As governments push to adopt sustainable practices, one holy grail is creating working environments that achieve net-zero energy consumption. That’s the idea behind a newly opened office building at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colo. Known as the Research Support Facility (RSF), the structure is designed to create as much energy as it consumes, making it one of the world’s most energy-efficient buildings.

The RSF, while certainly cutting edge, is not some isolated technology wonderland impossible to reproduce. Rather, what makes the building so energy efficient is a combination of thoughtful design, creative architecture, an understanding of the natural environment and clever repurposing of existing materials. Upon seeing the RSF, one is immediately struck by the building’s peculiar footprint. Two long, narrow wings are connected near their center, creating what NREL literature calls a “lazy H” configuration. The lazy H maximizes the RSF’s ability to capture sunlight while complementing the local geography.

Approaching the RSF’s front entrance there are several elements that immediately draw the eye. Most prominently, the doors are surrounded by what look like massive metal mini-blinds, which are surrounded by a highly reflective façade. Both the mini-blinds, actually called light louvers, and the façade serve a specific purpose.

“They take that light and bounce it into the middle of the space,” said Heather Lammers, a public affairs official with NREL. “We’re trying to maximize all of that daylight going into the workspace.”

The RSF is 100 percent day lit, but oddly the natural light at first seems very unnatural. Perhaps the sensation stems from traditional office environments, which are often lit with fluorescent lights. (Though the RSF has artificial lighting, it will only be used at night or during stormy weather.)

In the RSF courtyard, rows of solar panels peek over the roof line. Light-diffusing shades frame all the south-facing windows. LED lights line a walkway made of porous pavers that allow rainwater to seep back into the ground instead of flowing into a storm drain.

There are retaining walls made not of concrete, but of rocks excavated during construction and contained in a mesh made of recycled wire. And all around are landscape features done in a xeric style, featuring vegetation adapted to the extremely dry climate.

Chad Vander Veen  | 

Chad Vander Veen previously served as the editor of FutureStructure, and the associate editor of Government Technology and Public CIO magazines.