And so it seemed this time. The top-ranked page turned out to be an article by Neil Takemoto, writing for the SustainableCitiesCollective web page, about the Bullitt Centre in Seattle. The Bullitt Foundation funds a variety of conservation projects, and committed itself to the rather ambitious Living Building Challenge for its newly built headquarters. The first small crack in the credibility of 'the greenest' claim comes with the realisation that they really only mean it to be that in the company of conventional office buildings.
I should immediately declare that I feel terribly guilty. As one does for being at all negative about anybody's sincere efforts to truly test the envelope of business as usual. The more especially because as I delved deeper I found that the Bullitt Foundation really has made an effort to give access to rich and useful information about the various initiatives and innovative technologies that the building employs. More of that later. Let me get the little negatives off my chest quickly.
In this case, the problem revolves around the contested terms that describe energy self-sufficiency. Thus, the Bullitt Centre is described as Net Zero Energy, while the very first item in the bulleted list of its attributes states that it is "expected to use less than one fourth the energy of a typical building of its size". Whether or not this apparent semantic contradiction confuses, relies on the reader having come across the variety of terms with their different system boundaries, which are used to describe the energy neutrality of buildings. In this case, it is entirely possible that on the one hand the author is describing the energy demand, or energy load of the building, and that both the designers and the users have done well to very significantly reduce that demand. If so, it is plausible that the big photovoltaic array, which tops the building like a peaked baseball cap, could just about generate the electricity portion of that demand. Other initiatives, like the geothermal heating, would help with the rest. Hence Net Zero Energy. But even if that is actually the case, we would be well served by a little additional information: that most likely the building is grid connected and uses the rest of the city as its storage battery, or 'energy flywheel'. My criticism in this regard is really of Takemoto's article.
As I often complain, short online articles give you a sort of hamburger patty version of a hearty T-bone steak and veggies. In most such news items, even on the most committed web sites, fundamental claims for the performance of a building cannot be taken at face value.
But the good news is that you can take the trouble to follow the link to the dedicated web page of the building. If you more or less ignore the predictable vision, the tributes to the philanthropic partners, and the on-line leasing pages, you will find a blog. This turns out to have an exhaustive photo record of the construction, with key technologies explained through a collection of informative articles. There is a good selection, from geothermal drilling to the use of timber framing (where conventional office buildings would have steel or concrete). While the information is still a bit ad hoc rather than systematic, it would be churlish to complain too much.
Finally, to give credit where credit is due, Takemoto makes no claim that the building is sustainable, and the web site is reasonably circumspect in its use of the word. In this way, they are much more responsible than the many others who have so corrupted the term, as to make it almost useless.
It's worth linking to the original article, just for the panel that sums up the "20 imperatives of the Living Building Challenge. Read it here.
For a quick primer on Zero energy buildings, you could do worse than Wikipedia here.