Web Exclusive Q&A: Bullitt Center

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Jim Hanford, AIA, an associate at The Miller Hull Partnership in Seattle.
Marc Brune, P.E., a senior associate at PAE Consulting Engineers in Portland, Ore.
Christopher Meek, AIA, an associate professor at the University of Washington Department of Architecture and director of the Center for Integrated Design in Seattle.
Michael Gilbride, a research associate at the University of Washington Department of Architecture Integrated Design Lab in Seattle.

HPB: Meeting the aggressive energy efficiency goals for the Bullitt Center pushed the design team to adopt a performance-based design approach. How did the team balance performance with design and aesthetics? What was learned that can inform future high performance projects?

Brune:  We set a specific goal of net zero energy, which resulted in all decisions being weighed against their impact on that goal. It’s not to say that net zero energy was more important than other goals, but the energy impact of decisions now had equal weight to other critical components of the building. This changed the perspective and the conversation around how design affected energy use and kept the performance analysis and discussion alive through the project from start to finish.

HPB: Many elements of the building faced a regulatory hurdle. These included solar panels overhanging public sidewalks, the consumption of rainwater, graywater infiltration in an urban bioswale, and the use of composting toilets in a commercial building. What is the biggest lesson that you learned as you navigated and overcame the regulatory hurdles? And what advice do you give to other design teams that may face similar building code barriers?

Hanford:  Early engagement with stakeholders and permitting agencies—local land use agency, building department, electrical inspectors, fire marshals (for the rooftop photovoltaics), health department and public utilities is the essential first step. Invite representatives of these organizations to your first design charrette!

HPB: The Bullitt Center is the first new heavy-timber building of its size constructed in Seattle in 80 years. Why was heavy timber selected for structural components, and what were some of the design challenges that resulted from that choice?

Hanford:  Wood was chosen for its low carbon footprint (in that it sequesters carbon as it grows) and because of its significance as a regional material. It was also chosen for aesthetics. Using timber allowed us to leave the structure exposed, showing a “natural” material, while allowing us to reduce the amount of added materials that might otherwise be needed to finish the structure. The structural depth of the framing became an issue—at the perimeter the framing consists of an “upturned beam” that allows pushing the window head height all the way to the underside of the floor decking for better daylighting.  The desire to incorporate thermal mass also meant that a concrete topping slab was added to the floor structure.

HPB: The Bullitt Center is the first in the region to receive monthly payments from the public utility in exchange for the building’s energy efficiency (“negawatt-hours”) compared to the energy that a code building would have used. The utility’s pilot program is designed to provide some financial incentive to building owners to invest in energy-efficient designs, since typically all of the financial benefits flow to the tenants who pay the energy bills. Assuming this pilot program continues, how do you anticipate it impacting other building owners and developers as they consider the financial bottom line of energy-efficient and sustainable design?

Meek:  The Center for Integrated Design is part of a group that is working with Seattle City Light (the local utility), the owner, and a company called EnergyRM to validate the Bullitt Center’s power purchase agreement (PPA) with the utility under a metered energy efficiency transaction structure (MEETS). This approach offers a fundamental shift from the traditional incentive payment based on either "deemed savings" or as-designed savings, offering an innovative approach to both distribute utility incentive funds and open the capital markets for lower cost financing. Benefits are reduced risk to utilities and increased benefit to owners, particularly for deep-energy retrofits where tenants pay utility costs. The “negawatt” concept is particularly applicable to energy retrofits of existing buildings, but the Bullitt Center shows that it can be employed in new construction if an appropriate baseline can be established.

HPB: Integrated design played a foundational role in meeting the rigorous requirements of the Living Building Challenge certification (such as net zero energy, water and waste water), goals that had never been attempted on this scale for a commercial building. How has the experience of designing the Bullitt Center affected how your firms/entity has approached subsequent projects involving integrated design?

Meek:  The University of Washington Center for Integrated Design has a mission to provide research, technical assistance, and education aimed at transforming the market for high-performance building design and operation. The Bullitt Center is an invaluable opportunity to take integrated design to the next level, testing a comprehensive vision of what buildings in a low carbon future can look like. As occupants of the building, we have incorporated the ongoing performance data stream into our research mission and disseminated our findings to design teams, students and academics worldwide. Now that the Bullitt Center is built and occupied, we have a living demonstration of the opportunity of high-performance building systems and the key operational requirements to realize their potential. Having built an example that owners, designers, and students can see with their own eyes is transformative in terms of making the case to others with ambitious goals.

HPB: To meet Living Building Challenge (LBC) certification requirements, the Bullitt Center team had to comply with the Red List, which enumerates 14 chemicals to avoid in building components, with the intent of removing chemicals harmful to humans and the environment from the entire building life cycle. Now Miller Hull is asking building product manufacturers to provide health product declarations (HPDs) for building products that the firm specifies. How have manufacturers responded to this request, and how has this approach impacted how Miller Hull selects materials for projects?

Hanford:  We are asking for HPDs, but haven’t currently set that as a condition of being in our product specifications. Our intent is more to use the relationships we have with architectural representatives and product manufacturers to raise awareness of the desire for transparency on behalf of the design and construction community. As a firm, working on the Bullitt Center and other projects with similar goals has allowed us to develop a set of standard building systems that provide good environmental performance from a material life-cycle perspective, and to be able to bring material composition to early design decision-making. Of course, there are still tradeoffs to be made. 

HPB: What other ways has the Bullitt Center shaped how your firms/entity approach sustainable design?

Hanford:  Our work on the Bullitt Center has allowed us to develop our practice further by 1) spurring us to develop clear and far-reaching performance goals at project initiation, 2) inspiring us to better appreciate the aesthetic potential of performance-based design approaches, and 3) prompting us to use our work to explore the ways that building performance can be aligned with the experiential nature of the buildings and landscapes we design.
Brune:  For PAE, the Bullitt Center redefined what we thought was possible in a commercial office building in terms of energy efficiency. Before this project, it would have been hard to imagine a building of this type operating at such a low energy use intensity.

HPB: The Bullitt Center was conceived as a paradigm shift for the possibilities of sustainable design in a commercial multi-story office building. What do you see as the next paradigm shift in sustainable design?

Meek:  User behavior in terms of energy savings and perhaps, more importantly, in health and productivity impacts, are key to unlocking investment in high performance buildings. The Bullitt Center creates a roadmap for how to create a high-quality indoor environment, while delivering net-zero energy. If the benefits of improved occupant experiences can be quantified, the market for high-performance buildings will be reshaped around issues beyond energy and will aim to deliver a return on investment through a more inclusive view of value including infrastructure loads, human performance and health outcomes.

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