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Home Economics | The Urban Ecology Partnership at the Bullitt Center
Written by Rob Peña • Associate Professor, University of Washington 

For decades, 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.

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.

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12 0913 Bullitt PV RP

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.

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. 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 a building that seeks to address all of its environmental tasks in one locality.

12 1108 Bullitt RPThe 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.”

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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 Bullitt Center’s stewards of its 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.

bullitt1Credit: Sian Kennedy for The New York Times

bullitt2Credit: Sian Kennedy for The New York Times

bullitt4Credit: Sian Kennedy for The New York Times



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