Better, Faster, More
Toward Sustainable Cities
A deep green building is not a mere stylistic preference, like Art Deco or Brutalism. The decision to generate power with rooftop solar panels is not akin to selecting granite countertops.
Deep green buildings are a necessary component of resilient cities, and resilient cities are a strategic necessity if the current generation is to pass on a diverse, habitable planet to the next.
Cities must quickly evolve from impersonal, dystopian collections of megaliths into healthy, living ecosystems. Tomorrow’s cities will be designed on the basis of 200,000 years of Darwinian beta testing, using the fruits of modern science and technology to promote the well-being of people.
Today’s living buildings, like the Bullitt Center, represent efforts to learn from nature how to exist comfortably and productively in a particular environment, making the least possible demand on resources.
If everyone on earth were to live like the average contemporary Japanese or German person—a not unreasonable goal—the planet would swiftly collapse from the demands for shelter, cars, commodities, meat, and the resultant degradation of the global environment*.
So we have to find new ways to live that can provide good health, comfort, productivity, and satisfaction without such negative consequences. That quest naturally starts with cities, where more than half of all people (and 80 percent of Americans) already live.
The world has no sustainable cities today. And no more than a handful of truly sustainable buildings — buildings that will still make sense 25 years from now.
The green building movement has made impressive progress around the world. But we are moving far too slowly and too incrementally in light of the challenges facing our planet. If we had 100 years to figure out the climate crisis, species extinction, or the buildup of toxic chemicals, the need would be less urgent. But we do not have 100 years, or even 20 years.
In deciding to proceed with the Bullitt Center, we were trying to accelerate the pace of change by showing what’s possible today, using only off-the-shelf products that any building project could choose. We combined these time-tested approaches in one building in a way that allowed for new synergies.
Arguably, our chief innovation is that we brought all these ideas together in one place at the same time. The Bullitt Center — instead of pursuing just net zero energy, net zero water, net zero carbon, composting toilets, toxic-free materials, an enticing stairway, 80+ percent day lighting using high-performance windows — chose all-of-the-above. And we chose them for a six-story urban infill project in a dense neighborhood in one of the greatest cities in the world, Seattle.
Our goal is to drive change in the marketplace faster and further. Three years ago, a solar-powered, six-story office building in cloud-covered Seattle would have struck most people as not merely foolhardy but impossible. Today it exists.
To really change a market, the economics of the project must support it. Today’s reality is that economic policy promotes environmental decay. Between negative externalities, discount rates that dictate impermanence, and codes & incentives that favor the status quo, the market frequently demands products and services that leave society worse off. That is why the Bullitt Foundation is working to promote policies that value the ecological benefits delivered by high-performance green building.
While we work to repair these market failures, we have to operate in the world as it exists, not as we wish it were.
We estimate the Bullitt Center cost about 23 percent more than a typical class-A office building in Seattle. But all of that extra cost was associated with the soft costs of doing something for the first time. Many of those soft costs will disappear for the second large living building, and all of them should disappear by the 20th. For example, we needed to spend much time persuading government officials to let us do things that were not allowed under the existing regulations. We had a very difficult time arranging financing for such a unique structure. We started down lots of blind alleys in a search for leapfrogging architectural and engineering solutions. Once we broke ground, the “hard costs” of construction were comparable to those of any other class-A office building in Seattle. We simply chose to spend more on functional solar panels, a water cistern, and super-windows and to spend less on marble wall panels, granite countertops, and other bolt-on aesthetic accoutrements.
Now that it is fully leased, the building is cash-flow positive. While the initial financial returns will not be as great as if we had merely built it to code, leased it, and flipped its ownership to a REIT, we expect the Bullitt Center to perform over time at least as well as other fixed-income investments in the Bullitt Foundation’s portfolio. The building was designed to last 250 years, so we expect many decades of favorable economic returns. For owners looking to hold real estate for a longer period of time, such as governments, foundations, educational institutions or certain institutional investors, high-performance buildings like the Bullitt Center make economic sense today.
None of these financial metrics take into account the other, far larger benefits of the Bullitt Center. We generate as much electricity as we use from solar panels on our roof, so society doesn’t have to build a new power plant. We capture rainwater for all purposes, including drinking, so society doesn’t need to build a new reservoir. We use composting toilets so society doesn’t need to build new sewage treatment capacity. We return treated gray water to the soil on site, reducing the need for storm water drains.
These social benefits matter, even if our economy doesn’t currently choose to value them. In the months ahead, we will be looking more closely at the economics of the project, recognizing them as a key to replicating the ideas in the Bullitt Center.
The era of harm reduction, half steps, and lesser evils is behind us. As a society, we need to be bold in ways that were once unimaginable. Luckily in the building sector, we now can imagine where we need to go.
In fact, we don’t need to just imagine it. We can touch, experience, learn from, and replicate it.
The question now is how to get the Bullitt Center replicated a thousand-fold . . . a million-fold. Fast.
*The seven billion people now inhabiting the planet, together with our domesticated animals that provide food, fiber, and draft labor, now outweigh all wild land animals by a ratio of 28 to one. We humans, by ourselves, outweigh all wild land animals by 8 to one. As we have spread across all the most attractive, biologically-rich regions of the earth, we have been squeezing the tigers, elephants, wolves, gorillas, bison, orangutans, pandas, polar bears, rhinos, ocelots, panthers, bighorn sheep, etc. into the margins, and then off the edge. Current extinction rates are the highest since the Cretaceous event some 65 million years ago.