we looked into recent development in the green building space, we found some disconcerting things. For example, a number of independent evaluations of the post-occupancy performance of green buildings had appeared, offering useful insights into what was working well and what was falling short. One report (Lehrer Evaluation .pdf) contained an anonymous quote (see page 37) from an employee at the very highly regarded green office of a group on whose board I’d once served saying: “I feel like a rat in a cage…Otherwise everything’s fine. Thank you for asking my opinion.”


In a more quantified assessment, many green buildings failed to achieve the performance that computer models had predicted.

One highly visible study of LEED found, as one would expect, that the average LEED building performed better than the average non-LEED building.  But there was damage in the details. “On average,” the authors wrote, “LEED buildings used 18-39% less energy per floor area than their conventional counterparts.  However, 28-35% of LEED buildings used more energy than their conventional counterparts. Further, the measured energy performance of LEED buildings had little correlation with certification level of the building, or the number of energy credits achieved by the building at design time.” That is, although the average LEED Platinum building performed better than the average Gold, and the average Gold outperformed the average Silver, a great many buildings with a Silver certification outperformed many buildings with Platinum.

Because urban ecology and sustainable design are at the core of the foundation’s mission, we wanted to walk our talk. And we wanted to be judged on our building’s performance rather than according to prescriptive standards.

Fortuitously, one of the foundation’s grantees, the Cascadia Green Building Council, was designing a tool that would help us do just that: The Living Building Challenge. The LBC was, by far, the most wildly ambitious vision of sustainable architecture that we had ever encountered. So we decided to go for it!