“Water is king. It’s almost bigger than gold out here,” Lammers said. “Colorado is a very dry, arid climate. And so, because of water loss in Colorado, we can’t retain water onsite to water [the landscape], but we can kind of use the water as it flows through the site.”

The facility uses a clever runoff water collection and irrigation system that combines simple piping from the roof to the ground with intelligently designed terrain.

Other less obvious but equally important elements help make the RSF Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Platinum certified. Much of the exterior consists of large panels that were preformed before arriving on site. The panels are made entirely of local aggregate and are layered over insulation and interior concrete walls. The panels dissipate radiant heat, preventing it from entering the interior.

“It helps really keep the building at a consistent temperature,” Lammers said. “You think about the old cathedrals that you used to go into made of all that stone … [it’s the] same kind of principle. You get some thermal mass and it helps dissipate the heat, helps slow it down from entering the building, and then at night it naturally cools off.”

A portion of the building’s south side is sheathed in another energy-saving feature — a large swath of corrugated metal. What appears to be decorative metal siding actually is the result of a technology developed at NREL known as transpired solar collectors. The wavy metal is punctured by thousands of tiny holes, which draw in air that’s heated by the sun-warmed metal. The warm air is then pumped underground into the RSF’s unique thermal storage facility. Like most of the structure’s energy-saving features, the transpired solar collectors are completely passive, making them far simpler to duplicate in future structures.

The transpired solar collectors, like the RSF itself, were in development for years before finally gaining traction. Jeffrey Baker, the Department of Energy’s director of the Office of Laboratory Operations at the Golden Field Office, conceived of the RSF 15 years earlier.

“It took that long to get everything lined up, but once everything did get lined up in the budget process … such that we had money and support, the project went very quickly. It was completed in about three years,” he said.

Inside the RSF, there are several elements Baker likes to call attention to. First is the sheer number of windows — sized to match the thermal characteristics of the building and each triple paned and triple glazed. Second is the wood paneling that adorns the building. The wood, a beautiful pine infused with blue and gray, is salvaged from trees killed by a devastating pine beetle infestation. Last, Baker pointed out several ordinary-looking structural support columns that are concrete-filled pipes salvaged from natural gas wells.

Chad Vander Veen  | 

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