David Glickson, NREL
June 11, 2014 | 2 Comments
Colorado, USA -- Researchers at the Energy Department's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) are transforming the way the world uses energy—and those transformations become apparent the moment one sets foot on the NREL campus in Golden, Colorado. Here, research teams have applied their expertise to develop office and laboratory spaces that also serve as demonstrations for how high-performance, sustainable buildings and campuses should be designed, constructed, and operated.
Beyond LEED — The Net-Zero Energy Research Support Facility
As the Energy Department's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) celebrates the certification of three new LEED Platinum buildings, bringing the total number of Platinum certified buildings on its campus to six, another important milestone on NREL's sustainable campus was also achieved: NREL's Research Support Facility (RSF) recently completed a verified one year of performance as a net-zero energy building.
A net-zero energy building is one that, over the course of a full year, produces more energy than it consumes.
The RSF, a LEED Platinum certified 360,000-square-foot Class A office building that houses approximately 1,300 NREL and Energy Department staff as well as a data center, accomplished this through a combination of energy efficiency technologies used in the building, effective operations and management of the building, and onsite electricity generation from a 2.6-megawatt solar photovoltaic (PV) system on the roof of the building and adjacent parking areas.
"We made a commitment to design and build a building that could reach net zero in operations," NREL Senior Energy Efficiency Research Engineer Shanti Pless said. "The design-build team delivered to us a well-designed, well-engineered, and well-constructed building that was able to support that goal. With the addition of the PV system we felt that we could successfully offset all of our annual energy use. Through active energy management and real-time benchmarking tools, we're very proud that we were able to achieve this important milestone."
Like the rest of the NREL campus, the RSF was designed and built with the intention of being a model for how building projects can incorporate energy efficiency strategies and technologies, and in the case of the RSF how projects can be made to be net-zero energy ready. The NREL researchers involved in the project made it accessible to anyone by compiling and documenting their experiences in energy performance-based commercial building acquisition and the adoption of energy-saving building technologies.
"There's a growing interest in net-zero energy buildings now that it is getting more cost effective and the industry is beginning to understand it better," Pless said. "The cost of PV and energy-efficient building materials like LED lighting have come down dramatically in the last few years, and that has made the idea of building for net zero much more approachable. As a result, there is an expanding level of expertise and capability out there for delivering buildings for net-zero energy operations. This is still cutting edge, but it is scaling up and heading toward the mainstream."
NREL is a consistent leader in bringing high-performance, energy-efficient building projects to life on its campus. In 2006 NREL laid claim to having the only LEED Platinum federal building with its Science & Technology Facility. Today, LEED Platinum federal buildings are becoming commonplace, including six on the NREL campus alone. Now, NREL again demonstrates its leadership by being the home of the very first federal building verified to achieve net-zero energy performance. However, unlike a green building certification that happens once, net-zero energy is something that is ongoing and must be achieved annually.
"One of the great things about net-zero energy is that it's an operations target, not a design target, that requires ongoing management to reach from year to year," said Pless. "This keeps our building managers, engineers, and occupants constantly thinking about how we use energy and seeking ways to improve our performance. We'll need to keep doing that to assure that the building meets net-zero energy operational goals year after year. We look forward to that opportunity."
The recent construction on the NREL campus was a significant undertaking, in which integrated project teams from a wide variety of disciplines—construction managers, sustainability professionals, and building research engineers, to name a few — focused on the design and construction of innovative facilities that would meet the needs of a growing laboratory while also meeting ambitious energy performance requirements.
"Energy has not been a foremost consideration on similar projects. They look at scope, schedule, and budget; then when the design is done, they determine how much power they need," said NREL Deputy Director for SITE Operations Drew Detamore, who led the campus development efforts. "Here, we added energy to the decision-making process from the beginning. Every decision that was made along the way took into consideration the impacts it would have on the energy model for the building."
In order to ensure that energy performance goals could be met, NREL developed a unique performance-based design-build approach to partner with design, engineering, and construction industry leaders on the projects. The design-build approach incorporated rigorous project controls and methodologies to provide NREL with facilities that featured best-in-class energy efficiency and sustainability practices.
"The design-build approach with our project partners was critical to the process," Detamore said. "We came into it focused on what we wanted projects to do over what we wanted them to be, and the design-build approach allowed that line of thinking to work effectively. You have to place a priority on performance over design, and then you can do what we've done at NREL. You must have strong project-management people involved who understand the process and are willing to let go of the design. As a result, we have buildings that meet all of our performance goals, are well designed, and happen to be very attractive."
Showcasing the Right Way to Build Buildings
"Our goal is to provide leadership to both the public and private sectors to show that this can be done, it is being done, and here's how you do it," NREL Senior Energy Efficiency Research Engineer Shanti Pless said. "We've made these buildings as efficient as possible and have learned a lot along the way. We want to share those lessons learned and best practices with the buildings industry to facilitate the movement of this type of design and construction into the mainstream."
All design and construction on the NREL campus used strategies and materials that are available to anyone. All products used are off-the-shelf and could be accessed for any building. Implementation of similar design-build techniques could be done on any project anywhere. The most important piece of the puzzle is to apply good technologies, along with a solid planning and design process, and integrate them effectively to work well together.
"These buildings are highly replicable," Pless said. "A project developer can take what we've done here and apply it in the marketplace. It performs as promised, is cost effective, maintainable, and marketable. These results combine to make energy-efficient buildings very approachable in any environment."
To facilitate the continued growth of energy-efficient and zero-energy building projects everywhere, NREL regularly hosts visits to its campus by project developers, architects, builders, and other commercial building industry professionals. These visits give NREL an opportunity to show firsthand what these buildings can do, how they perform, and how they can be replicated.
"When we show this to people they can quickly begin to visualize how they can replicate it, and by doing that we are having a meaningful impact on the commercial buildings industry," Pless said. "Proving it can be done is an important step. It is one thing to say you can do it, another entirely to prove it and demonstrate it. Here at NREL we've done just that."
A Living Laboratory
The campus also provides NREL research staff with opportunities to validate their research in a real-world environment with occupied, operational buildings in an effort to quantify and maximize building performance.