“All the materials and techniques that we used in this particular building are available to anybody today. It all operates passively, so there’s not a lot of very complicated technologies,” Baker said. “What we’ve done here today can be duplicated by others.”

Lammers also pointed out that the floor tiles are made of granite mine remnants mixed with epoxy and the receptionist’s desk is made of ground sunflower seeds and laminate.

On the second and third floors are the office spaces. Scattered throughout these spaces are transparent floor plates, which provide a look at the inner workings of the labyrinth thermal storage facility. The labyrinth, actually just a crawl space, is below the first floor.

From the labyrinth comes a piping system visible below the plates. Water in the pipes is heated by the solar panels and transpired solar collectors. The heat is dissipated into the RSF’s concrete superstructure, which warms the interior. Conversely, to cool the building, the pipes go underground where the water is naturally chilled and again piped back up to cool the concrete, which in turn cools the interior. In total, 42 miles of heating and cooling pipe snake through the building, completely eliminating the need for a forced-air HVAC system. Interestingly the building was engineered with a pink-noise — a variant of white noise — generator that mimics the sound of a forced-air system. NREL research showed that the lack of white noise in an office is distracting.

These office spaces also bear witness to how effective the RSF’s natural lighting scheme is. The sloped, exposed industrial-style roof adds to a feeling of spaciousness. The ceiling and piping are all white and reflect the light directed inside down to the floor, helping to create a refreshing sensation.

The majority of the many windows also open — something sadly missing from most offices. Most windows are computer controlled, but some employees can open at their choosing.

Also, like most office buildings, there are a host of cubicles with a small number of offices reserved for the bigwigs. Yet none of the offices have ceilings. They’re all open on top. The open offices, together with the sloped roof and the vast number of windows make the space feel large and airy — a truly pleasant working environment.

On the west end of the office floor is a wall of windows that offers a grand view. It’s also in the direct line of the setting sun. Late afternoon in Colorado can often be the hottest part of the day. So like a pair of high-end eyeglasses, the windows automatically tint themselves, letting light in and keeping heat out.

Come winter, 800 employees will fill the RSF and the building will be fully staffed. One might wonder whether the solar-heating systems are enough to heat the building on cold winter days. It turns out the RSF also can capture and reuse the heat generated by its data center.

What’s most striking about the RSF is how energy efficiency is being achieved not with Star Trek-style gadgetry, but with thoughtful repurposing of existing materials and techniques. And by all accounts, the cost to construct the RSF is on par with traditional buildings. Baker said the cost of the building ran about $259 per square foot. So if cost, materials and construction are near-equal to that of a traditional building, the real impact of the RSF is not that it can reach net-zero energy consumption but that it shows anyone else can too — a sentiment Baker shared.

“The lasting value of this building is really demonstrated that we can do projects like this today, using today’s materials and today’s techniques at costs that are comparable to today’s commercial buildings,” he said. “Ten years from now, we want people to look back to the Research Support Facility and say this is where the nation’s move toward highly energy-efficient design started. And these are the folks who actually demonstrated it could be done. I’m here to tell you it can be done today with the right approach, with the right mindset and we’re happy to share our story with everyone so [they] can duplicate what we’ve done.”

Chad Vander Veen  | 

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