How the greenest office building on Capitol Hill (and beyond) is handling Seattle’s hottest summer

The heat wave that scorched Seattle in July set records. It’s end brought joyous relief, but also closely coincided with the release of a troubling report by the American Meteorological Society confirming that 2014 was the hottest in recorded history. As it now stands, the 10 hottest years on record have all occurred since 1998. Scientists do not expect this trend to reverse anytime soon, and they are in agreement that we need to quickly adjust the way we live and build to survive on this warming planet. One local Capitol Hill building, the Bullitt Center at 15th and Madison, is leading the way. Here’s how the greenest commercial building in the world handled the heat wave, and some of what it can teach us about building for a warmer climate.

“The building performed great,” said Corey Reilly, the Bullitt Center’s operating engineer. “I didn’t have a single person call me and tell me they were hot.”

Reilly said that many other new buildings in the area were having trouble dealing with the heat, noting that most Seattle buildings are not really designed to handle temperatures consistently higher than 85 degrees.

To keep its occupants cool, the Bullitt Center employs several strategies that do not include traditional air conditioning.

The building is primarily cooled by large exterior blinds that deflect the sun’s rays and specially designed windows that keep hot air out. The windows, designed by the German company Schüco and manufactured in Everett, also facilitate night flush ventilation, opening the night after a hot day and sealing shut in the morning, trapping the cool night air in. Both systems are automated, directed by a computer which is fed information by a weather station on the roof of an adjacent building. When need be, the building can also be cooled by hydronic radiant tubing, which circulates cold air underneath the concrete floors. Last summer the building did not use this system, but it was turned on during this recent heatwave.

During our visit to the Bullitt, the weather was hot but not one of recent scorchers. The Center’s interior was warm but comfortable, without the unnatural chill of commercial buildings using AC units. Daylight illuminated the the floor of office spaces we toured, with most work stations being very close to one of the large windows enveloping the building.

Built in 2012, the Bullitt Center has performed well in its short life. It recently earned the prestigious Living Building Certification from the International Living Future Institute, and last year the building “generated 60% more energy than it used,” exceeding expectations and providing tenants with free electricity. Some of its notable features include a 570 panel roof-top solar array, a rainwater capture and purification system, and composting toilets.

According to Christopher Meek, an associate professor of architecture at the University of Washington and the director of the UW Center for Integrated Design, which has its offices at the Bullitt Center, some features of the building that could potentially be retrofitted into other buildings to battle hot weather are the exterior blinds and the opening windows, both of which could also help cut down on runaway energy costs.

Meek said that the building has attracted notice from architects and engineers from around the world, along with thousands of lay people who visit every year.

“People who have far reaching goals look to this building as a model as to how to reach net zero and really high performance building, while maintaining comfort and not sacrificing the experience of the people who use the building,” he said.

They’ll just have to find a way to keep cool running up and down all those stairs.

You can view the Bullitt Center’s latest vital stats on the building’s online dashboard. To learn more about the Bullitt Center, visit bullittcenter.org.IMG_9286

 

Subscribe and support CHS Contributors -- $1/$5/$10 per month

11 thoughts on “How the greenest office building on Capitol Hill (and beyond) is handling Seattle’s hottest summer

  1. Our apartment complex, Urbana, takes a totally different approach. They have the condensers for the a/c units servicing the stores on the lowest level located on the top floor of the parking garage under the building. This way, all of that heat rises into the residential units. Is this a common thing in Seattle? It’s really bad design!

  2. A lot of older buildings, including high-rises, used to have awnings shading every window. My apartment would stay cool if it had them, but instead I get sunlight beaming in and roasting me inside a greenhouse. Interior blinds are useless, as they’re on the wrong side of the glass to reflect the light before it heats everything up. Whose idea was it to abandon exterior awnings? Was it just property owners cheaping out on anything that might require maintenance? I’m sure there’s a modern solution that can be maintained cheaply, but anyone who chooses to address the problem seems to jump straight to air conditioning without considering passive measures.

