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Photo © Cesar Rubio Photography
The base regulates its energy usage with a central computer that not only tracks its performance data but learns from itself.


NASA Sustainability Base

William McDonough + Partners
Moffett Field, California

Houston, We Have a Solution: NASA's new base harnesses space-age technology to take building performance to the next level. It's one giant leap for green design.

By Lamar Anderson
January 2013

In the fall of 2008, Steve Zornetzer, the associate center director of NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, found himself in Houston with a problem. Ames was three months in on its plans for a new office building, and Zornetzer had just scrapped the entire design. "It was a building that could have been built in 1990," he says. "There was nothing interesting architecturally or conservationally—it was a very boring project."


Location Moffett Field, California (San Francisco Bay watershed)

Gross area 50,000 ft2 (4,645 m²)

Completed April 2012

Cost $27 million

Annual purchased energy use (based on simulation) 24 kBtu/ft2 (275 MJ/m2), 65% reduction from base case (not including fuel cells)

Annual carbon footprint (predicted) 5.1 lbs CO2/ft2(25 kg CO2/m2)

Program Offices



Metal/glass curtain wall Kawneer 1600 Wall System with exterior sunshades

Glass PPG Solarban 70XL

Insulated panels Centria

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Nasa Sustainability Base
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Zornetzer was at the Johnson Space Center in Houston to hear a talk by the San Francisco–based architect and Cradle to Cradle pioneer William McDonough, FAIA, principal of William McDonough + Partners. The leadership at NASA had been interested in McDonough's knowledge of healthy building materials for possible use in a Mars mission, but McDonough had other ideas. "I asked NASA, 'Would you mind if we work on coming back to Earth first, before we go to Mars? What if I design a space station on Earth?' " McDonough recalls.

Three and a half years later, in April 2012, that space station—dubbed the NASA Sustainability Base—opened its doors. The two-story, 50,000-square-foot glass-and-steel office building includes open-plan workstations, private offices, conference rooms, kitchens, and an outdoor plaza. Between rooftop solar arrays and a solid-oxide fuel cell, the building supplies more energy than it needs and sends the surplus back into the Ames grid. (Though the fuel cell currently runs on natural gas, it can convert to landfill gas if a local source becomes available.)

From an efficiency perspective, space travel turns out to be a terrific idea lab for building performance on Earth. Technologies that ensure astronauts' survival at the International Space Station—from urine-recycling water filtration to computer controls that protect the indoor environment and anticipate energy needs—also happen to excel at less glamorous, workaday tasks like managing daylight and regulating energy use. "What we want to do is take that aerospace technology and demonstrate its effectiveness in a building on planet Earth," says Zornetzer.

Inspired by the original tripodlike lunar module from 1969, the design team considered setting their structure apart from its surroundings. "We did this idea of a building that treaded lightly on the ground; it had seismic bracing, and it was optimized for solar with a lightweight photovoltaic roof," says Alastair Reilly, architect and director at William McDonough + Partners. "But it wasn't really optimized for that location. It could be anywhere, but nowhere."

Working with the architect of record, AECOM, and landscape-architecture firm Siteworks Studio, McDonough + Partners configured the building and grounds as a series of concentric semicircles that step back from Bush Circle, the main drive at the entrance of Ames. They took a cue from the giant 1987 wind tunnel across the circle and laid out the office as a pair of narrow, two-story arcs supported by a steel exoskeleton. At just 54 feet wide, the linked structures are compact enough to avoid disturbing the site's heritage redwoods and stone pine, and to bring daylight and the Bay Area's near-constant breezes straight through the building. The majority of workers can rely on daylight 80 to 90 percent of the time over the course of a year, explains Susan Ubbelohde, principal at Loisos + Ubbelohde, which served as the project's lighting and energy consultant. "The lighting scheme is based on being supplemental to daylighting," she says.

As with a wind tunnel, the steel exoskeleton functions as Sustainability Base's structural support, like a building turned inside out. Beyond creating a flexible, column-free space on the interior (and providing an armature for sunshades and vertical plantings), the external supports require less steel and make good seismic sense, too. "The exposed bracings allow for easier repair, so in a major seismic event, you actually see a bent piece of metal or a brace that gave way," says Reilly. "Rather than cracking open walls or disturbing workers, you can actually get there and repair it and get back up to speed quickly."

Maintenance, it turns out, is one of the only tasks left to humans on Sustainability Base. Algorithms take care of the rest. The base's ground-source heating and cooling system, its lighting controls, and even employees' schedules are all hooked into a central computer that not only optimizes building performance but also learns from itself. Standing on the roof of the south building, Zornetzer points to the weather station, which feeds a steady stream of data into the computer. If, say, a conference room has a meeting planned for 10:00 the next morning, the computer will see it on the schedule, check employees' calendars to find out how many people will be in the room, and use the weather forecast to decide how far in advance the mechanical system should start pumping cool water into the radiant ceiling panels, or whether to open the windows or let down the interior shades. During the meeting, the computer checks to see how close it got to its target. If it missed, the system will adjust the formula the next time it encounters a similar scenario. "It learns from its own behavior, just like we do when we make mistakes," says Zornetzer.

NASA set an aggressive energy target for the building, but that modeled prediction just reflects one usage scenario. "As a test bed, we would expect that the demand will fluctuate as systems are brought in and out," says Reilly. Zornetzer hopes NASA's findings will begin shaping the technology that becomes available in the green-building sector. "Once we've demonstrated the performance of the technology, I want to work with private-sector vendors," he says, citing the example of the base's forward-osmosis water-filtration system, which recycles wastewater from sinks and toilets for reuse as graywater. "We'll license the technology to them and say, 'You guys develop this and you put it on the marketplace for consumers to buy.' " Zornetzer adds, "We can really bring advanced technology to the built environment and make a difference."

Lamar Anderson is a San Francisco–based writer and a frequent contributor to Architectural Record and SNAP.


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