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Inside Sustainability Base: NASA's Space Station On Earth

The new Silicon Valley installation is designed to test the terrestrial applications for the space agency’s technologies and create the most efficient building imaginable.

  • <p>The two-story, 50,000 square foot building is net energy positive, meaning it produces more energy than it consumes. The whole thing is designed to make use of the Northern California environment--the chilled ceiling panels found inside the building, for example, are ideal for the relatively mild climate. They are slow to start up and shut down, but that’s not a problem since the weather rarely swings to extremes.</p>

<p>Keep in mind: there is no air conditioning in the building, even though it was about 85 degrees when I visited Sustainability Base. Instead, cold water traveling through copper pipes in the ceiling keeps temperatures down (hence the radiant panels).</p>
  • <p>Healthy existing trees were all kept onsite. There is plenty of drought-tolerant and native vegetation.</p>
  • <p>There is no real ceiling to the building. This is by design. As green technologies advance, building managers may want to switch things out, and that’s easier to do when everything is exposed.</p>
  • <p>Automated window shades control glare, and gradually rise as the day goes on. There is abundant natural light, but heat and cold don’t penetrate the building too much because of its high-performance glazing. And since the building takes advantage of the sun’s arc and the Bay Area winds, artificial lighting is only necessary 40 days out of the year.</p>
  • <p>This floor system provides fresh air to workers. It can be controlled manually or automatically. Underneath this nondescript floor system is something more interesting: the guts of the building. "The underfloor allows us to put not just the air delivery, but we put all the power and data signal wires in there. So with the building as a test bed, everything is accessible," explains David Johnson, a partner at William McDonough + Partners.</p>
  • <p>The building materials are local and some have been repurposed. The oak planks in the second floor lobby came from a NASA wind tunnel.</p>
  • <p>The onsite rooftop photovoltaic array provides 30% of the building’s energy. A Bloom Box fuel cell and small wind turbine provide the rest.</p>
  • <p>This little power plant in a box runs on natural gas right now, but in the future NASA plans to have the fuel cell device run on biogas captured from a landfill. The device provides 20% of the building’s energy.</p>
  • <p>Those aren’t just lumps in the ground. Groundwater is treated onsite and stored in tanks under the grass.</p>
  • <p>When all is said and done, Sustainability Base will be the most monitored building in the U.S. (if not the world), gathering data from more devices at greater frequency than any other structure. Data from the intelligent building system is collected in real time by Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, and shared with other companies interested in creating similar buildings for themselves. All that data also helps the building learn, so it can predict--based on weather patterns, human input, and more--what it will need on any given day (i.e. temperature, lighting, etc.)</p>
  • 01 /10
    | Outside

    The two-story, 50,000 square foot building is net energy positive, meaning it produces more energy than it consumes. The whole thing is designed to make use of the Northern California environment--the chilled ceiling panels found inside the building, for example, are ideal for the relatively mild climate. They are slow to start up and shut down, but that’s not a problem since the weather rarely swings to extremes.

    Keep in mind: there is no air conditioning in the building, even though it was about 85 degrees when I visited Sustainability Base. Instead, cold water traveling through copper pipes in the ceiling keeps temperatures down (hence the radiant panels).

  • 02 /10
    | Outside

    Healthy existing trees were all kept onsite. There is plenty of drought-tolerant and native vegetation.

  • 03 /10
    | The Ceiling

    There is no real ceiling to the building. This is by design. As green technologies advance, building managers may want to switch things out, and that’s easier to do when everything is exposed.

  • 04 /10
    | Inside

    Automated window shades control glare, and gradually rise as the day goes on. There is abundant natural light, but heat and cold don’t penetrate the building too much because of its high-performance glazing. And since the building takes advantage of the sun’s arc and the Bay Area winds, artificial lighting is only necessary 40 days out of the year.

  • 05 /10
    | Raised Floor System

    This floor system provides fresh air to workers. It can be controlled manually or automatically. Underneath this nondescript floor system is something more interesting: the guts of the building. "The underfloor allows us to put not just the air delivery, but we put all the power and data signal wires in there. So with the building as a test bed, everything is accessible," explains David Johnson, a partner at William McDonough + Partners.

  • 06 /10
    | Common Space

    The building materials are local and some have been repurposed. The oak planks in the second floor lobby came from a NASA wind tunnel.

  • 07 /10

    The onsite rooftop photovoltaic array provides 30% of the building’s energy. A Bloom Box fuel cell and small wind turbine provide the rest.

  • 08 /10
    | Bloom Box

    This little power plant in a box runs on natural gas right now, but in the future NASA plans to have the fuel cell device run on biogas captured from a landfill. The device provides 20% of the building’s energy.

  • 09 /10
    | Water

    Those aren’t just lumps in the ground. Groundwater is treated onsite and stored in tanks under the grass.

  • 10 /10
    | Outside

    When all is said and done, Sustainability Base will be the most monitored building in the U.S. (if not the world), gathering data from more devices at greater frequency than any other structure. Data from the intelligent building system is collected in real time by Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, and shared with other companies interested in creating similar buildings for themselves. All that data also helps the building learn, so it can predict--based on weather patterns, human input, and more--what it will need on any given day (i.e. temperature, lighting, etc.)

"How do you design a building like a tree?" It’s a question that William McDonough, an architect, designer, and one of the minds behind Cradle to Cradle certification, has been asking himself for years. The Sustainability Base, a just-opened building at the NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, is McDonough’s latest attempt at designing a living, breathing structure that participates in its surroundings.

Designed by William McDonough + Partners and AECOM, the Sustainability Base is a LEED Platinum test bed for NASA technology (and other sustainable components) that come together to make a building that generates all of its power onsite, consists of materials that can be reused at the end of their life, and learns how to best accommodate inhabitants as the years go on. NASA writes of the base in a pamphlet: "Just as the lunar landing on Tranquility Base represented a giant leap during the space race, so Sustainability Base will stand as an icon symbolizing NASA’s dedication to solving the environmental challenges we face on Earth."


The onsite rooftop photovoltaic array provides 30% of the building’s energy. A Bloom Box fuel cell and small wind turbine provide the rest.

There are, in fact, a number of NASA-designed technologies integrated into the building, including the greywater system, which cleans and recycles water that’s used in toilets and urinals (originally designed for use on the International Space Station); the rooftop photovoltaic panels, and the onsite solid oxide fuel cell from Bloom Energy.

The $20.6 million building arrived on time and under budget. The upfront cost was a little more than a standard federal building, but the building’s efficiency pays off any extra costs in about nine years.

I wrote about the $20.6 million Sustainability Base once before, without having seen the then-under construction building. Last week, I visited the completed base, which has been populated with NASA employees for a few months. Check out the slide show above (scroll down for captions).

Slideshow Credits: 01 / Cesar Rubio; 02 / Cesar Rubio; 03 / Ariel Schwartz; 04 / Ariel Schwartz; 05 / Ariel Schwartz; 06 / Ariel Schwartz; 07 / Ariel Schwartz; 08 / Ariel Schwartz; 09 / Ariel Schwartz; 10 / Ariel Schwartz;