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
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.
“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.