Earth Day founder looks to power living buildings

Solar panels that ensure the Bullitt Center produces more energy than it uses, Denis Hayes said.

Photo courtesy Nic Lehoux/Bullitt Center

Solar panels that ensure the Bullitt Center produces more energy than it uses, Denis Hayes said.

TEMPE – Denis Hayes, a co-founder of Earth Day in 1970, is working toward a greener future that focuses on developing “living buildings” that rely on nature, the sun and the rain, to operate.

Think of them as buildings that regenerate, harnessing solar power and harvesting rainwater for energy and other uses. Essentially, a building has to produce more energy and water than it needs.

Hayes, who led solar energy research under the Carter administration and is now president of the Seattle-based Bullitt Foundation, visited Arizona in early October to convince architects, Arizona State University educators and other sustainability advocates to meet the certification rigor of his Living Building Challenge.

Hayes met with a local architecture firm, the Architectural Resource Team, who are developing an office building that is attempting to meet the standards. Construction will start by early next year on the Sonoran Studio in central Phoenix.

The sustainability advocate, in an interview with Cronkite News, discussed why living buildings matter, why millennials may save the planet and establishing cities and zones that are green in more than name.

Cronkite News: What decisions went into establishing the standards for a living building?

Hayes: The kind of thought that went into the initial Living Building Challenge, which is on version three and constantly evolving, is to try and figure out how to build a building that will leave the area on which it was built better than when you arrived. In our case (at the Bullitt Center), there was a one-story tavern and three-fourths of the lot was covered by an asphalt parking lot. It turns out the challenge for us was we could’ve done almost anything and it would’ve been better than when we arrived.

But a Living Build isn’t just to minimize the damage that we do, but actually making things better. We try to use principles of ecology to have buildings on any site function pretty much like the natural ecosystem did prior to that. So, if you’re in Phoenix that’s a bunch of succulents and cactuses and things. If you’re in the Pacific Northwest, it’s a Douglas fir forest.”

CN: The Bullitt Center was built under your leadership. How did you get involved?

Hayes: The Bullitt Foundation is set up to link the cities of the Northwest – Portland, Seattle, Vancouver – as models of sustainability in the 21st century. We have a lot of advantages in that part of the country. It is relatively well-educated, politically progressive, reasonably wealthy and pretty environmentally oriented. So, if we can’t do it in Portland, Seattle and Vancouver, which has in it Amazon, Microsoft, Starbucks, Nike, on and on, then it would be pretty difficult to do it in any place.

We’re looking for models to be replicated as cities are built. As part of that effort, we were concerned that all of the buildings being built were ‘greenish,’ but not truly sustainable. So, we decided to build a commercial building with regular tenants, not green beasts with the Sierra Club, that would be the greenest office building in the world. Now, the Greater Seattle King County is a water district and the Bullitt Center is its own water district. The bottom line is that we managed to put together a building that is at the cutting edge and that the tenants seem to love.