The 1987 United Nations report “Our Common Future,” defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Since then the design community has debated the meanings and applicability of sustainability and corollary terms such as sustainable design, green architecture and high performance buildings. Sim Van der Ryn offers a definition for ecological design as “any form of design that minimizes environmentally destructive impact by integrating itself with living processes.” What these terms share is the hope for creation of a built environment that might lead to a kind of balance and stability in a world where we have very little of either.
However defined, the sustainability movement is as broad and varied as the people and interests grappling with the issues of human and environmental health at many levels. At one end of the spectrum it is the realm of global policy makers grappling with agreements between nations to limit carbon emissions. At the other end are neighborhood organizers committed to improving their communities and indigenous peoples preserving vital connections between culture and place.
European planners, designers and policy makers have long drawn a clear distinction between those actions aimed at environmentally sound design on a local level and those aimed at environmentally sound planning and policies on a global scale. Urban Ecology is the designation for efforts made to carry out all environmental tasks in one locality. Environmental Management describes efforts that focus on one environmental task in all localities.
Urban ecology is directed at local problem solving on the scale of a building, a neighborhood, and even a city. It operates in the realms of energy, water and resource use, waste reduction, and recycling. The individuals most directly involved in the issue at hand aim their actions at problem resolution. The direction of these actions is wholly dependent upon the attitudes of these inhabitants, the visibility of the problem, and clarity of solutions to the issue. The technology applied in service of these solutions is generally people friendly and involves shorting streams of energy and material flows.
The framework of urban ecology draws inspiration from natural systems, and perhaps more directly, from the ecology of agricultural cultures in which human settlements have achieved a harmonious and long-term relationship with the land, environmental forces, and biotic communities. In traditional agricultural societies, these flows were easy to track because they involved localized, relatively short streams of materials and nutrients. Food was grown locally; services and dry goods came for the most part from the immediate region, produced with local knowledge and local labor.
Modern society in contrast has very long flows of energy and matter. Goods, services and even basic foods originate from around the globe. Along with these stretched energy and material flows comes a scale of mineral extraction and agricultural production that is vastly larger, and more difficult to repair or sustain than when these occurred at smaller scales, closer to home. Water supply and waste recycling have achieved a vastly larger scale and length, where water in many parts of the world is piped from distant water sheds and wastes are widely dispersed far from their origin. These long energy and matter flows make it very difficult to account for the environmental costs of our actions and the responsible management of our home economics.
The Bullitt Center was conceived as both an exemplar of, and experiment in, urban ecology. Nearing completion in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, the Bullitt Center is a 50,000 SF commercial office building that seeks to address all of its environmental tasks in one locality. The building harvests from the sun as much energy every year as it uses for all purposes, which is a significant feat for a 6-story building in cloudy Seattle. Rainwater that lands on its roof is collected, stored, and used for drinking and washing. Used water is treated through a constructed wetland on a third floor terrace where some evaporates and the rest is returned to the groundwater through rain gardens along the walkways in front of the building. Surplus rainwater in the winter is also returned to the groundwater rather than contributing to Seattle’s overburdened combined storm sewer system. Composting toilets virtually eliminate water demand for flushing, converting human waste into food for other organisms. The building is largely constructed with regionally sourced materials and it contains no toxic substances. The environmental impact of the materials that went in to the building have been minimized by careful sourcing of regionally harvested and manufactured materials, and the embodied energy will be accounted for and offsets applied in order to balance, as much as currently possibly, the ledger of this building’s “home economics.”
The writer and farmer Wendell Berry reminds us that the good work of conservation and environmental stewardship begins and ends at home. We can “think globally,” but the real work achieving an appropriate balance between our needs as humans to draw sustenance and resources from the world while sustaining the health and productivity of the land and waters, happens in our actions close to home. In this context it’s useful to remember that the roots of the words economics and ecology both come from the Greek “oikos” or “house.” Eco-nomia is the counting or ledger of the Earth household; eco-logia is the logical organization of the Earth household. Home economics extends responsibility to the household for its use of resources and impact on the environment. It is the work of urban ecologists to facilitate this accounting, making it direct, visible, and achievable. For architects, urban ecology places the individual building in the focus of environmental consideration.
The Urban Ecology Partnership (UEP), an initiative of the University of Washington’s Integrated Design Lab, will serve as the project’s environmental accountants to track and manage the Bullitt Center’s home economics. It will coalesce and broadcast the lessons learned from monitoring its vital signs. The UEP will operate a public education center where today’s thought leaders and tomorrow’s designers, planners, developers, policy makers and financiers will convene to learn and share the knowledge needed to create the next generation of super high-performance buildings, healthy neighborhoods, and sustainable cities. An exhibition will illustrate how the building works and describe the Bullitt Center’s origins, purpose, design and construction. Tours will show the building and its systems in operation, and a building dashboard will display its vital signs and operational performance. The building will be a living laboratory used by student and faculty researchers to investigate an array of green building subjects from energy use behavior to predictive model control.
An exemplar of urban ecology, the Bullitt Center will be a demonstration of how a beautiful, comfortable, and healthy work environment, designed to address all environmental tasks in one locality, makes it easy for its inhabitants to balance their household ledger and practice good home economics.
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.