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Space-Age Sustainability

March 23, 2010
NASA’s Sustainability Base will bring space-age technology back to earth to reduce maintenance costs and make tenants happier

A “very conventional, so-last-century building” is how Steve Zornetzer, associate center director at NASA Ames, described initial designs for the new research center in Moffett Field, CA. Earlier, the Ames center had won NASA’s Renovation by Replacement competition, for which NASA’s 10 centers had submitted proposals to build a new facility. Nevertheless, Zornetzer thought that the project team wasn’t delivering innovation or new technology.

But when Bill McDonough of William McDonough + Partners (WM+P) gave a presentation at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, drawing on the connections between cradle-to-cradle design and the technologies NASA develops to support life in space, he caught Zornetzer’s attention. “I thought, ‘Why can’t we build the most advanced, greenest building in the federal government, as only NASA can, and incorporate the technologies we’ve developed for space and bring them back to earth?’ ” So the project team switched gears, and Zornetzer gave the facility new direction.

According to Kevin Burke, partner and director of practice for WM+P, McDonough wondered what would happen if they focused NASA’s intelligence on developing a project on earth (and joked that the project’s tagline would be “We Come in Peace”). But joke became reality as WM+P, collaborating with AECOM, worked with the NASA Ames Research Center to design Sustainability Base, which has high-tech, high-performance features to make it friendly to the environment and its occupants – all while reducing operating and maintenance costs.

“We’re metaphorically thinking of it as the first lunar outpost on earth,” says Zornetzer of the 50,000-square-foot, $23 million project, which should be completed by November or December (with full occupancy by March 2011).

High-Tech Traits

Some of the high-performance, sustainable features at Sustainability Base:

  • Native and drought-tolerant landscaping.
  • 100-percent non-potable, treated groundwater that serves as landscape irrigation.
  • Bioswales that minimize off-site stormwater runoff.
  • Siting to accommodate the preservation of heritage trees for shading.
  • An efficient ground-source heat pump system using 72 200-foot-deep wells.
  • Radiant cooling panels at the ceiling to provide the primary cooling source.
  • Underfloor fresh air ventilation and humidity control, supplemented with perimeter radiant heating.
  • An 82 kW roof-mounted photovoltaic system.
  • Ultra-low-flush plumbing fixtures and dual plumbing to allow for the use of treated greywater for flushing toilets and urinals.
  • Solar water heaters for domestic hot water.
  • Operable exterior louvers with motorized controls.
  • Sophisticated lighting control systems with daylighting sensors to maintain low ambient light conditions augmented by task lighting and energy-efficient LED fixtures.
  • Materials with high material reuse content and no negative environmental impacts; materials procured from local sources.
  • Advanced, integrated controls to coordinate all the interior environmental controls, from shades to operable windows to daylighting and HVAC.
  • Daylighting maximization via tall floor-to-floor heights, narrow floorplates, large window areas, light shelves, and skylights at the second floor.
  • Exterior shade structures and vine screens to reduce unwanted heating and glare.
  • A single-ply cool roof.
  • A mixed-mode ventilation system with operable windows (analysis results estimate that natural ventilation will be sufficient for 40 percent of the occupied hours).
  • Computer-controlled motorized windows to flush the building with cool air at night.
  • A wind turbine at the north edge of campus.


Targeting Reduced Operations Costs
Alastair Reilly, director at WM+P, notes that several of the project’s goals involve decreased maintenance and operations costs. After all, what good is a green building if it costs more to run?

“We expect that, over time, the costs of operating this building will be dramatically lower than an equivalent conventional building. We expect the energy and utility bills to be much lower. The additional cost of building a facility like this was minimal, so we expect the return on investment to be paid back in just a few short years,” says Zornetzer.

Reduced operations and maintenance costs are especially appealing in a government facility. “It’s a statement of what can be done in the federal government using taxpayers’ money not only to be a smart steward of the environment and sensitive to environmental issues, but also to provide government workers with a great working space that can enhance productivity and result in lower costs to taxpayers,” says Zornetzer. “This building will be a very inexpensive one to operate and maintain.”

The other goals of Sustainability Base are to:

  • Create at least as much energy as needed to operate.
  • Optimize building performance through an intelligent control system.
  • Beat the budget and schedule.
  • Locate points of entry for current and future NASA technologies to continually improve the building’s performance.
  • Encourage industry partnerships.
  • Complete the building on schedule and on budget.

