Ancient Lessons in Sustainability

Builders of the pyramids knew a thing or two about energy efficiency. They discovered that light could be bent and directed where needed. Today, window louvers can direct sunbeams to panels on an office building’s ceiling, maximizing light and minimizing electricity use. Architects of Europe’s great cathedrals knew that mass holds heat like a battery. A concrete labyrinth located in an office building’s basement can store radiant heat to the same effect.

These cost effective, low energy techniques are being used in the nation’s largest net-zero energy office building: the $64 million National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado.

Because commercial buildings suck up 18 percent of the nation’s total energy usage each year, they’re considered low-hanging fruit for energy conservation targets.

To achieve the sweet spot of net-zero energy at a reasonable cost, the NREL facility employs “off the shelf” technology – time-tested techniques. Every detail of the building and office environment has been carefully rethought. Cubicle walls are lower to maximize light and air flow; a shared central printer discourages excess paper usage.

A central computer tracks every watt generated and consumed. The goal? The balance of zero net use over 24 hours.

Managers expect to reach that goal early next year, when the project will be complete. In the meantime, the building has already become a template for affordable, super energy-efficient construction.