Energy

Net Zero Buildings Explored: NASA Sustainability Base

Dubbed the “First Space Station on Earth” —the NASA Sustainability Base, has served as an experimental model for smart and net zero buildings for over a decade. In this research note, we explore how the building was designed, constructed, and operated to achieve a positive impact on the environment. NASA teamed up with William McDonough + Partners and AECOM to completely renovate the site in Moffett Field, California, to create a functional and futuristic facility that also recognises the importance of protecting Earth’s environment. The NASA Sustainability Base became one of the first federal buildings to earn LEED Platinum certification when it was completed in 2012. A key objective for NASA is to use the Sustainability Base as a living laboratory to develop methods and tools for understanding and controlling dynamic energy and water systems here on Earth. The organization then hopes to apply that knowledge to extraterrestrial facilities, such as the International Space Station […]

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Dubbed the “First Space Station on Earth” —the NASA Sustainability Base, has served as an experimental model for smart and net zero buildings for over a decade. In this research note, we explore how the building was designed, constructed, and operated to achieve a positive impact on the environment.

NASA teamed up with William McDonough + Partners and AECOM to completely renovate the site in Moffett Field, California, to create a functional and futuristic facility that also recognises the importance of protecting Earth’s environment. The NASA Sustainability Base became one of the first federal buildings to earn LEED Platinum certification when it was completed in 2012.

A key objective for NASA is to use the Sustainability Base as a living laboratory to develop methods and tools for understanding and controlling dynamic energy and water systems here on Earth. The organization then hopes to apply that knowledge to extraterrestrial facilities, such as the International Space Station or future bases on the moon and Mars.

Energy Generation

The building site is designed to be net energy positive through the optimization of energy demand and the provision of renewable energy. The base uses three forms of energy geothermal, on-site solar, and a flexible off-site renewable commitment that allows experimentation with different energy sources as they become cost-effective.

The on-site solar photovoltaic array is made up of 432 SunPower E-19 panels in 24 strings of 9 modules on each of the two buildings on the site. Photovoltaic panels are designed to generate up to 90kW, or 30% of building electricity requirements, while separate solar thermal panels cover all the facility’s hot water needs.

A BloomBox ES-5700 energy server then ensures electricity covers peak demand, and excess production is metered onto the local electrical microgrid, centered around the nearby Ames substation site.

Net Zero Buildings NASA Sustainability Base
Image Credit: William McDonough + Partners

A ground source heat pump system utilizes the dependable and renewable temperature difference below the earth’s surface. A total of 106 well bores were drilled at the site and connected to four heat pumps that support the heating and cooling of air and water at the facility, year-round.

In true NASA style, solid oxide fuel cells were installed in the building. Fuel cells have been powering satellites and space capsules in practically every NASA space mission since the 1960s but on Earth, they are increasingly being seen in vehicles and as emergency backup for buildings. Bloom’s Energy Server Solid Oxide Fuel Cells were used with the intention to use methane capture as their fuel source.

Energy Efficiency

The building’s design was inspired by the movement of satellites and the nearby wind tunnels of the NASA Ames Research Center. The resulting exoskeleton approach gives the 50,000 square-foot office building increased structural performance during California’s frequent seismic events. It also provides a framework for daylighting and shading strategies, and creates a column-free interior space that facilitates workplace comfort and flexibility.

Inside the Sustainability Base, the BMS incorporates software developed by NASA for projects such as the space station and Mars rovers. The advanced NASA software has been adapted to monitor the building through a wireless sensor network which provides real time data to the building controls system.

NASA Sustainability Base Net Zero Buildings
Image Credit: William McDonough + Partners

Unlike at their extraterrestrial facilities, NASA sought to maximize natural daylighting and ventilation at the Sustainability Base. Large windows, top-floor skylights, and narrow spaces to maximize natural light and exterior aluminium shades reduce heat gain and mitigate glare, to support occupant health and wellbeing. Where and when sunlight is limited, an intelligent LED-based lighting system was been put in place to adjust for light levels and occupancy.

An efficient radiant heating and cooling system utilizing ceiling and floor panels achieves 40% less energy use than typical VAV systems. This is supported by an insulated exterior metal panel glazing system that provides a strong envelope for cooler times of the day and year. A flexible natural ventilation system with automated windows supports air quality with cross ventilation, while also allowing air in the facility to be flushed during unoccupied evening hours.

Embodied Carbon

Despite its design and construction coming early in the embodied carbon movement, the NASA Sustainability Base, guided by its sustainable mission, went to great lengths to ensure minimal negative impact on the environment.

A rigorous materials selection process was implemented, adopting a Cradle to Cradle Certification approach whenever possible and others evaluated by MBDC for their Cradle to Cradle Certification potential. All materials considered for the facility were compared on a relative scale of human and ecological embodied carbon performance. This led to key innovations, such as an external braced frame and lightweight insulated metal panel cladding that reduced the overall amount of steel in the building.

Water conservation is a key aspect to life in space and NASA set the intention to create a closed-loop system, where water that falls on the site would leave at the same rate, volume and cleanliness of pre-development conditions. Water fixtures used throughout the building optimize performance, while technology adapted from the ISS recycles sink and shower greywater for toilet flushes.

Net Zero Buildings Environment

NASA is a prominent government agency with an average annual budget of well over $20 billion, and the $20.6 million cost of this building may be seen as small next to the multi-billion dollar projects the agency runs. It does, however, represent a significant investment in sustainability, which supports its wider brand mission and also offers significant potential for habitat research and analysis, as discussed.

“I want to build the greenest building in the federal government,” said Steven Zornetzer, associate center director at Ames, when he discussed plans for the building in 2008. This kind of momentum required to achieve net zero status and even be carbon positive four years later when the building opened. Since then, the General Services Administration (GSA) has gone on to drive building sustainability across the federal portfolio, inspiring several net zero buildings.

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