From its inception, the Research Support Facility at NREL was destined to be a world-changing building. With the goal of creating one of the largest commercial net‐zero energy structures in the country, the building is meant to serve as a blueprint for a net‐zero energy future and influence others in the building industry to pursue a low energy and net‐zero energy performance.
This building is meant to further the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory's long‐term mission to transform innovative research in renewable energy and energy efficiency into market‐viable technologies and practices. As the NREL client notably said, 'every design decision has an energy impact.' The net‐zero energy goal for this project amplified every design decision and explicitly shaped the building resulting in a positive impact on the programme and functionality of the building.
The building is a simple, beautiful and elegant architectural response to the climate, site and ecology that envelop it and the desire for a flexible, high performance workplace within. Many of the integrated passive design strategies such as daylighting and natural ventilation strongly support both energy and human performance. The form of the building is driven by energy, with its long and narrow office wings connected by a central spine forming an 'H' shape.
The NREL Research Support Facility exemplifies a new direction in architecture. It is the building's architecture that beautifully solves energy problems by providing passive heating, cooling, lighting and air before seamlessly integrating renewable energy systems that allow it to produce as much energy as it uses. The Research Support Facility demonstrates that high performance is rooted in architecture that is responsive and innovative in its design approach.
The owner's list of 26‐tiered project objectives guided the project's design and construction, ensuring desired performance and functionality. Chief among these are: aggressive low energy demand, ample daylighting and a configuration that allows for expansion. Reducing energy demand was at the core of the energy equation. The building's cutting edge energy modelling proved that the massing and structure would hit the desired energy target.
The models also showed that by using several integrated strategies, the team could reduce the building's energy use by 50% of the ASHRAE 90.1 2004 standard. The essence of these strategies was tapping into the abundant 'free energy' in the Colorado climate. The building's form relies upon an east‐west axis to take full advantage of Colorado's natural resources. The building integrates an array of energy‐efficient and passive energy features, including ample daylighting, narrow building footprint, thermally massive exterior walls, natural ventilation, triple‐pane glass, operable windows, on‐site photovoltaic panels and radiant heating and cooling. These features, along with photovoltaics and the NREL‐designed transpired solar collector, decrease the building's overall energy consumption while enhancing occupant comfort and productivity.
The building's east‐west orientation provides balanced light on the north and south and introduces that light deep into work spaces without negatively impacting energy needs. An aerial view of the building reveals its lazy‐H layout, with one wing parallel to the existing campus and the other on a true east‐west axis. A LightLouver shading system, set at an optimal angle within the window shades and lightly colored ceilings bring light deeper into workspaces. This minimized the need for artificial lighting and provided a high‐quality, cost effective solution.
An intelligent lighting controls system senses the amount of light in an office and adjusts accordingly; it also adjusts based on occupancy. Although designed as an open office space, acoustical panels and sound masking were added to decrease noise pollution and improve privacy. Each floor has private offices, but their color palette, glass panels and the aforementioned lower walls prevent isolation.
The building also employs an innovative heating and cooling system, which includes the transpired solar collector (TSC) and the thermal labyrinth. The TSC, placed on the south face of the building, captures and warms outside air in cooler months and stores that air in the thermal labyrinth located under the building. Stored air from the labyrinth is then introduced into the building via an Under Floor Air Distribution (UFAD) system. Radiant heating is provided via each floor slab, radiating downward from the floor above.
The Research Support Facility is equipped with both operable and automatic windows, giving occupants control over their environments and allowing this smart building to take in or exhaust air appropriately depending on the season. Employee computers are programmed to alert occupants of the most appropriate time to open or close their windows. The Research Support Facility was designed with a variety of recycled, rapidly renewable and regionally harvested materials, such as beetle kill pine harvested from the Rocky Mountain region, for a 2‐story lobby wall, and reclaimed steel natural gas piping for exposed structural columns throughout the building.
These innovations not only divert waste from landfills, they act as education tools for employees and public tours, teaching sustainability as the Research Support Facility performs its function. In fact, dozens of interpretive signs, exquisitely integrated within NREL's natural surroundings, can be seen along interior corridors and exterior landscapes. 'Local' products took on new meaning when, while excavating at the site's South Table Mountain location, the team unearthed an abundance of cobblestone. The team proposed an onsite use for these stones and the client approved.
This solution helped to control carbon and reduce construction impacts to the site. It resulted in 1000 cubic yards of stone harvested and hand‐placed in steel gabion baskets for use as retaining walls. This old world technique reduced fuel consumption, transportation costs, and the need for other resources.
The Research Support Facility is a commercial building archetype of sustainability. It has achieved LEED Platinum attaining all 59 targeted LEED points. The design is skillfully tuned to maximize passive architectural strategies, take advantage of the climate and drive energy use reduction. By balancing new world design technologies with old world building methodologies, the Research Support Facility is a sincere expression of scientific, environmental and aesthetic values.