Global environmental challenges
Is this the greenest office on Earth?
Every workstation has a view. Much of the lighting comes from reflected sunshine. It’s so naturally quiet that unobtrusive speakers pipe in “white noise” to preserve a level of privacy. The windows open, and they’re shaded in such a way that there’s no glare. Even with the windows closed, fresh air circulates through vents in the floor. Extreme recycling prevails, not just of bottles, cans and kitchen refuse but beetle-blighted wood.
Welcome to the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which contains some of the greenest office space on the planet.
NREL’s headquarters in Golden, Colorado, is also the home to cutting-edge research on biofuels, photo-voltaics for solar power and other renewable energy technology, but the physical plant is a living lab for green building. At $63 million, or $259 per square foot for its construction cost, including interiors and furniture, the Research Support Facility as it is called, was hardly cheap to build. But with 220,000 square feet of space, it is the biggest energy efficient building in the United States.
The recycling is evident at the entrance, which is decorated with angled wall panels made of golden-colored pine. Look more closely and you see a bluish tinge on the wood, from fungus that grew after the pine tree that formed the lumber was attacked by pine beetles. A warming climate in the Western U.S. has enabled pine beetles to survive winters and reproduce to assault pine forests.
This building is highly energy efficient, but it still is responsible for some climate-warming carbon emissions because of some of the construction materials and emissions from vehicles and equipment used to put the building together. It offsets most of the energy it uses by drawing on electricity generated by rooftop solar panels.
The building uses 35,000 BTU per square foot per year, or about 65 watts per person, about one-third to one-fourth the amount of energy used by a conventional office building constructed in the last 30 years.
One key to making it energy efficient is old technology, according to Shanti Pless, a senior engineer at NREL. Really old. Like the thick outer walls you might see in a medieval cathedral. Exposed concrete helps keep the internal temperature of the building comfortable.
Photo credit: Reuters/Deborah Zabarenko