- Number 383 |
- March 4, 2013
NREL’s RSF influences new high performance buildings
Energy-efficient features found in NREL's
Research Support Facility, including
daylighting, are being replicated in other
buildings across the country.
Credit: Dennis Schroeder
The Research Support Facility (RSF) at DOE's National Renewable Energy Laboratory has hosted thousands of visitors since it opened as one of the world's largest high performance office buildings. Generating buzz about the energy savings possible in commercial buildings is exactly what DOE and NREL have been aiming for.
"There are days when I think I should quit my job and just be a tour guide," jokes NREL Senior Research Engineer Shanti Pless. "But I'm willing to do it because I see the impact taking people through this building has on our future energy savings."
Energy savings is precisely what the RSF demonstrates every day as 1,800 NREL staff start their workdays in a 360,000 square-foot Class A office building that generates as much electricity as it uses, thanks to rooftop photovoltaics. Even after potential visitors hear that the RSF was built at the same price as a non-efficient building, they can be skeptical — until they see it with their own eyes.
Commercial buildings represent roughly one-fifth of U.S. energy consumption. Still, the perception remains that it's easier and less expensive to build a building the way it's always been done rather than putting in the work to make the leap to high performance office buildings.
"This high performance, net-zero facility is one of those things that wouldn't have come to fruition if a national lab hadn't demonstrated that it is possible," said Ron Judkoff, NREL's principal program manager for buildings research and development.
Just over two years since the opening of the first phase of the RSF, Pless notes that the ripple effect is reaching deep into industry. "The effect is across the whole spectrum, including architects, engineers, and subcontractors," he said.
Even when you are enthusiastic about constructing the most energy-efficient building possible, roadblocks can appear where least expected.
The 50,000 square-foot Bullitt Center in Seattle, Washington, is being built with one goal in mind — to be the greenest, most energy-efficient commercial building in the world. Like NREL, the Bullitt Foundation is looking to change the way buildings are designed, built, and operated. The building design team is working to meet the ambitious goals of the Living Building Challenge.
The Bullitt Center will generate as much energy from rooftop photovoltaics each year as the six-story structure uses; the catch is that Seattle is notorious for its lack of sunshine. According to Bullitt Foundation President Denis Hayes, the building faced more legal challenges than technical obstacles.
"We were shocked to learn that it is flat-out illegal to build this sort of ultra-green building in any city in America," Hayes said. "But Seattle changed its building code to allow super-green buildings to meet performance standards as an alternative to prescriptive standards. A building built to code is generally the lousiest building that is not illegal to build. We wanted the design flexibility to construct a building that used less than one-fourth the energy of a code building."
Obstacles aside, it was helpful to see that NREL had successfully completed a high performance office building, Hayes said. "Visiting NREL was reassuring. Somebody had already shown how to meet some of the goals that we were aspiring toward. When something already exists, you know that what you are trying to do is possible."
Similarities between the Bullitt Center and the RSF include an emphasis on daylighting. The Center features large, 10-foot-high windows weighing 700 pounds each. They open to provide not only lighting but natural ventilation.
Plug load management is something that the Bullitt Center design team took into greater consideration after visiting NREL.
"It was very impressive, the degree to which NREL is monitoring the things that people are doing on their side of the plugs," Hayes said. "We'd known that we could do dramatic things with efficient refrigerators, dishwashers, and lighting, but the fact that NREL was paying so much attention to the real work side of the house — the computers, monitors, printers, and task lights — caused us to go back and look at our IT really carefully."
The first tenants of the Bullitt Center have begun moving in; the grand opening is scheduled for April 22, which is Earth Day.
Seattle isn't the only city that will see NREL's vision on its skyline.
"It may sound corny, but after seeing the RSF, it really was the first day of the second half of my career," said Kenner Kingston, director of sustainability for ARCHITECTURAL NEXUS, INC. "I saw the integration at RSF, the total comprehensive thinking, and thought, 'I've got to get involved in a project that's going in this direction.'"
When a municipal client in the Salt Lake City, Utah, area asked him to design an administrative office space, Kingston knew the RSF would help sell his client on the idea of going for high performance design. "Usually, when I see another net-zero building talked about, it's always on the coast or in Hawaii — somewhere with a temperate climate. The RSF is particularly relevant because it is in a high mountain desert."
As was the case for the RSF, daylighting is an absolute for the building design that Kingston is working on. "On this project, the ratio of closed to open offices is 50-50," Kingston said. "This created a unique challenge since we were trying to put the closed offices on the north side of the building; in this case, we needed two north sides."
To solve the dilemma, the design now includes a capped light well in the center of the building so the planners could have two north elevations. The light well is unconditioned space that draws the sun five stories into the building. "It makes the daylighting possible from the inside of the building, and we don't get the temperature swings of an exterior space," he added. "Even after I'm done with this project, I'll be on the hunt for the next net-zero opportunity in our neck of the woods, and I'll again use the RSF as an example of what can be done."
An opportunity to build a campus in the heart of New York City doesn't come along often. But on the southern end of Roosevelt Island, administrators with Cornell University are carefully planning out a 12-acre campus focused on educating the next generation of students to conduct cutting-edge research on a living model of sustainable development.
The Cornell NYC Tech campus will be built out in several phases, with groundbreaking for the first phase slated for 2014. Part of the first phase will be a four-story, 150,000-square-foot academic facility that will be the flagship building for the campus. The first academic building is being designed to be high performing and very energy efficient. On-site renewable energy is being studied to determine the feasibility of making it net-zero energy.
"We had an opportunity with a whole new campus to figure out a plan to make our first net-zero academic building," said Robert R. Bland, senior director for energy and sustainability with Cornell University. "We've had quite a bit of input from NREL, and my visit to the RSF showed me the opportunities to be deeply energy efficient. The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority is partnering with us and contributing funding to the design effort."
The first academic building will use multiple approaches for achieving energy efficiency, including photovoltaics and geothermal. When complete, Cornell NYC Tech will include approximately 2 million square feet of academic, residential, and corporate research and development space and will house more than 2,000 graduate students along with faculty and staff.
But even more exciting than the opportunity to create a sustainable campus is the opportunity to educate and guide students at the university. "We would like to make this a living laboratory for graduate students to research and advance our academic mission in the built environment," Bland said. "We want to make it inspirational and educational."
Already, seven teams of students are involved in the campus planning and design. In the future, the buildings will be studied with intensive energy modeling and monitoring. "We'll do real-time monitoring, and we intend to create a smart microgrid on campus," Bland added. "It's really exciting to be able to work on a new academic model."Learn more about the Research Support Facility and NREL's Commercials Buildings work.
[Heather Lammers, 303.275.4084,