Urban ecosystems: An interview with Denis Hayes (part I)

Opinion by Mindy Perkins
Feb. 2, 2015, 9:41 p.m.

Wouldn’t it be cool if cities were like ecosystems — efficient, resilient and self-sustaining?

That’s the principle behind the Bullitt Center, a commercial office building in Seattle that is three times more energy efficient than most buildings its size.  Outfitted with low-flow toilets, automated blinds and a geothermal heating system (among other features), the Bullitt Center is designed to supply all its own needs and then some.  While the building’s “greenness” alone is impressive, the process behind its construction is even more important as an enabler for future efforts in sustainability.

I had the distinct pleasure of speaking with Denis Hayes, president of the Bullitt Foundation, about his involvement with the Center.  A Stanford alum, Denis was the principal national organizer of the first Earth Day in 1970, and has continued to promote sustainable practices through service with numerous organizations and an ambitious vision for healthy, living cities.  Denis’s story is a remarkable example of being the change you wish to see in the world.

Denis’s vision for the Bullitt Center was to create a “living” building that recycled resources and provided a comfortable, naturalistic environment for people inside and out.  But pushing biomimetic projects through industry can be a challenge.  Architects tend to embrace biomimicry with the understanding that humans can learn a great deal from nature.  Developers and bankers, however, generally don’t want to take the risk of investing in such technology.  Luckily, this was less of an issue for Denis, since the Bullitt Foundation put up the incremental funds itself so it didn’t have to rely as much on borrowed money.

The biggest obstacles the foundation encountered were regulatory.  “It’s pretty much illegal to build a green building,” Denis remarked, adding that they had to work through many layers of bureaucracy in order to install “dramatic” amounts of glass, implement composting toilets, and even catch rainwater, which is outlawed in many states.  On the bright side, now that a “regulatory pathway” is established, a second building will be easier to construct.  And just one wedge in the industry goes a long way toward convincing reluctant developers that self-sustaining architecture is not only viable, but practical, affordable and pleasant.  It’s easy to dismiss something as “flaky […] until somebody has something you can see, feel and touch.”

Indeed, the Bullitt Center reaches out constantly to anyone, anywhere who can help bring about the transition to sustainable cities.  The Center has public tours six days a week; recent visitors include representatives from Disney and Google, as well as the president of Bulgaria.  While not everyone can construct an entirely green building, there are many who are willing to pursue the most important objectives, like energy neutrality and toxin flushing.  (“The composting toilets are a harder sell,” Denis jokes.)  Yet as they say, “big oaks from little acorns grow.”  Enough small steps go a long way toward establishing the legitimacy — and eventually the normality — of sustainable practices.

Of the Bullitt Center’s unique amenities, Denis is personally most proud of the solar panels.  He has spent 50 years advocating for solar power, and now with his help, the cloudiest city in the lower 48 states has a six-story building that could run exclusively on the sunlight that hits its roof.  The 575 panels even generate excess energy that is sold to Seattle City Light, a local utility company.  That the Center supplies power beyond its own walls is a gesture as nice for its commercial benefits as for its symbolism.

Ultimately Denis envisions entire green cities that function like ecosystems, exchanging materials and energy throughout the system in a self-sufficient way.  Already there are experiments with sustainable buildings on a larger scale, such as the ecodistricts targeted for Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles.  Such efforts — including the Bullitt Center — are effective because they lead by example.  They work in practice, not just in theory.  It’s a fact Denis recognized that will help ensure that the movement for nature-friendly urban environments continues to gain momentum.

Contact Mindy Perkins at mindylp ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Mindy Perkins ‘15 is an opinions columnist for The Stanford Daily. As a proud Coloradoan and electrical engineering major, her ultimate goal is to apply engineering techniques to researching animals, as well as to draw inspiration from the natural world for engineering applications. In her free time, she enjoys writing, playing the viola and piano and drawing animals, dinosaurs and dragons. You can reach her at [email protected].

Login or create an account