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.