Is the Bullitt Center Worth The Carbon Emissions of Issaquah, Sammamish, Snoqualmie and Woodinville Combined?

Sunday was Earth Day and Governor Inslee and Mayor McGinn attended the opening of the Bullitt Center, billed as the “greenest” building on the planet. One of the selling points is that it creates more energy than it uses. But, is it really green?

The Seattle Times notes the building cost $30 million to build and is 50,000 square feet. That amounts to construction costs of $600 a square foot. Last year, Crosscut reported the Bullitt Foundation expected it to cost much less, noting at the time that “The $30 million Center will run about $350 a square foot in construction costs finished – about $50 more per square foot than your typical commercial building.” Even if Crosscut’s previous projection was incorrect, the Bullitt Center is still twice as expensive as a typical commercial building.

Assuming these numbers are correct, the Bullitt Center cost $15 million more than a comparable building. What environmental benefits do they get for all that additional cost?

With the same amount of money, here are a few things they could have done to benefit the environment:

  • Eliminate all carbon emissions from Issaquah, Sammamish, Snoqualmie and Woodinville for an entire year – 1.5 million metric tons of CO2.
  • Fund five years of the Puget Sound Partnership’s #6 priority, matching federal grants from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which is zeroed out in the Governor’s budget.
  • Fund three years of the gap between the agency request and the Governor’s budget for the Floodplain Management Local Grant Program. The request is $6 million, but the Governor’s budget funds only $1 million.
  • Fund half of all Pollution Prevention & Cleanup projects the Puget Sound Partnership lists as needing “additional resources” to complete before 2020.

Remember, this is the additional cost for one building. If this building is truly the model some hope, hundreds of millions of dollars could be spent to meet these standards rather than fund other environmental priorities.

Will the Bullitt Center provide more environmental benefit than could be provided by any of the above? That remains to be seen. Even if it falls short of these alternatives, it will likely be claimed that the building was an experiment and it is important to learn from successes as well as mistakes. That is certainly true. Knowledge is pushed forward by people taking risks and experimenting, so this is a positive step in that process.

I am certain the Bullitt Foundation will brag about those things that worked. Let’s hope they are also honest about those things that don’t work. The environmental community has not been forthcoming about admitting its failures and ending projects that don’t work, shifting limited funding and resources to projects that can make a difference. They have, instead, tended to double down on those very projects arguing that failed programs just need a bit more funding.

Until the results are in, however, we can’t call the Bullitt Center the “greenest” or even a “green” building.

[Reprinted with permission from the Washington Policy Center blog]


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  1. Peter Heide

    I am with you more often than not Todd, but I don’t agree that the Bullitt Center was the wrong thing for the Foundation to spend their money on, with emphasis on “their.” You admit it is an experiment, a demonstration. So be it. Will anybody else do the same thing with their money? I doubt it, but they may use some of the technology and some of the materials and products used in the Bullitt Center to conserve energy and water. The systems, products and applications in the building may be improved as a result of the Bullitt experiment. That’s better for all of us. As long as it is private money and a private decision to spend it I can’t criticize the project.

  2. Bruce Anderson

    “Eliminate all carbon emissions from Issaquah, Sammamish, Snoqualmie and Woodinville for an entire year” Wow, not offset, but actually “eliminate”. I think that’s great.

    Particularly since $15m divided by the combined approximately 125,000 population means this carbon elimination comes at a per capita price of only $120/person/year.

    Why aren’t we doing this as a Country? Eliminate our annual carbon production for only $120 a year… 33 cents a day…what a deal.

    Unless, this statement is wrong. Which, sadly it is.

    • Bruce, I note that you didn’t offer any data or evidence for your claim.

      On the other hand, my numbers are easy to justify. I used a price of $10 per ton of CO2. California’s current price under cap-and-trade is slightly higher than that, about $13 per ton. The Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX), on the other hand, was funding carbon reduction projects (before the threat of government regulation shut it down) at $3 per ton.

      At the California price, the reduction you could achieve with $15 million would be 1.15 million metric tons. At the CCX level, we could reduce 5 million metric tons. My projection of 1.5 million is much closer to the low end than the high end.

      Use whatever number you like, but if the Bullitt Foundation is going to claim it is the “greenest” building, it needs to justify that claim. They don’t seem eager to do that.

  3. Bruce Anderson

    “Eliminate all carbon emissions from Issaquah, Sammamish, Snoqualmie and Woodinville for an entire year”. Really? How does one do that – pay everyone in those communities not to drive, consume goods and services?

    Then again maybe what you’re writing that $15m offsets the carbon generated by a 125,000 people (the population of the four towns you list), or $120/person.

    Really we could, as a nation, have zero carbon emissions by spending only $120 per person a year? Why don’t we do that now?

    Perhaps because your math is wrong.

  4. John

    Who is paying for your work Todd? The American Chemistry Council?

    • John, why not ask the question of the US Green Building Council, whose members benefit from higher building costs? Or Climate Solutions, whose board members financially benefit from increased energy costs? The simple fact is that if you don’t care about spending money wisely to get the maximum environmental benefit, you don’t care about the environment.

      I don’t receive any money from them. Nor, by the way does the legislature’s own auditing agency, JLARC, who found that green buildings don’t help the environment.

      My experience with those who cannot address the issues but attack motives is that they are engaging in psychological projection. They have their own personal (financial or psychological) motives for supporting particular policies so they assume everyone else does too. In reality such accusations say more about the accuser than the accused.

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