I have a story in today’s paper on The Bullitt Foundation’s proposed living building on Capitol Hill. The project is fascinating: it aims to create all its own energy, produce and treat all its own water and re-energize the neighboring park among other points.
The project has a lot of interesting aspects. However the one I’m most interested in is the water angle. The building hopes to break the mold by capturing all its rainwater off the roof, which will be held in an underground cistern, according to Colleen Mitchell, project manager with 2020 Engineering. Then, some of the water will be treated by UV filters, pumped to faucets throughout the building and used as potable (or drinking) water. Some of the water will be sent to toilets, which will use one pint per flush. All waste from the toilets will be sent to a composting container in the basement, where it will slowly compost and be used for the building’s greenhouse. The greenhouse will run up the south side of the building with plants on each level. Urine from the toilets will go to four tanks in the basement where it will stabilize and be sterilized over a three-month time period. After three months, one part urine will be mixed with eight parts greywater (or the water that goes down faucets). That mix will be sent to the greenhouse where it will be evapotranspired by plants with nutrients from urine being used for fertilization.
I’ve got a rendering of what the system will look like here:
Image courtesy 2020 Engineering
The system is incredibly cutting edge and will set an amazing precedent if permitted. And the ‘if,’ dear readers, is a big ‘if.’
Unfortunately, the precedent is one of the things that probably has permitting agencies worried. Last June, I attended a forum on water attended by a number of speakers. One of them was Steve Deem of the state health department. Going off the water grid is great in theory, he said, but architects, developers and engineers don’t generally understand that if a project provides water, it is responsible for the building’s water forever. That raises a lot of health and safety issues.
Secondly, there’s the issue of charges and rates. King County is in the process of building Brightwater, its massive, multi-million-dollar water treatment plant outside Woodinville. Brightwater gets paid for in part by capacity charges, fees and rates from users. From what I’ve heard from multiple sources, projects are welcome to go off the water grid, as long as they pay those hook up fees and charges. For most developers, this is a turnoff because they are paying twice – once for the water system and once for the hook up. Bullitt has yet to finalize these details with the county. Chris Rogers of development partner Point32 said, “There will be conversations with the county and other players to understand what sort of levies there will be for something that we don’t use.”
At that same June meeting, Christie True, director of the King County Wastewater Treatment Division, said it’s a social justice issue. If developers don’t pay for wastewater infrastructure, people with fewer resources will end up paying more.
Last April, Ray Hoffman, acting director of Seattle Public Utilities, said on-site water treatment is not moving forward in the Puget Sound area because of bureaucracy. “There are institutional barriers on both the public and private side that prevent things that are readily available from getting off the shelf and into the ground.”
These are some of the issues Bullitt faces in trying to go off the water grid. I don’t envy them the process but it will be an amazing achievement if they succeed.
When I asked him about the difficult code issues he was about to face, Denis Hayes of Bullitt said all agencies are on the same page in wanting to see innovative projects happen. “We’ll take that robust optimism until somebody in authority says we shouldn’t have it.”
What do you think, readers? Just how important is this project and what kind of a precedent will it set? Will it succeed in getting off the water grid and are the health and social justice issues valid concerns? I’d love to hear from you on this topic.