The Very Model of a Modern, Net Zero Office Building
by Kirk Johnson, NEW YORK TIMES, February 14, 2001
Around his plant-strewn work cubicle, low whirring air sounds emanated from speakers in the floor, meant to mimic the whoosh of conventional heating and air-conditioning systems, neither of which his 222,000-square-foot office building has, or needs, even here at 5,300 feet elevation. The generic white noise of pretend ductwork is purely for background and workplace psychology — managers found that workers needed something more than silence.
Meanwhile, the photovoltaic roof array was beating a retreat in the fading, low-angled light. It had until 1:35 p.m. been producing more electricity than the building could use — a three-hour energy budget surplus — interrupted only around noon by a passing cloud formation.
For Mr. Duffield, 62, it was just another day in what was designed, in painstaking detail, to be the largest net-zero energy office building in the nation. He’s still adjusting, six months after he and 800 engineers and managers and support staff from the National Renewable Energy Lab moved in to the $64 million building, which the federal agency has offered up as a template for how to do affordable, super-energy-efficient construction.
“It’s sort of a wonderland,” said Mr. Duffield, an administrative support worker, as the window shading system reached maximum.
Most office buildings are divorced, in a way, from their surroundings. Each day in the mechanical trenches of heating, cooling and data processing is much the same as another but for the cost of paying for the energy used.
The energy lab’s Research Support Facility building is more like a mirror, or perhaps a sponge, to its surroundings. From the light-bending window louvers that cast rays up into the interior office spaces, to the giant concrete maze in the sub-basement for holding and storing radiant heat, every day is completely different.
This is the story of one randomly selected day in the still-new building’s life: Jan. 28, 2011.
It was mostly sunny, above-average temperatures peaking in the mid-60s, light winds from the west-northwest. The sun rose at 7:12 a.m.
By that moment, the central computer was already hard at work, tracking every watt in and out, seeking, always, the balance of zero net use over 24 hours — a goal that managers say probably won’t be attainable until early next year, when the third wing of the project and a parking complex are completed.
With daylight, the building’s pulse quickened. The photovoltaic panels kicked in with electricity at 7:20 a.m.
As employees began arriving, electricity use — from cellphone chargers to elevators — began to increase. Total demand, including the 65-watt maximum budget per workspace for all uses, lighting to computing, peaked at 9:40 a.m.
Meanwhile, the basement data center, which handles processing needs for the 300-acre campus, was in full swing, peaking in electricity use at 10:10 a.m., as e-mail and research spreadsheets began firing through the circuitry.
For Mr. Duffield and his co-workers, that was a good-news bad-news moment: The data center is by far the biggest energy user in the complex, but also one of its biggest producers of heat, which is captured and used to warm the rest of the building. If there is a secret clubhouse for the world’s energy and efficiency geeks, it probably looks and feels just about like this.
“Nothing in this building was built the way it usually is,” said Jerry Blocher, a senior project manager at Haselden Construction, the general contractor for the project.
The backdrop to everything here is that office buildings are, to people like Mr. Blocher, the unpicked fruit of energy conservation. Commercial buildings use about 18 percent of the nation’s total energy each year, and many of those buildings, especially in years past, were designed with barely a thought to energy savings, let alone zero net use.
The answer at the research energy laboratory, a unit of the federal Department of Energy, is not gee-whiz science. There is no giant, expensive solar array that could mask a multitude of traditional design sins, but rather a rethinking of everything, down to the smallest elements, all aligned in a watt-by-watt march toward a new kind of building.
Managers even pride themselves on the fact that hardly anything in their building, at least in its individual component pieces, is really new. [Read rest of story]