NASA Uses Space Age Technology For Sustainable Offices

Even with the shuttle fleet retired, the main goal of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is to continue to explore the vast reaches of our solar system and other planetary systems beyond. But that doesn’t mean NASA can’t still teach us a thing or two about living on our own planet and how to make sure we tread as lightly as possible on terra firma.

The latest laboratory for these inner-space studies is the new NASA Sustainability Base, designed by William McDonough + Partners.  With the goal of not only reducing the human impact on the site but actually improving its environmental quality, the 50,000-square-foot facility at the Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., uses the latest space-age technology to become one of the greenest government buildings in the country.

The NASA Sustainability Center, located at the Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. Image by Cesar Rubio via William McDonough + Partners.

The NASA Sustainability Center, located at the Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. Image by Cesar Rubio via William McDonough + Partners.

The roof of the gently curved Base includes solid-oxide fuel cells, developed for use in space travel, along with an extensive solar array to provide electricity. Combined, the two systems provide more than enough energy to run the buildings, so excess electricity generated is sold back to the city’s power grid. At the moment, the fuel cells are powered by natural gas, but NASA says it plans to switch to landfill gas once an adequate local supply can be secured.

Aerial view concept drawing, showing the rooftop fuel cells and solar arrays. Image via William McDonough + Partners.

Aerial view concept drawing, showing the rooftop fuel cells and solar arrays. Image via William McDonough + Partners.

The office building, completed in 2012, exceeds the LEED Platinum performance requirements, scoring 57 out of a total of 70 possible points and earning perfect scores for sustainable siting, water efficiency and indoor environmental quality. A forward-osmosis water filtration system collects and treats greywater for reuse in landscape irrigation. Eventually, NASA says, the building will use only renewable energy and closed-loop water maintenance facilities.

The "exoskeleton" supports outside the building provide a column-free interior and a place for green walls to take root. Image by Cesar Rubio via William McDonough + Partners.

The “exoskeleton” supports outside the building provide a column-free interior and a place for green walls to take root. Image by Cesar Rubio via William McDonough + Partners.

To provide a column-free interior working space, the building is supported by an “exoskeleton” of steel supports that are clearly visible around the exterior.  This design, McDonough says, provides added stability during seismic events and enables the offices to be more flexible with their layout. During construction, NASA took care not to disturb the existing stone pine and heritage redwoods on the Ames campus.

The windows open to provide natural ventilation, and are designed to provide glare-free daylighting and shading to reduce solar gain. Most workers in the Sustainability Base use daylight roughly 80 to 90 percent of the time for workstation illumination, with efficient LED spot lighting used when needed.

A central computer coordinates all building systems, maintaining efficient control over lighting, heating and and cooling. Up-to-the-minute weather data is also monitored during the scheduling of building facility usage.

Randy Woods is a Seattle-based writer and editor with 20+ years of experience in the business publishing world. A former managing editor of Seattle Business, iSixSigma, Claims and Waste Age magazines, he has covered topics that include newspaper publishing, entrepreneurism, green businesses, insurance, environmental protection and garbage hauling (yes, really). He also contributes to the Career Center Blog for The Seattle Times and edits a photography magazine called PhotoMedia. When not working, he likes to hide out in Seattle movie theaters and attend film festivals—even on sunny days.