Denis Hayes, photographed on the upper level of the under-construction Bullitt Center in downtown Seattle.
Karen Moskowitz Denis Hayes, photographed on the upper level of the under-construction Bullitt Center in downtown Seattle.

An abbreviated version of this interview ran in the May/June print edition of ECO-STRUCTURE. That text, along with additional commentary appears here.

In the photos of the workers sitting high up on the Empire State Building’s beams in the early 1930s, Denis Hayes doesn’t see lives at risk. He sees pride on the workers’ faces in raising the then-tallest building in the world. As CEO of Seattle’s Bullitt Foundation, Hayes is similarly proud in overseeing what could be the greenest commercial building in the world when completed this year. The Bullitt Center, which won ECO-STRUCTURE’s Evergreen award last year for the On the Boards category (September/October 2011), is designed to meet the Living Building Challenge (LBC), and is now going up in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. This project is also taking risks, but Hayes, 67, is no stranger to ambitious environmental goals. He was the national coordinator of the first Earth Day at 25 and has directed what is now the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, among many other accomplishments.

What drives you to spend your life on environmental issues?
Part of it was growing up in Camas, Wash., surrounded by the Columbia River Gorge. My town was involved in clear-cutting vast acreages of forest. There was no pollution legislation, so the smokestacks spilled out sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide every morning. The acid precipitation was so strong that the company had complaints from the paper-mill workers about the paint jobs on their cars being pitted by the acid rain. So they installed a shower on the outside of the mill. At the end of your shift, you drove through a shower to get out. Nobody was focused on the impact on your lungs, just the cars. In my mind, even from my youth, there was a basic conflict between the places I so much loved, and the economic engine that put food on the table and kept people prosperous. I had this intuitive sense that it should be possible to make people prosper without causing such massive destruction.

I hitchhiked around the world for three years after my sophomore year in college and developed theories of how we ought to be engaging in what we would now call biomimicry, urban ecology, and industrial ecology. I didn’t have any vocabulary for it then, but I returned from that trip knowing what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

Not many people get that moment.
If I were to overstate it, when I decided this was my calling, [it was like] the Old Testament prophets out in the middle of the desert having fasted for many days in great heat and great cold and great discomfort. And that’s pretty much when it happened, in the middle of the Namib Desert (it’s now Namibia in southwest Africa).

You once wrote that the Earth Day movement has generated a response that’s a mile wide and an inch deep. So when we’re thinking about the Living Building Challenge [LBC], how do you build a following that doesn’t have that same problem?
The Living Building Challenge is a mile deep and an inch wide. Instead of a whole lot of people recycling their aluminum cans, it’s a handful of people trying to build something that is as environmentally sustainable as we know how to make it. The problem then becomes one of proselytizing: How do you get that out to a much broader audience? The easiest step is to prove that it’s doable. You build something that uses half as much energy as a LEED Platinum building and meets all of its water needs with water that falls on its roof. Then, if you want to replicate that building, you have to create a legal regulatory and financial context within which for-profit entities, acting in their own interests, will choose to do this [take on the LBC].

Tell us more about how you encourage individuals and for-profit entities to take on the LBC?
We’re trying to think through mechanisms where it becomes in the interest of utilities to invest in all of the buildings in its service areas. Seattle City Light does this right now in ways that capture easy savings: people will put in good lights; they’ll put in a little bit more insulation. The utility looks at the building, sees how much energy it saved the first year, and assigns a value to that. It makes a cash payment up front to the building owner, but the utility will also assume that whatever savings there are the first year will atrophy quickly because people will replace the efficient light bulbs with different light bulbs. The gaskets will wear out on the appliances. People will open up the windows on the coldest day. After five years, you may have 50 percent of the savings you thought.

So we’re trying to figure out how to stop letting people get the frosting off of the efficiency and to get them down into the cake itself. We want to prove that it’s physically possible to build a building that has exemplary performance characteristics. And then we want to create the financial, political, and regulatory context within which a whole lot of other people would start building them as well.

How do you make the construction of LBC buildings economical, so that, say, I’m a developer out in the suburbs in Virginia and I can afford to follow the Bullitt Center’s green strategies?
A great deal of this is expensive for the first one, and much less expensive for the second one, and only trivially more expensive with a decent rate of return for the 100th or 1,000th. One of my favorite examples is windows. We learned from the people who study windows that if you have a normal window that opens out, your gaskets get compressed or simply wear out. You have wonderful performance characteristics your first two or three years, but then when the gaskets get compressed, you get a lot of air filtration around the edges. What you want is a window that goes out as a unit and then pops back with the entire gasket into the window framing. We only found one company in the world that would do that, and that was Schüco in Germany.

But part of the Living Building Challenge is that you can’t go to Germany for your windows. The wood has to come from a 600-mile radius. Schüco was planning to license a few places in the United States to manufacture these windows. We put them in contact with a potential supplier in Everett, Wash., who is now manufacturing them. We’ll be the first people to purchase from them. That was a lot of work on our part to make that happen, but the next person only has to go up to the supplier in Everett and get the windows.