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Originally published March 15, 2010 at 8:09 PM | Page modified March 16, 2010 at 6:29 PM

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Rain, even urine, would help make Bullitt HQ city's 'greenest building ever'

The Bullitt Foundation plans to build Seattle's greenest building ever, a six-story structure generating as much electricity as it consumes and relying almost exclusively on rain for its water.

Seattle Times business reporter

Cascadia Center

• Six stories, 48,000 square feet.

• Aims to generate as much electricity as it consumes on a net annual basis.

• No air conditioning; windows would open and close; 80 percent of computers would be laptops.

• 100 percent of water from harvested rainwater (potable water a possible exception).

• Runoff to storm sewers no greater in volume than if site were old-growth forest.

• 100 percent of sewage treated and reused on site.

• Limits on distances from which construction materials can come.

Source: Building plans

Learn more

The Seattle Department of Planning and Development's advisory Capitol Hill Design Review Board will review plans for the Bullitt Foundation's Cascadia Center for Sustainable Design and Construction on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. in the meeting room at Seattle University's Alumni Relations and Admissions Building, 824 12th Ave.

More project information: http://bit.ly/Bullitt_bldg

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Lots of Seattle buildings call themselves green. Some have even had their eco-friendliness certified by experts.

But compared with the six-story office building the Bullitt Foundation plans to build at 15th Avenue and East Madison Street, all the other green buildings fade to a pale chartreuse.

This would be Seattle's greenest building ever. "Nothing else even comes close," said Jason McLennan, CEO of the Cascadia Region Green Building Council.

Bullitt calls its building the Cascadia Center for Sustainable Design and Construction. It would house the foundation's headquarters and serve as a showplace for cutting-edge green engineering and architecture.

It would use less than one-third the electricity consumed by the average building — and would generate as much power as it consumes.

It would rely almost exclusively on the rain that falls on the roof for its water.

It would treat and reuse on-site everything that's flushed down its toilets and poured down its drains.

It would have no more than six parking spaces — all reserved for a fleet of hybrid or electric cars.

And it would be designed to last 250 years.

The Cascadia Center would be both something old and something new for the Bullitt Foundation, whose endowment — $90 million at the end of 2008 — stems mostly from the Bullitt family's sale of KING Broadcasting two decades ago.

Protecting the Northwest environment and promoting sustainable development is the foundation's mission. It gave more than $4 million to environmental causes last year.

But it has operated for years out of a historic First Hill carriage house at the Stimson-Green mansion. For all its charm, that headquarters isn't energy-efficient — it isn't even insulated.

And the foundation's leaders know all the statistics: Buildings account for a majority of the country's electrical use and a third of its greenhouse-gas emissions.

"We were talking a good game," said Denis Hayes, Bullitt's president, "but we wanted to walk our talk."

The foundation bought the East Madison property, now occupied by a bar and grill, nearly two years ago. Since then it has been designing the building with a team led by developer Chris Rogers, best known as project manager for the Seattle Art Museum's acclaimed Olympic Sculpture Park.

The center will receive a public unveiling of sorts Wednesday night, when the city's Capitol Hill Design Review Board will consider it.

Hayes said the foundation intends to start construction this year. But first, financing must be obtained and potential permitting hurdles overcome.

City officials have acknowledged their development codes may need to bend to accommodate a project this unconventional.

Highest standards

The Cascadia Center aspires to meet the toughest green-building standard on the planet: the Living Building Challenge, developed by McLennan's Seattle-based Green Building Council in 2006. The group is part of a national organization that administers the better-known but less-ambitious LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system.

The idea behind the challenge, McLennan said, was to "define the highest level of environmental performance currently possible."

Think of how a tree relates to its surroundings, he said: It produces its energy and water. It doesn't pollute. Living Buildings would have that kind of minimal footprint.

The program hasn't certified any buildings yet. Four recently completed ones are under consideration, McLennan said, but all are small — homes, school buildings: "Bullitt has the opportunity to be the first urban, multistory Living Building in the country."

Building location is an important criterion. Developer Rogers said the Cascadia Center's setting is nearly ideal: a dense, mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly neighborhood, served well by transit and primed for even greater density.

The building itself would be virtually self-sustaining.

Consider the water and sewage systems. Rain would be collected from the roof and stored in a big cistern in the basement, said Colleen Mitchell, a member of the building's engineering team. From there, water intended for potable use would be filtered, subjected to ultraviolet disinfection and piped to sinks, showers and drinking fountains.

Another set of pipes would take nonpotable water to toilets using just 1 pint per flush. What's flushed would end up in composting units; the compost would fertilize plants in a "living wall" or greenhouse in the building.

Urine from waterless urinals would be sterilized, mixed with "gray water" from sinks and showers, and also used as fertilizer.

There would be some connections with the outside world. The building's fire sprinklers would be linked to the city water system. Mitchell and Rogers say the Cascadia Center also may have to rely on the city for potable water if public-health officials balk at the plan to produce their own.

Ahead of the rules

That's just one example of how the project is stretching well-established government rules for designing, constructing and operating buildings.

"We haven't actually gone down this road before," said Sally Clark, who chairs the Seattle City Council's land-use committee. "Most [regulatory] systems are not built for innovation."

To counteract that, the council last year began a pilot program letting planners approve buildings that don't comply with the usual rules if developers are striving for Living Building status.

Rogers said the Cascadia Center will seek several exceptions. For instance, to make the building a "net-zero" energy consumer, Bullitt plans more solar panels on the roof and facade than the city normally permits.

To admit as much daylight as possible and reduce power needs, each floor has been designed with higher-than-usual ceilings. That means the building would be about 10 feet taller than the zoning code allows, Rogers said.

All this innovation means extra cost. Rogers and Hayes wouldn't provide estimates. Some details remain in flux.

But in a study last year, the Green Building Council calculated a Northwest midrise office building that met Living Building standards would cost 24 to 29 percent more to build than a more conventional green building.

The Cascadia Center wouldn't have big power or water bills, however. Hayes is optimistic the building could start making money in just a few years.

The Bullitt Foundation views the project as an investment, not a philanthropic venture, he said. It's looking for investment partners. It intends to occupy half of one floor and lease the rest of the building at market rates.

Potential tenants include other sustainable-development organizations, McLennan says, including the Green Building Council and its offshoot, the International Living Building Institute.

The recession actually means this is a good time to build, Hayes said. Construction costs are down. And, if approved, the center will be finished in time to serve as a model for other developers when the economy recovers.

The current crop of green buildings is great, he said, "but they're not where green buildings need to be."

Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231 or epryne@seattletimes.com

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