Mountain View Voice

News - September 2, 2011

Sustainability Base, NASA's new pride

Ultra-green building displays space technology to save energy

by Daniel DeBolt

NASA Ames Research Center is putting the finishing touches on a new flagship building that may be the greenest in the federal government, thanks to a bit of technology developed for space flight.

The "Sustainability Base" located just inside the main gate at Moffett Field is a crescent-shaped pair of buildings wrapped in an external skeleton of I-beams. It will be occupied once the building's various space-age systems undergo testing over the next few months.

"My expectation is that it will be the highest performing building in the federal government," said Steve Zornetzer, associate director at Ames.

When it is finished, Ames employees will inhabit a 50,000-square-foot building that adapts to their preferences and schedules, uses natural lighting and produces more energy than it uses. Among the unusual features will be outdoor tables with umbrellas made of solar panels so people can charge their smart phones and laptops while they eat.

Most unique is the building's computer system, which uses sensors and algorithms developed for satellites and space shuttles. Early every morning, the building's computer begins to adjust the building's temperature based on weather forecasts. It will read employee calendars to adjust conference room temperatures, but only when necessary, to save energy. Using temperature sensors, the computer knows whether to open the motorized windows that seem to be installed on nearly every wall. Cool air is drawn in at night and stored under the building's raised floors for daytime circulation.

Immediately noticeable is the building's "exoskeleton" design, pitched by famous architect William McDonough, who is also working with Google to expand its headquarters. When visiting the site, McDonough saw that Ames' large wind tunnel had an exoskeleton design, which improves airflow inside. On top of making it look "native to place", as McDonough would say, the use of an exoskeleton increases the building's earthquake stability and provides a place to mount special window shades.

Thanks to thoughtful use of natural lighting the building's lights will only be on for the equivalent of 40 days a year, Zornetzer said. That's possible because of a relatively narrow footprint, glass walls in internal rooms and sun shades that keep glare out while letting light in.

Inside the building is a huge array of water-circulating pipes and radiators on the walls and ceilings that are the basis for the building's heating and air conditioning systems. Solar water heaters on the roof provide hot water for radiators on the walls in the winter, while 104 wells drilled 140 feet under the front lawn provide a constant supply of earth-cooled, 57-degree water. That water is directed to radiators that cover the ceiling, from which cold air emanates downward in the summer time. One of the ceiling radiators sprung a leak in testing, spurring the contractor to replace fittings on every radiator in the building.

"We didn't want to completely automate everything." Zornetzer said of the building's lower windows, which can be manually opened and closed. But employees will be encouraged to follow the computer's lead when reaching for a window latch, he added.

Employees will also be able to manually adjust room temperatures, a preference that the computer will learn and follow in the future, Zornetzer said.

Also making its way into the building is NASA's water filtration technology developed at Ames. Astronauts depend on it to stay alive on the international space station, where it is impractical to bring large quantities of water. The building's occupants won't be using the Ames-developed system to such an extreme, as astronauts drink filtered urine. But grey water from sinks and showers will be filtered to flush the building's toilets, something usually avoided in commercial gray water systems.

The building won't produce enough gray water to feed the low maintenance plants and grasses around the building, Zornetzer said. That is done by undulating "bioswales" — small valleys that create more surface area for rainwater runoff to drain into and feed plants. Recycled water from Sunnyvale is also available if more is needed.

The building will create more energy than it uses, thanks to solar panels on the roof and "Bloom boxes," in front of the building. Bloom boxes are water- and natural gas-powered fuel cells that produce electricity with unprecedented efficiency. The decision to use Bloom boxes seems a natural fit as Bloom Energy had gotten its start as one of the many small businesses housed in the NASA Ames Research Park.

Zornetzer said the $24 million building should be an example of what can be done on a budget as tight as NASA's. The example that may be easier to follow soon as NASA plans to license the building's computer technology to the private sector. The building cost 6 percent more than a traditional building, Zornetzer said, but in nine years that additional 6 percent will be paid for by energy cost savings. After that, the building's energy efficiency creates "sheer savings," Zornetzer said.

"I think it's a good deal for the American taxpayers," Zornetzer said.

Email Daniel DeBolt at ddebolt@mv-voice.com

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