Environmental Health News

A Living Building

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Workers installing steel siding over the insulation on the Bullitt Center.


John Staments

The new Bullitt Center—which opened April 22—may be one of the greenest, healthiest, most energy-efficient commercial buildings in the nation.

The Bullitt Foundation's new center—constructed at the intersection of Madison Street and 15th Avenue in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood—marries the tenets of healthy building and green building, and in doing so, may transform market and architectural norms.

More than 80% of Americans live in cities, and buildings account for 75% of our total electrical use. They consume enormous resources to heat, ventilate, and light. Added to the strain on the environment are the fossil fuels burned, the carbon dioxide released, and the tons of waste that end up in landfills.

"The way we construct buildings matters," said Joseph David, sustainability program manager for Point 32, the real estate development company involved in the Bullitt Center's construction. At the department's Environmental Health Seminar on February 14, David spoke about the center's goals to meet the Living Building Challenge, a sustainable building certification program. To meet the challenge, a project must demonstrate net zero energy and water, healthy air, and other performance-based imperatives.

Bullitt's building captures all its water, cleans it, and reuses it. The solar panels on the roof convert energy from the sun. The materials chosen excluded any "red list" chemicals designated as harmful to human health and the environment. And building materials were largely sourced, extracted, manufactured, and produced within 500 kilo- meters of Seattle. The drywall they used, for example, came from a company in Vancouver, which extracts gypsum from neighboring Alberta.

We spend 90% of our time indoors, explained Howard Frumkin, dean of the School of Public Health and professor in our department. He sits on the Bullitt Foundation's board of trustees and was elected to a three-year term on the board of directors of the US Green Building Council in February, the first designated board position for a health professional. "Environmental health, in my view," said Frumkin, "ought to focus on the environments where people really spend time. So if you care about healthy environments, we need to care about indoor environments."

In addition to the green building tenets, the Bullitt Center promotes health, too. Unusually high ceilings allow every tenant to have direct access to daylight. Ten-feet tall windows open to allow fresh air inside. A glass-enclosed staircase commands views of the neighborhood and promotes exercise, too.

The double entendre in "living building" is intentional, explained Frumkin. "A building has a metabolism. It takes in energy, water, and materials, and it has a waste stream— just like an organism does."

A building has life inside, literally in the form of its inhabitants. Frumkin compares the construction of a building to the way a zookeeper prescribes a suitable habitat for an animal, one in which the animal can thrive. "If you build a building," he said, "you would like to be able to say: this is a healthy place in which people can thrive."

The specs for building "health" into the blueprint aren't extraordinary. They're common sense, really. "If you design a building to be a healthy human habitat, then you design into it physical activity, natural lighting, and comfortable temperature and humidity, and you design out of it toxic chemicals and other unpleasant exposures," explained Frumkin.

During his presentation, Joseph David illustrated how the Bullitt Center's construction has already been transforming the market, making it greener and healthier. One company reconfigured its product that seals the exterior of the building from water penetration, replacing the phthalates used with a non-toxic substance.

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(l to r) Rory Murphy, Joseph David, Howard Frumkin, and David Kalman at the department's Environmental Health Seminar. Photo: Sarah Fish

What does a greener and healthier construction mean for the people who will be working inside the new Bullitt Center? To find out, a team of department researchers, which includes Associate Professor Scott Meschke, is collaborating with Heather Burpee, a research assistant professor in the Department of Architecture. Burpee is also a health design specialist at the UW's Integrated Design Lab, which will be among the building's first tenants.

"People talk about the human microbiome: they're talking about a skin microbiome or a gut microbiome," explained Meschke. "The same is true of a building. It has its own microbiome."

Over a six-month period, the researchers will investigate the indoor ecology of the building, measuring temperature, relative humidity, and light by taking samples of what is in the air and on the surfaces.

The research project is supported by grants from the Bullitt Foundation and the UW Royalty Research Fund. The others involved from our department include Martin Cohen, senior lecturer and director of the Field Research and Consultation Group, first-year graduate student Vivian Tran (Environmental Health), and Nicola Beck, a research scientist in Meschke's laboratory.

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