Department of Energy Sets Sights on Net-Zero Research Facility

Sept. 3, 2010
This office of the future includes a thermal storage labyrinth, PV array, and underfloor ventilation.

What better way for the Department of Energy to make a statement about sustainability than to build one of the nation’s most energy efficient office buildings? The new Research Support Facility (RSF), located in Golden, CO, is an expansion of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s facilities. Though the RSF expands the laboratory’s overall square footage by 60%, it only increases its total energy use by 6%.

This 222,000-square-foot building was designed to perform 50% more efficient than ASHRAE Standard 90.1. By limiting its annual operations to 35,000 BTU per square-foot, the facility will use three times less energy than a modern office building.  Considering the property is home to 800 employees and a high-performance data center, the RSF sets a high benchmark.

The facility features an array of sustainable advances, including a thermal storage labyrinth, gabion walls, an underfloor ventilation distribution system, and radiant piping runs. Automated climate sensors open windows to release excess heat overnight. Though still in the installation phase, approximately 1.6 MW of on-site photovoltaics (PV) will significantly offset energy loads.

The labyrinth, located in a low basement, functions as a thermal battery.  Staggered concrete walls force air through a series of S-turns, drawing air from the north or south depending on the season. Cool night air is stored in the labyrinth to offset cooling loads in the summer, while air heated by a transpired air collector helps keep the building warm in the winter. The concrete structure can warm air by up to 5-10 degrees F.

Landscaping also got a boost from the construction process. Rocks were fashioned into gabion walls (a type of landscape retention wall), instead of being sent to the landfill. This eliminated the need for mined or quarried stone, turning what is usually viewed as waste into a resource.

The Research Support Facility's total project cost is $64 million. Despite the amount of cutting-edge technology used, its budget was comparable to similarly sized office buildings. It is currently seeking LEED-Platinum certification.

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