Year One at the Bullitt Center

Posted by Nina Smith-Gardiner, AIA, LEED AP on Mon, Apr 21, 2014 at 8:00 PM

(c) Nic Lehoux

(c) Nic Lehoux

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler. – Albert Einstein

Simplicity is the most difficult thing to secure in this world. – George Sand

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. – Leonardo da Vinci

Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent.  It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage – to move in the opposite direction. – E. F. Schumacher


The Bullitt Center opened on Earth Day one year ago, April 22, 2013.  The power of intuition, the impact of collaboration between specialists, the transformative results of having the courage to take a big risk and plunge in to uncharted territory: all are vital to what makes this project such a success.  Denis Hayes, the President of the Bullitt Foundation, followed his intuition and vision, assembling a remarkable team.

A resonating idea for me when I think about this project is that of simplicity.  The building has a majestic power and feels right.  The team collaborated from the outset and distilled the project down to its essence, eliminating any superficial components. Everything visible is the ultimate and unique solution, serving many purposes (example: the structure is the finish surface).  Such simplicity requires a very complex analysis of what will serve the building and what can be deemed superfluous.  There is a power in this kind of refinement.  The constant exchange and cooperation between specialists meant sophisticated problem-solving: the energy/massing relationship, daylighting studies/floor to floor height outcomes, the design for the steel saddles supporting the solar panel brackets, etc, etc.  The melding of the teams’ skills and knowledge allowed the design to move from complexity to simplicity.  The solutions are of a higher order because the input came from many sources and knowledge bases through a cross-discipline analysis and approach.

For Chris Rogers of Point32, the developer of the project, a key theme is the notion of a paradigm shift, of challenging the assumptions of what constitutes an office building.  Chris showed superb intuition in advocating for the present site for the Bullitt Center.  One of the powers of the Bullitt Center is its site.  The solar access is a key to the success of this project.  A huge bonus is the transformed park space adjacent to the site.  And of course the plaza in front of the building has an enormous impact on the experience of the whole place.  Chris, who worked with Seattle University students to create a study of the patterns of behavior on 15th Avenue, convinced the Seattle Department of Transportation that it would be to everyone’s benefit if the street was closed off and made into a pedestrian corridor.  Now the site is greater than the sum of its parts.  It is truly a remarkable place.

Chris spoke about the building’s power to transform the neighborhood, helping to shape the community by introducing an institutional space where visitors are welcome to come in and learn and observe. The plaza and new park have created a distinctive intersection, a visually accessible gathering space, adding a new dimension to a neighborhood that previously was just residential and retail.

Another topic that was important for Chris was the relationship with the City of Seattle on this project.  He spoke about the great partnership with the City’s leadership.  The Living Building Pilot Program was approved by the full council and signed into law by Mayor Greg Nickels in December 2009. Diane Sugimura, the Director of the Department of Planning and Development and Tim Ceis, Deputy Mayor at the time, were supportive of the Bullitt Center project and committed to the exploration of this new paradigm and eager to partner with Denis Hayes on this innovative project.  Chris and his team challenged the City to look at the current permitting process and rethink some of the rules through the lens of common sense issues.  One example is in the recycling of demoed materials.  In the past there wasn’t time to demo and recycle building material given the timeline of the permitting process.  In terms of transforming the current zoning codes, Chris commented that every site is different,  that diversity is good, and that location, aspect, and exposure should be considered as contributing to how a site is zoned, not simply its address.

Through the transformative power of the integrated design process, Chris suggests that the model of the architect as the master – and the other specialists as followers meeting a design’s demand – is out of date.  On the car front, the Bullitt Center proved that you can build an office building without providing parking for cars.  People can adapt and the trend can be bucked.  Another big topic for Chris is the materials piece.  Rather than just going along with the past standards, the Living Building Challenge asks us to think about what materials we are surrounding ourselves with in our living environments.  Should we really accept cancer-causing flame retardants in our furniture because some association supports it?  Just like the organic food movement before it, the healthy construction materials movement can transform what goes into the spaces where we live and work.  Unhealthy materials can be deemed unacceptable and healthy options can replace them.

Chris discussed the issue of equity.  Rather than the standard office layout – where the CEO gets the light and air, while the support staff gets the cubicles – the Bullitt Center offers up a floor plan where there is light, air, and views for all.  The views are wonderful through the expansive windows and there is a great sense of the outdoors within the office spaces. And while offering all these healthy benefits to the occupants, the building is at the same time outperforming the best projections for energy use.


To support and expand on the topic of a healthy working space, I offer up some comments from one of the tenants of the Bullitt Center.  Katrina Morgan, the Principal of Fermata, a sustainable-building consulting firm, spoke of her obsession with air quality.  What strikes her about working at the Bullitt Center is the freshness of the air and this, along with the abundant light, gives the occupants a sense of well being.  To Katrina, a space that supports the human spirit produces profound outcomes.  When designed with sensitivity, a space can be transformative: there is a daily impact on those who work in the space.

Katrina spoke about the cooperative approach she strives to achieve during design and construction of her firm’s projects.  She pointed out that if you cultivate cooperation then you create a new language of working together – a new attitude – that ultimately benefits the bottom line.  Personalities and attitudes, she has found, make all the difference, in tangible as well as intangible ways.  In the case of the Bullitt Center, Denis Hayes set the tone of the project. A positive goal, such as supporting the energy used in the building through renewable energy created onsite, sets a tone and supports a positive spirit in the building and among tenants.

When I first spoke with Denis about the project I commented that everyone I had met on the team was so nice. He replied that his first criterion for selecting his team was that they were nice.  I was struck by this.  Jason McLennan, who authored the Living Building Challenge, has written in his book Zugunruhe:

The first step in bringing about profound change is the change of attitude.  Approaching a subject from a perspective of seeking beauty, elegance, love and spirit infuses the discussion with positive energy. (p.164)

The Bullitt Center, I feel, reflects this approach.  When one enters the building one can sense that this is a different kind of space.  It is imbued with a positive energy.  Watching the subcontractors work during construction, I saw how proud everyone was of their contribution to the project.  The energy was different.  I would specifically to like commend Ralph Hendrix of Schuchart, the Superintendent on the project.  His dedication and good humor added a wonderful spirit to the process.

The Bullitt Center transformed an indistinct site in Seattle into a remarkable urban destination, both inside and out, urging us all to question our assumptions about how we design our built environment.  Congratulations to everyone who contributed to make this project come to life.