The Bullitt Center, the Miller Hull Partnership, Seattle

41 years ago Denis Hayes, a young activist with a vision for a post-carbon energy future, organized the first Earth Day. That day of celebration and teach-ins was my first realization of how the resource flows through buildings impact the land, air and water.

Dennis Hayes, founder of Earth Day 1970

I grew up with a great appreciation for the indigenous earth, stone and timber buildings of my native New Mexico and found inspiration in the local designers who were tapping-in to the native intelligence of these design traditions for their own work. Peter van Dresser, a local writer and experimenter, whose lifelong interest in technology and its application within the framework of ecological processes was experimenting with sun-powered dwellings built from local materials and informed by both climate and culture. At Los Alamos, Douglas Balcomb, a physicist turned solar designer, was leading cutting-edge research on digital methods to predict the optimal balance of glass, thermal mass, and insulation to produce low-energy “passive solar” buildings around the country. Architect Ed Mazria was applying these principles in some of the most interesting contemporary architecture in the region and illustrated these in a popular pattern book for passive solar design. In the work of these visionary designers I saw a career path and a role for place-responsive, sun-powered architecture in a renewable energy future.

La Vereda Compound, Mazria Associates Architects

A decade later fresh out of undergraduate school I had a summer internship at the Solar Energy Research Institute, a new national laboratory under the direction of Denis Hayes with the mission of developing knowledge and technology to transition the nation from fossil fuels to renewable energy. SERI researchers were actively working on a plan to satisfy 20% of our national appetite for energy from renewable sources by the year 2000. But 1981 was also “morning in America,” the first year of the Reagan administration, and the White House decided that such efforts were best left for the private sector to develop in response to market demand. SERI was stripped of much of its funding and Denis Hayes delivered a memorable resignation speech, criticizing this misguided, short-sighted approach.

When I came to Seattle four years ago and finally met Denis, he hinted at creating a paradigm-shifting, ultra green urban building in Seattle as both a prototype and living laboratory for buildings of the future. Since then, the University of Washington’s Integrated Design Lab has been part of a large collaborative effort to help realize his vision for a net-zero energy and water building designed to radically transform our expectations for buildings and their performance.

When Miller Hull’s design for the Bullitt Center was unveiled to the public last May, Denis Hayes reminding the audience of the litany of environment threats and remarked, “…if the world had 3 or 4 centuries to address today’s major challenges we would be right on track, we might even be a little ahead of schedule. But we don’t have any time at all. What we need right now are some major leap-frogs that are broadly occurring around the planet. At the risk of being provocative I don’t believe there is a single office building today in the United States that is truly designed for today’s environment, much less for tomorrow’s. So, we set out to build one. With, what I hope is going to turn out to be no hyperbole at all, we set out to build the greenest office building by far in the world. A building that per area of square foot inside will use 40% less energy than the next most efficient building currently out there. A building that’s flexible, resilient, sustainable, a building that its creators can still be proud of 250 years from now.”

At ground-breaking for the project on Capitol Hill last week, Denis articulated the hope that this building might be “… the harbinger of a new architectural era characterized by ultra efficiency, renewable resources, zero-toxic materials, integrated design that allows the same building components to serve multiple goals, and very, very long-term durability,” a building with a design life of 250 years.


Rob Peña is an Associate Professor in the Department of Architecture at the University of Washington where he teaches architectural design and building science and ecological design. As a building performance consultant with the UW Integrated Design Lab, Rob works regionally with architects on the development of high performance and net-zero energy buildings. He is currently working on a book about the design and construction of the Bullitt Center.