The Work

US photographer Tom Reese explores how human beings can improve buildings – our critical habitat – by seeking guidance from the natural world. There are now seven billion of us on earth, and as most will live in the world’s cities for the first time in human history, we have an urgent environmental need to construct and operate the places where we live and work in ways that are healthier and more sustainable.

Nature’s systems and designs offer us inspiration and hope, if we choose to pay attention. To make this visual connection, Reese has photographically documented what will be the greenest and most energy efficient commercial building in the world alongside some of the best systems and designs found in nature. Reese believes that most people share the need to have a connection to the natural world, and yet much of what we have built for ourselves seems to separate us from it.

Nature, over time, favours designs that are the most functional and that make the most efficient use of scarce resources. The new Bullitt Center building, in Seattle, Washington, US, shares these aspirations. This six-story office building will produce enough electricity and water to fulfill all of its own needs. It will heat and cool using highly efficient new systems. It will produce zero waste. Its materials are healthier too – free of the many toxic chemicals that are still commonly used in construction today. The building is designed to be beautiful and to encourage its tenants to develop habits that are more sustainable and ultimately more productive too.

The Bullitt Foundation has adopted an environmental philanthropy, in essence a mission to safeguard the natural environment and promote responsible human activities. The building has been planned as a living laboratory with environmental goals at the highest level ever set, testing many technologies and philosophies for the first time. Its challenge is to become the first building of its size to be officially designated a “Living Building” and therefore an example for the world.


  • The greenest, most energy efficient commercial building in the world aims to change the way buildings are designed, built and operated to improve human health and long-term environmental performance.

    This dream, to promote sustainability as the world’s population grows rapidly, is becoming a reality in Seattle, Washington, US. The Bullitt Center building is designed for net-zero energy, water and waste.

  • The building has been designed to make the most of its urban site and to set and meet stringent new Living Building goals. The solar roof required an exception to existing city codes, and the approval process has paved the way for future living buildings.

    Unusually tall windows maximise daylight for workstations and reduce the need for supplemental lighting.

  • Denis Hayes helped found Earth Day more than 40 years ago and now oversees the Bullitt Foundation. Even in rainy Seattle, solar panels will generate as much electricity as the building uses. The array has dictated the building’s overall design.

    Hayes says: “There is a chance that if we can prove out some things in big cities, then we can be influential even globally, in this vast drift toward urbanisation that is taking place.”

  • Super efficient window technology, design and mechanical operation are the key part of several critical systems: heating and cooling, natural lighting and minimising supplemental energy requirements.

    Requirements set by the building have created new business for window makers. Workers install glass window panels on a balcony that will offer a view intended to increase worker contentment and thus, hopefully, productivity.

  • Climate control is computerised to avoid the potential for energy wastefulness in human decision-making. A weather station senses temperature, wind and moisture outside, compares interior data, then decides how and when the high-tech windows should be opened, closed and shaded, and how the building’s other systems should be employed.

    People can override the system, but the hope is that they will also learn new habits.

  • To give the building a long life and to preserve old growth forests, the structural beams, ceilings and floors are composited from smaller wood pieces, instead of being cut from large whole trees, and they are bonded with non-toxic glue.

    Wood is a regionally available material, renewable when harvested in responsible ways. To conserve electricity, precise calculations of daylight determine how the window and skylight design minimises the need for supplemental lighting.

  • It is hard to miss the attraction of natural light and huge, old trees.
  • Humans are compelled by sweeping views of their surroundings, perhaps because of the perspective they get about their place in the world. We know that the experiencing of nature is vital to a healthy human intellect and emotional state. Pictured: Visitors touring the Bullitt Center take in the Seattle skyline in a view from the top floor balcony.
  • Hikers take in waterfalls in a view that is a short distance from downtown.
  • Like branching roots, the mechanical heating system carries fluid though a series of tubes to regulate temperature. Plastic tubes transport a water and glycol mixture. Fluid to heat and cool arrives at a constant temperature from thermal wells deep in the earth below the building.

    From there, minimal energy is needed to cool, heat and circulate it throughout the building.

  • Tree roots transport what they need from within the soil in a water and nutrient mixture. Trees thrive according to what nurtures them in their immediate environment.
  • A painstaking review of all potential building materials ruled out more than one hundred ‘toxic’ substances that are commonly used in building construction, even today. The chemistry of this brushed-on vapour barrier was re-formulated by its maker to meet the Bullitt Foundation’s non-toxic standard.

    It retains its effectiveness as long-lasting moisture protection that will allow the outer metal skin of the building to be replaced efficiently when the time comes.

  • In a similar way, the bark on this madrona tree adapts and protects according to moisture and aging cycles.
  • Typical office buildings are built to last 40 years; the Bullitt Center is designed to last 250 years. Natural resources are conserved, and financing over a longer period of time means that the slightly higher cost of better materials and energy systems can be more than offset during its lifetime, adding overall value.
  • An older building nearby shows the effects of age on building materials of its time.
  • The building is spreading its ideas and philosophy quickly to industry professionals through tours during construction and through the results it hopes to show by monitoring performance for all to see. To further its education goals, the ideas planted will be constantly evaluated to show how new concepts prove out over time.
  • Mushrooms from a nearby park sprout and spread quickly when conditions are right.
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The Photographer

Tom Reese

Tom Reese is an independent photographer and editor in Seattle, Washington, US, whose work as a photojournalist has been nominated for Pulitzer Prizes in breaking news photography, feature photography and explanatory reporting, and also honored by World Press Photo, Pictures of the Year International and International Conservation Photography Awards. The Seattle Art Museum Gallery represents a selection of his work.

An ongoing documentary environmental essay sponsored by Blue Earth Alliance, “Choosing Hope: Reclaiming the Duwamish River” was on recent exhibit at the Burke Museum of History and Industry at the University of Washington. Other documentary subjects include a nine-year project on early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, human rights in Burma, and a wetland book pondering the connections and competition between humans and their natural environment. He also teaches workshops on photojournalism  ethics and environmental journalism.

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