    • The living room in my apartment faces west and catches a lot of sunshine on summer afternoons. After working in the Bullitt for a couple years, I decided to apply its lessons and took matters into my own hands, installing one of those bamboo shade blinds on the exterior of the living room window. It made a huge difference. I guess I’m lucky to have a fairly indifferent landlord so I can get away with modifying the building’s envelope.

  3. I love the Bullitt Center! It’s a nice looking building and a model for what every builder and architect should strive for. I heard Paris recently ruled that every building built from now on needs either a green roof or solar panels. What if Seattle did the same thing? We could be an even bigger leader in the environmental movement. So many buildings are going up in Seattle and it breaks my heart that they aren’t top of the line energy efficient. We only have one planet to live on and cities need to lead the charge in fighting climate change. Also, great reporting, Mohamed! Nice to see young local people reporting on the neighborhood.

  4. Didn’t I read somewhere that the ability Center thought they overdid it on the solar panels?

    I agree about thoughtful architecture that could help with design issues handling our heating and cooling. The LEED program should help, but it doesn’t do much for old buildings.

    I think it’s time that we overhaul our design boards. It’s not just ugly 6/1 architecture, it’s some of the issues brought up here, and they are design as well. I’d like to see our neighborhood do a neighborhood canvassing to find 100 elements of design we love in the neighborhood and have developers incorporate as many of those as possible in their new designs. The more they incorporate, the higher the likelihood they’d be approved. And passive solar heating in winter and cross ventilation cooling in summer are truly design issues.

    We can do better than we are.

  5. I am so glad to hear about good design. I see so many buildings, new, & old, that have no east, or west windows. I work, in a Iow income housing building, its stifling, AC, not allowed, it has a western view, but none of that lovely sound, breeze, it seems idiotic. I hear of people, in new condos, in Ballard complaing, of the heat. My house is a 2 story bungalow, with lg amt of roof overhang, & good east, west air flow, & I am never hot. I just wonder how the people who design these buildings, miss important air flow, & shading issues.

  6. Oh, that’s right. The “housing” in Seattle doesn’t have A/C. Yet another reason that I forgot made me move out of Seattle.

  7. Passive cooling and heating is a great thing, but one common thing I see whenever I read about a green building using such design (not in this article in particular though) is people citing it as proof that energy hungry AC is unnecessary and sometimes even calling to ban it in the interest of environmental concerns. Just remember that this doesn’t work everywhere. I live near Columbia, South Carolina, and it’s just too dang hot to use passive cooling during the summer. The article mentions sustained temperatures above 85 degrees being a difficulty. Down here, night time temperatures in the 80s are common. So night flushing will just replace the ungodly hot air with moderately hot air while letting in the mosquitoes (no screens on windows in picture) to bite you while you sweat in your bed. Some locations just need active cooling. You can still use something more energy efficient like geothermal HVAC, but you can’t beat 100 degree heat with awnings and a breeze unless your are resigned to sweating continuously from May to September. Passive cooling would work great in the Spring and Fall though I’m not sure how you would keep from getting pollen on everything inside your house in the Spring if you’re using a lot of ventilation from the outside.

  8. Adam’s comments were right on! It is niave to assume what design/technology works in one situation works in all situations. However, if architects/builders/installers/energy raters/etc. are well-versed in what “could be” in the customer’s locale, then they can get together in their specific locales and create a good collaborative design that better meet the needs of that locale. Ex: read all the research from Robert Bean on what truly affects the perception of “comfort” at http://www.healthyheating.com (and air temperature is not the most influential measure); view all the short videos of Matt Risinger on YouTube on advanced building techniques (Adam – check out his recent video on the new UltraAire dehumidifier); research all the info that Building Science Corp. has accumulated at http://www.bsc.com. There are many more well-respected sources of information. Information is not power; power is using the good information to enable change that has positive societal effects.