A Net Zero Retrofit Powered by Algae?

Metropolis magazine recently issued a challenged to young designers: help the U.S. General Services Administration cut carbon emissions by retrofitting a 46-year-old federal building in downtown Los Angeles.  The winners of the Next Generation Design Competition 2011? Architects and engineers from HOK/Vanderweil, whose plans to transform this building actually propose turning it into a “living machine,” via algae.

The firm’s “Process Zero: Retrofit Resolution,” a  net zero retrofit design process, is said to reduce the building’s overall energy demand by 84 percent while generating the remaining 16 percent through renewable energy, on-site. The design uses strategies common to green retrofits–such as atria and light wells that bring daylight into workspaces, integrated louvers for natural ventilation–as well as a new building facade featuring 35,000 square feet of photovoltaic film, 30,000 square feet of rooftop solar collectors that circulate water through floors to help with climate control, and office equipment operated by a cloud computing system.

HOK_Vanderweil retrofit

image via HOK/Vanderweil

The retrofit also features what is believed to be and industry first: energy-producing microalgae to help power the building–a process the designers believe can be replicated for any existing building.

The design proposes a 25,000 square foot microalgae bioreactor system that generates 9 percent of the building’s power supply, via a system of algae tubes that wraps around the building and absorbs the L.A.’s abundant sun. The algae produces lipids for fuel production on-site while offering shade to interior office spaces.

HOK_Vanderweil retrofit

image via HOK/Vanderweil

It’s not coincidental that this system turns the building into kind of living entity, in and of itself, as HOK has a formal alliance with Janine Benyus and The Biomimicry Group, a bio-inspired innovation company. The two organizations are currently working on a new planning and design methodology called “FIT,” or Fully Integrated Thinking.

Taking top dog in the Metropolis’ prestigious design contest will no doubt help both organizations in getting this methodology off the ground.

Susan DeFreitas has covered all manner of green technology for EarthTechling since 2009. She is a graduate of Prescott College for the Liberal Arts and the Environment, and has a background in marketing green businesses. Her work on green living has been featured in Yes! Magazine, the Utne Reader and Natural Home.