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Solution of the Month:

Gas Works

FOX Architects

A utility company gets progressively green, in part with the help of its namesake fuel source.

By David Sokol
July 2013
Photo © Jeff Goldberg / Esto

For Washington Gas, bigger is not better. Although the regional utility’s former operations center surpassed a whopping 500,000 square feet, the 1950s-era building contained barely used warehouse components; nor did it include enough of the collaborative office space that could attract personnel talent and engage the public. A new operations center, designed by Washington, D.C.-area firm FOX Architects and located on an adjacent 20 acres in Springfield, Virginia, approximately halves that area.

Photo © Jeff Goldberg / Esto
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The design team made every remaining square foot count—in part by abiding the client’s demand for a highly energy- and emissions-efficient project. The largest occupied building of the new campus, for example, is the 186,000-square-foot office building, which was given a narrow bar shape to minimize energy consumption by lighting. “We created a 45-foot column-free zone for the length of the office building; the entire work environment is located along the southern elevation for maximum daylight,” explains FOX principal J.P. Spickler. Primary circulation hews to the north elevation of the office, and a secondary aisle is placed immediately next to the glazed southern side to democratize views; insulated glass and sensor-controlled motorized shades reduce perimeter conditioning requirements.

A seemingly unrelated system enhanced day lighting further. The architect eschewed variable air volume HVAC for a dedicated outside air system (DOAS). Washington Gas’s heating and cooling are delivered hydronically, which requires less energy and less space. “You can move as much energy in a 3-inch pipe as you can in a 48-inch air duct,” Spickler says. DOAS results in a 32 percent energy reduction over conventional VAV, and much less ductwork.

“It enabled us to get a higher ceiling, and in many areas we left the ceiling out,” Spickler says of DOAS’s design ramifications. Raising the ceiling was a boon for day lighting, as borne out by electricity metrics: Artificial lighting (mostly by LED lamps) at Washington Gas consumes only .67 watts per square foot.

Yet the versatile treatment of ceilings also enhanced architectural expression. “This building exists in an industrial context, and one of the ways we communicated that was exposing the structural frame and primary MEP systems in the interior detailing and finishes. It seemed very appropriate for a utility company to celebrate its building’s functions and systems.”

In addition to revealing necessary infrastructure, the design of the new operations center spotlights familiar green technologies. The new campus includes structured parking for 530, and more than 100 of those spaces include fueling stations for Washington Gas’s natural gas–powered vehicle fleet. Even more notable, the project includes the first commercial application of a Bloom Energy fuel cell on the East Coast. It produces 212 kilowatts of electricity, or approximately half the peak load of the campus, in a relatively clean process fueled by natural gas.

“Unlike the building systems, the fuel cell is external—you plug your building into it,” Spickler says. FOX treated this system like it did the structural and MEP systems, placing the fuel cell on a pad in plain sight of the office’s south elevation and leaving room for a second. Charged by Washington Gas to employ an alternative energy source on location, the fuel cell underscored the potential of natural gas. And it simply made sense: This spot in northern Virginia did not enjoy the consistent moderate airflow required to support wind turbines, and producing as much electricity via photovoltaic arrays would have required twice the acreage. The result is a branding statement in the Bloom Energy installation, and, overall, a 93 percent emissions reduction against the old operations center’s baseline.

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