A tour of the largest Net Zero building in the US
Recently I joined the GCTC Smart Building Action Council on their guided tour of the Unisphere building in Silver Spring, MD. Beyond the breathtaking architecture and design, the building is in a familiar urban area so it proved what buildings can do in already established communities. In fact, Aaron and I touched on this when we discussed the new Amazon HQ2 locations in our latest InSite Coast to Coast.
The tour concentrated specifically on the building’s operational systems from design and construction phases to the current occupied status. Leading the tour was Thomas Kaufman, the Associate Director, Corporate Real Estate of United Therapeutics. He recently wrote an article about the Unisphere that gives an insider look at the impressive building.
The complex design and efficiency requirements of the Unisphere building were focused around the mandate that the building could express itself. With almost every aspect of the building integrated into the building automation system, the building has plenty to say sourced from various assets and people, and this data is the go-to form of expression.
Kaufman said the ultimate goal is for the building to run itself, but with personalization features. This will, of course, be a delicate balance between making occupants comfortable and happy and maintaining the Net Zero characteristic of the building.
As we wandered airy hallways with smart fans and tech-filled open offices lined with auto-opening and auto-shaded windows, the importance of the BAM’s integration with multiple systems was clear. This integration proved to be tricky as the building grew and became smarter, even though many of the systems came from the same manufacturer.
That was disappointing to hear.
This building overcame design challenges like the 52 geothermal walls inspired by the Roman empire era that plunge 500ft into the ground, a 10-story atrium so every floor is filled with natural light, a transforming atrium pool that uses a Sphagnum moss filtration system, and an inspirational energy wheel that expresses the building’s energy status. Unfortunately, making all of the technology play nice with each other was one of the most challenging, and ongoing, issues and this is one of the most advanced buildings out there.
Standards are continuing to grow and become more stringent - the other day the USGBC (US Green Building Council) launched LEED Zero, a new complementary LEED program that will address Net Zero operations and resources in buildings. From another perspective, county rules, like those of Silver Spring’s Montgomery County, MD, may mandate all new buildings acquire a LEED certification before they can be occupied.
Another impressive element within the Unisphere is the visibility of data to occupants. A giant, interactive screen lets participants dive into the depths of data around energy efficiency, compare it to past periods, and watch it dance down the walls as the user scrolls. Occupants are able to track their own energy output and, instead of being scolded when they’re not operating efficiently, are motivated to do better through a gamification-like process with incentives and public recognition.
We’re moving in the right direction.
Buildings are becoming more pleasant to be in and occupants can be more involved in the building’s ability to best operate and perform. As was discussed during the Net Zero walk through, there are plenty of dumb yet energy efficient buildings. Let’s aim higher and make sure technology is able to work for us, instead of being more challenging than recreating ancient Roman design in an urban environment. That sounds smart to me.