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How NREL Influences New High Performance Buildings

From the good folk over at NREL (notably, I recently landed an interview with the Director of NREL just after he had given a presentation — at the International Renewable Energy Conference — in which he discussed this amazing building a bit):

By Heather Lammers

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 the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) 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.

“Seeing is believing,” Pless said. “Everyone who comes through the RSF realizes this can be done and this is what it looks like. And they learn that they don’t have to do something new — they can replicate a lot of what NREL’s already done.”

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. “And, as a result of DOE and NREL’s leadership, and the building energy design tools that NREL is producing, industry is starting to recognize it can be done as well.”

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.

Changing the Rules to Build in Seattle

Denis Hayes, NREL’s second director and Earth Day founder, visited the lab and took a tour of the RSF. His current project, the Bullitt Center, aspires to be the greenest commercial building in the world. Credit: Dennis Schroeder

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. The building also will collect all of its water, including drinking water, from the rain that falls on its roof — which will then be stored in a 56,000-gallon cistern. Once the water is used inside the building, it will be treated and then returned to the soil. More than 1,000 building components were researched to make sure nothing in the building released any toxic material at any time during its life cycle. It is the world’s first six-story structure with composting toilets. Built to survive major earthquakes, the Center has a design life of 250 years.

According to Bullitt Foundation President Denis Hayes, the building faced more legal and financial 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.”

The city’s political leaders and planning officials weren’t the only ones Hayes had to convince.

The Bullitt Center plans to generate as much energy from rooftop photovoltaics each year as the six-story structure uses — even in Seattle, which is notorious for its lack of sunshine. Courtesy of the Bullitt Center/John Stamets

“We were also constrained by the fact that most banks wouldn’t lend us any money. When the appraiser asked, ‘What are your comps?’ We didn’t have any,” Hayes said. “No bank saw any value in producing all our own electricity, our own water, treating our own waste on site. Certainly no bank was prepared to finance the extra cost of a 250-year building. The discounted present value of a dollar received 250 years from now, or even 100 years from now, is zero. Modern finance is deeply biased against durability.

“We are going to be working with banks, appraisers, and real estate professionals to bring them through the building and use it as a magnet to help think through how we can overcome these obstacles and create a situation where this sort of building becomes easier to finance and build than an inefficient building,” Hayes added.

Private sector 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. The windows will be hooked up to a series of sensors that feed into the building’s control system to tell what the indoor and outdoor temperatures are, how fast the wind is blowing, whether it’s raining, and how much carbon dioxide is in the air, all of which let the building’s “brain” determine whether the windows should be open or closed.

Staffers working next to the window can override the system, but only for 30 minutes at a time to optimize the building’s performance. Every person working in the building will be within 30 feet of an operable window.

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.”

“I’m thrilled that NREL is jumping out in front on issues like this,” said Hayes, who was lab director of the Solar Energy Research Institute in the late 1970s and early 1980s, prior to the name change to NREL in 1991. “NREL’s research and development has always been its strength, but there’s something about actually living what you preach. And, just as important, NREL paid special attention to the economics of it.”

The first tenants of the Bullitt Center will begin moving in next month; the grand opening is scheduled for April 22, which is Earth Day.

Planning a High Performance Building for Salt Lake City

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.”

Kingston also brought his client out to the RSF so they could see firsthand what was possible. “They came back with validation, feeling like it was what they wanted to do. The RSF became the measuring stick that was referred to over and over again while planning the project.”

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.”

Cornell University Looks to Build a Living Lab in NYC

Artist rendering of the proposed Cornell NYC Tech campus, which is planned for the southern end of New York City’s Roosevelt Island. Cornell University is carefully planning out a 12-acre campus focused on being a model of sustainable development. Courtesy of Kilograph 2012

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.”

All these examples mean Pless sees a road to success for high performance buildings — and fewer days as a tour guide for the RSF.

“I’m excited to see the industry start to pick this up and run with it, without us being actively involved in each project,” Pless said. “When I no longer have to answer calls about projects or give tours, I’ll know that we’ve succeeded.”

Learn more about the Research Support Facility and NREL’s Commercials Buildings work.

— Heather Lammers

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