Jobs that Protect the Environment: The Innovation of the Bullitt Center

Environment Science and Tech


TACOMA - Last week I toured the new Bullitt Center that opened this year in Seattle, billed as the greenest commercial building in the world, one of twenty buildings in the world right now that seeks Living Building certification set down by the International Living Building Institute (website). Living Building Challenge Coordinator James Connelly showed me around the building; I first learned of the Bullitt Center when I heard James’ give a presentation in Beijing earlier this summer. 


Media coverage of this building in has come from multiple outlets, because it is a building that provides its own power, its own water (including for showers), and handles all of its own sewage. A quick search of Twitter or Google reveals multiple profiles: a local profile by the Seattle Times, stories by national media including the New York Times, PBS and Fast Company, and an international feature by the British publication The Guardian.


Prior to the tour and presentation in Beijing, I personally had only seen similar designs and technologies coming from Germany. On June 16, 2008 I attended a presentation by Matthias Sauerbruch at the German Consulate in New York City where I was introduced to earth-to-air heat exchanger systems and computer controlled windows. The earth-to-air heat exchangers that use air currents diverted underground to warm buildings in winter and cool buildings in summer stood in stark contrast to the heating systems in New York that regularly sent plumes of smoke into the morning sky. In addition, the buildings Sauerbruch spoke of were designed to better facilitate the flow of fresh air with computer-controlled windows and internal channels. These designs are significant both for health and climate change because of the ability to reduce the demand for energy and ,in turn, reduce pollution and the emitting of greenhouse gases in places like New York or Beijing where energy is produced by burning fossil fuels.


The Bullitt Center likewise uses a water-based geothermal system for heating and relies on computer-controlled windows for cooling. Yet, the building is located in a state where almost 90% of electricity comes from hydro and wind and electricity is used to produce roughly 50% of space heating, followed by natural gas. The coal lobby website points out that Washington, with the cheapest residential electricity in the country, is an outlier: “most states do not have the option to use high amounts of hydropower.” In terms of reducing the environmental impact from heating and cooling, buildings seeking Living Building certification in Maryland and Pennsylvania will likely have more of an impact.


Living in Beijing, where concerns exist about air pollution and the fact that 70% of China’s energy comes from burning coal, my attention perhaps naturally focuses on energy, but that is not the whole story for the Bullitt Center. The living building challenge consists of seven petals: site; water; energy; health; materials; equity; beauty. It is in meeting the guidelines under these petals that all those involved think about things like the toxins in the water affecting nearby Orca populations and how materials from far away are produced. More than once James Connolly cited two cases related to the Bullitt Center. The first case was the challenge of constructing a building without any harmful materials on the so-called “red list.” In some cases this meant that suppliers had to spend several months re-tooling their products. The second case was the state of the art windows that required the shipping of technology from Germany, so that windows could be produced locally and, in the process, meet the appropriate (read local) sourcing requirement.


The construction of the Bullitt Center and the Living Building Challenge are about changing the paradigm of what is possible, but these actions are not in isolation, as the earlier lecture by the German Architect Matthias Sauerbruch attests to. Whether in China, Germany, or the United States for several decades now architects and students have been grappling with questions of green design; students and faculty from my alma mater The New School constructed a passive house that was donated to Habitat for Humanity this past year, providing yet another example. But do these ideas and this body of work remain primarily within an archnet or greennet, networks of people that focus on architecture and environmental protection?


I find it interesting that while this message of civil society, of businesses, nonprofit organizations, and universities challenging themselves to create a new norm has entered the mass media, it was absent from President Barack Obama’s June 25th climate change speech. Perhaps this should be expected, as Obama’s speech largely lacked the use of stories that can be heard during his presidential campaigns or speeches on issues that speak to his own experience, like the shooting of Trayvon Martin. Obama largely spoke in general terms about climate change dangers, and the importance of being vigilant on the use of policy instruments to tackle climate change.


What Obama did not do was invite those in attendance, who likely have friends and family among the ranks of the unemployed, under-employed or mal-employed, to start and/or create companies that dramatically reduce the consumption of fossil fuels. He did not invite those in attendance to try and figure out ways to meet the financing or logistical challenges of buildings going off the grid. I find it interesting because my sense is that there are people who would like to hear stories about Americans doing interesting, creative, and arguably significant work, in addition to the words about having to compete with India, China, or describing new opportunities to work in manufacturing plants.


It is not Obama’s responsibility to spread the word about the Bullitt Center or the Living Building Challenge. But what I see and hear everyday is that people face environmental and health problems while they worry about jobs. What can be seen within the green architecture world are efforts to do both. In China, I look for examples of what I call sustainable jobs, and I’m still looking. In the United States, Obama speaks about both jobs and protecting the environment (and examples exist within the United States), but it seems that in the case of America’s president, these two conversations have not yet been brought together.



Follow Chris on Twitter @enviroeberhardt



Economy, Architecture, United States, Labor, China, Germany, Climate Change, Urbanization