DAVID GREENE, HOST:
It is Earth Day this morning, and we are tracking the billion-dollar sale of the solar energy firm Power-One Incorporated to the Swiss industrial group ABB. This comes after several companies, including Germany's Siemens shut down their solar units. ABB says that falling prices for solar panels and rising energy costs all mean solar is now a competitive source of energy, and Power-One is the second largest maker of solar inverters, which allows solar power to be fed into energy grids.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Also on this Earth Day, the world's greenest office building officially opens its doors next week. It's called the Bullitt Center, and it's an ambitious project by the environmentally progressive Bullitt Foundation. The goal here is showcase an office building that is said to be entirely self-sustaining in energy and environmentally friendly in many other ways. The developers are hoping for a copycat effect here.
But first, more on the new building from NPR's Wendy Kaufman in Seattle.
WENDY KAUFMAN, BYLINE: The first thing that strikes you about the new Bullitt Center is the windows. Walking up to the building in the city's Capital Hill neighborhood, six stories of floor to ceiling glass soars above you.
You notice I said walking up to the building - there is no on site parking and once inside, there's more walking.
DENIS HAYES: In a building this size any place else in Seattle, we have two elevators and that's what would face you as you walked in the front door. Here, the stairway is obvious and it's attractive.
That's Denis Hayes, president and CEO of the Seattle-based Bullitt foundation. He explains, there is an elevator, but it's tucked away. The staircase encourages exercise and the concept saves money both in energy use and construction costs.
KAUFMAN: This is but one of dozens of decisions and trade-offs that went into this building, a building Denis Hayes describes as a living organism.
HAYES: It has eyes, it has ears , it has a nervous system, it has a brain and it responds to its environment in a way that seeks to optimize things.
KAUFMAN: He points across the street to a mini weather station. It sends data back to the building so it can decide what it should do to maximize comfort and conserve energy.
HAYES: Whether the windows should be open or closed and whether external shutters should be down or should be up, and if they're down, what angle they should be at to reflect as much sunlight as possible as far as possible into the building to give you day lighting at your desk.
KAUFMAN: Just about everything in this building is off-the-shelf technology - from photovoltaic cells on the roof to composting toilets, but never before has all the technology been integrated into a single building in quite this way.
CHRIS ROGERS: I think it's fair to say we were all a bit skeptical in the beginning.
KAUFMAN: Chris Rogers is the founding partner of Point 32, the firm that developed the $30 million project in conjunction with the Bullitt Foundation. Rogers and the others set out to meet the rigorous goals of the Living Building Challenge - including total self-sufficiency in energy and water and building materials that are free of toxins.
ROGERS: So down here in the basement is where you'll find the majority of the building systems. Our composting toilet system, our underground water storage cistern.
KAUFMAN: But beyond the systems, the 160 or so people working inside will have a huge role in meeting the sustainability targets. The foundation occupies half of the top floor, the rest of the building is being leased out.
The rent? Market rate for a top-tier building, though many amenities you might expect for the price don't exist and tenants have to live within an energy budget.
Rob Pena of the University of Washington's integrated design lab says energy use can be measured down to an individual socket.
ROB PENA: That's quite unusual. There probably isn't a building in the country that's metered to the extent that this building is metered.
KAUFMAN: Clearly this building is not for everyone.
If you think of this as simply an office building, it was relatively expensive to design and build, but if you view it as a laboratory, an educational center and a bold effort to change how things are built, the calculus changes.
Still one could ask, is it possible to replicate the self-sustaining features at a reasonable cost?
ROGERS: If this building isn't replicable, then this experiment will have failed.
KAUFMAN: Developer Chris Rogers is optimistic others will follow their lead. He points out that over the past couple of decades many builders began incorporating green elements into their buildings.
And Chris Cole, a construction cost analyst at the global engineering firm AECOM, adds...
CHRIS COLE: The market changed. The market started to expect new buildings to have some of these features.
KAUFMAN: And the supply chain began to adapt. New products and services were created and some costs began to fall. Cole believes the Bullitt project could foster additional shifts in the marketplace.
COLE: As business and organizations seek to clean up their footprint.
KAUFMAN: Tradeoffs between cost, fancy features and sustainably will undoubtedly be made and developers and tenants will make those decisions differently. Still, the Bullitt Foundation is encouraged by all the attention their building is getting from people around the world.
Wendy Kaufman, NPR News, Seattle.