A Model for Commercial Building Efficiency Uses Data Center, Daylighting to Save Energy

With 19% of primary energy in the United States consumed by commercial buildings, the Research Support Facility (RSF) is destined to serve as a model for using energy-efficient technology to drastically reduce energy use in commercial office spaces.

Located at the base of the Rockies in Golden, Colo., the RSF is the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL)’s newest sustainable green building. As one of the nation’s most energy-efficient buildings, it was designed to not only meet the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum certification but also to use 50% less energy than a standard office building.

The RSF, which opened in 2010, houses more than 800 NREL staff and serves as a living laboratory for building energy performance as its building managers constantly measure and monitor real-time energy use.

High Efficiency, Passive Energy Design Features

On the road to making the RSF the nation’s largest net-zero energy building – generating as much energy as it consumes – the design and construction team completed a rigorous integrated design process involving a national design competition and an energy modeling analysis.

Energy efficient design highlights:

  • East- west building orientation maximizes daylight, while minimizing unwanted heat losses and gains
  • Daylighting techniques, including open spaces and light-reflecting devices, brings sunshine to all work stations
  • Triple-glazed, operable windows with individual sunshades allow occupants to open windows, bringing in fresh air and cooling the building naturally

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  • Radiant heating and cooling system uses water pipes embedded in the floor (instead of forced air) to control the interior climate
  • Efficient data centers and work stations
    • Allow waste heat to be captured and used throughout the building, and
    • Minimize plug loads by equipping employees with laptops and high-efficiency office equipment

The RSF also incorporated sustainable design aspects such as harvesting power from an on-site solar energy system and using recycled or reclaimed materials for building construction.  

Cost- and Energy-Efficient: Lessons Learned

“Cost-efficient as well as energy-efficient” was the mantra for achieving the RSF’s net-zero energy goal. In its first year, the RSF met its design requirement by consuming just 35.1 kBtu per square foot annually, 50% less than the average commercial building built to current commercial code. But it didn’t cost more to make such an energy-efficient building: Construction cost at $250 per square foot was also comparable to and in many cases significantly lower than a typical commercial building in the Colorado region.

However, NREL found that even with high performance and innovative building features, 30% of building performance can still be attributed to occupant behavior. Hence, it has been critical to educate NREL employees on proper use of appliances and energy savings tips. NREL found that one of the most effective ways to instill energy-saving habits has been to provide real-time energy consumption feedback to each worker’s computer screen throughout the day.

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