Can Bullitt Help Other Buildings go as Green as its HQ?

Seattle’s Bullitt Foundation set out to make the world’s greenest commercial office building, a headquarters leaps and bounds beyond most current standards of sustainability. Now the foundation is preparing a new program to help other buildings follow its lead.

IP got a preview of the emerging program, which is looking like it will have a lot more to do with economics and regulatory process than technical or design innovation. 

Bullitt is a modest Pacific Northwest environmental funder with assets of around $100 million, but its ambitions are large. The six-person team, led by Earth Day cofounder Denis Hayes, took a real gamble when it decided to invest the equivalent of a third of its total endowment to create the Bullitt Center, a deep green office building that opened in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood in 2013. 

Related - Deep Green: An Environmental Funder Makes Itself a Guinea Pig for Sustainable Building 

Green doesn’t fully describe the Bullitt Center, though, as it's more like a six-floor living organism. The center is the most energy-efficient commercial building in the country. It uses the Seattle rain for its water supply and then channels its gray water back into the soil. And it’s the only building of its size to use all composting toilets. The list goes on, and it's quickly become a global icon in green building circles.

While the center is meant to set an example for sustainable building practices, the logical question following its completion is "what next?" How can they translate its success into similar breakthroughs for other buildings?

The answer they came up with is a new “Deep Green Buildings Program,” which the foundation is still finalizing, but which Hayes shared with Inside Philanthropy during a recent interview. 

“This is going sort of one more step to look at individual buildings and clusters of buildings that have the opportunity to make a leapfrog forward,” he said. 

Related - Bullitt Foundation: Grants for Marine and River Conservation

Bullitt has had a program for some time called Urban Ecology, which includes support for green building, but this is more of an attempt to take the sort of “supergreen” innovations that Bullitt has achieved and really move the industry, instead of piecemeal installations of an efficient faucet here, a solar panel there. A draft program description states:

“For a few years—until other full-scale buildings meet or even exceed the performance of the Bullitt Center—might our extraordinary building offer us a window of opportunity to catalyze broad change in the construction industry?”  

The staff interviewed a list of 40 people with connections to related fields, to see where the foundation might have the biggest impact. 

One of the most interesting things staff discovered in the process, confirming what they had experienced in building the Bullitt Center, is that the impediments to true sustainable building are rarely technical. They are instead financial, bureaucratic, and cultural. 

“It is fundamentally illegal to build a sustainable building,” Hayes said. The Bullitt Center received various exemptions during construction, under Seattle’s Living Building Challenge Pilot Program. 

“If we can get past some of the economic irrationalities and the regulatory hurdles, suddenly you can build something that uses way less than half the energy of a Leed Platinum Building and begins to fundamentally transform what the built environment looks like.”

Some of the ideas for the program include reforming real estate appraisal standards to recognize deep green performance (a big obstacle), encouraging shared resources and planning among different projects in the same neighborhoods, and supporting green building co-ops to lower costs. 

The foundation is about to recruit a new program officer for the job, and will kick off what will likely begin as a four-year program after that.

One thing that's interesting about the Bullitt Center and this programwhile other foundations like Hewlett and Packard have built their own green headquarters, Bullitt hopes to operate this one in the very long term as a commercial success, with many more tenants than the foundation's small staff. And if this new program can bring other developments to the region along with it, it could pull the concept of the fancy foundation HQ down from its pedestal and into the rough and tumble of the real market. 

Related - Denis Hayes, Bullitt Foundation