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NASA’s Sustainability Base: The Greenest of Them All?

RP Siegel | Monday January 31st, 2011 | 1 Comment

Remember when space was the final frontier? Perhaps it still is, but in the years that have passed since we started saying that, a new, more immediate frontier has emerged: sustainability.

The folks at NASA agree, which is why their latest mission on Earth, located at the Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, is something they are calling their Sustainability Base.

It makes sense that NASA, who brought us the famous picture of the Earth from space, and who have always been a little bit more concerned with the big picture than most enterprises, would take the opportunity to apply a good deal of the technology they have developed in pursuit of space exploration to the challenge of living sustainably on this planet. After all, a spaceship needs to be very self-sufficient, relying on only what was packed along at the outset plus a steady stream of natural sunlight. And this, as we are finally beginning to learn, is also true of Spaceship Earth.

The Sustainability Base, which was designed by AECOM and William McDonough + Partners (using Autodesk software), contains some 50,000 sq. ft. of office space which will house 255 workers. It qualifies for LEED platinum but goes well beyond that with a zero carbon footprint. Take the energy system, for example. It produces 22% more energy than the building uses. This is done by a combination of solar PV, wind and a Bloom Box Fuel Cell. Under a 2007 federal law, all new federal buildings and those undergoing major renovations must achieve net-zero energy consumption by 2030.

Radiant ceiling panels, natural sunlight and geothermal wells all contribute to the building’s efficient comfort. The building’s design and orientation provide enough natural light so that no artificial lighting is required 325 days of the year.
Materials used were local and often recycled included oak planking from a retired wind tunnel.

And, as you would only expect from NASA, the building is chock full of advanced controls that react to changes in temperature, sunlight and usage to anticipate and adjust the temperature sources to maintain a comfortable environment year round. Also included is a personal energy dashboard for every worker which shows how much energy they are consuming at any moment.

The two-story building is narrow, only 52 feet wide, about half that of a typical building. This allows natural sunlight to reach all areas. Fresh air is also a major element in the building’s design relying on large, operable windows. Raised floors will allow access to utilities. The facility also has the capability of recycling and purifying its water using forward osmosis, much as NASA’s spaceships do. This will allow the building to use 90% less water than a comparable building of its size.
At $20.6 million, the building costs are roughly $460 per square foot, about double that of typical office space. But considering the learning that comes out of an endeavor like this, and the additional features will more than pay for themselves in the years to come. “I think it’s a great deal for the taxpayer,” said Steve Zornetzer, associate director of NASA’s Ames. “If we’re successful, it’s really a wonderful template for future federal facilities, not to mention the private sector.”

RP Siegel is the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor TrailsLike airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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  • http://www.jpaerospace.com John Powell

    How about using an airship to reach space?
    I think we’re getting close to being able to do it.
    http://www.jpaerospace.com