Getting There
Several strategies are in place to help Sustainability Base achieve these lofty goals. “It’s a combination of using common sense and state-of-the-art technology,” says Zornetzer. “The building is situated and designed in such a way that, nearly every day, 100 percent of the lighting requirements will be derived from daylight as opposed to overhead electric lights. The building’s positioning is relative to the arc of the sun to minimize supplemental lighting. That dramatically reduces electricity demand.”

Sustainability Base is designed to be a net-zero-energy building. It’s also designed to reduce potable water consumption by 90 percent, in addition to featuring numerous other high-performance, sustainable features. “We’re using all of the state-of-the-art building technologies available, including specialty glazed windows, high-tech insulation, non-toxic building materials, and a roof landscape covered in photovoltaics,” says Zornetzer. “We’re embedding an advanced water-purification system that converts greywater into water used for toilet flushing.” This highly instrumented building is also going to be used as a living test bed for energy-efficient technologies. With two almost identical wings, one will be used to test new technology. Then, it will be compared to the performance of the other wing, which will serve as a baseline.

A major component of the project is the customized, NASA-engineered intelligent control system designed specifically for Sustainability Base. “We’re building – with our own software engineers and computer scientists – an intelligent, adaptive control system that will ride on top of the commercial, off-the-shelf control system and control virtually every aspect of the building. It will learn from its own performance so that it improves control of the building over time,” says Zornetzer. “When perfected, this feature will serve as a model for what can be done in commercial spaces throughout the world.”

Rooftop photovoltaics will produce electricity to offset energy demand, and geothermal wells, coupled with actuators on all windows that will be connected to control systems to take advantage of prevailing winds, will provide cooling. The building’s energy use will be constantly monitored to ensure that it’s running as efficiently as it was designed to. “Operation of the building will be fully informed by a distributed sensor network within the building that will continuously monitor energy consumption – down to individual plug loads, external weather conditions, load factors, natural lighting, water utilization, indoor air quality, etc.,” says Zornetzer. “The intelligent, adaptive building control system will dynamically monitor all aspects of building performance and make appropriate real-time and anticipatory adjustments to subsystems to continuously optimize building performance.”

According to Tom Horan, vice president and site director for AECOM, the architect of record for the project, “The ground-source heat pumps are an extremely low-maintenance element of the design when compared to the chillers, boilers, and cooling towers they replace.” He also points out that the raised floor for distribution of power, data, and telecommunications will make the churn of personnel significantly less costly and disruptive. Adaptive daylighting will reduce energy costs and labor and material costs associated with lamp replacement. Solar thermal and photovoltaic systems will greatly reduce operating costs, too.

Indoor and Outdoor Environments
The sustainable indoor environment will provide a great setting for NASA employees – it should keep them healthier, happier, and more productive. “We know that people thrive in spaces with great light and air, and getting these designs right is important,” says Reilly. “We’re proponents of biophilia, which says that people have an inherent need for nature and are drawn to natural systems and settings. We also put great stock in optimizing indoor air quality and have found that people respond well to this approach.”

Outside workspaces will be another bonus. Employees will be able to take their laptops and work outside under umbrellas at picnic tables. “All umbrella tops will have photovoltaic film; the umbrellas will be generating electricity to charge smart phones and laptops,” says Zornetzer. “We specifically designed the space so it would be warm and nurturing, not cold and sterile.”

High-Performance Project Challenges
Although the future looks good for Sustainability Base, its accomplishments weren’t achieved without challenges. “The primary challenge, beyond bringing the expertise of a geographically dispersed team of architects, planners, landscape architects, engineers, consultants, sustainability experts, acousticians, and others to bear on the task in such a focused and intense manner, was the desire to push the strategies for sustainable buildings into uncharted territory,” says Horan. “As the design forged ahead to meet an extremely demanding schedule, new information and approaches were being assessed, rejected, or incorporated almost up to the completion of the final design documents.”

And, of course, as a federal building, budget was also an issue: “A significant design challenge was the need to be open to new sustainable, high-performance approaches while keeping the project within the very conventional construction budget allocated by NASA,” says Horan. “One consequence of this challenge was the need to maintain a fairly constant negotiation between the sustainable approaches to make sure they weren’t working against each other as they were developed.”

However, all of these challenges were met quite successfully. “I’m very proud that we were able to do this despite the constraints of the federal acquisition regulations, which can be onerous,” says Zornetzer. “It was all doable, and I’m proud that we’re leading the federal government in a project that, I believe, will set a new bar for what we can do in construction and design. This is going to be a beautiful building; it’s going to be the greenest building in the federal government, and it’s not going to cost the taxpayer a penny more.”

Amanda B. Piell ([email protected]) is assistant editor for Buildings.

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