Virginia Business: When did you join McDonough?
Kevin Burke: I joined in 1994. And as I mentioned, it was the year he was named the dean of the architecture school down here. I was working in Connecticut at the time, and he had his practice in New York City. I was heard that he was named the dean and that he might be moving his practice down. So I actually helped him close the New York office and transition to the Charlottesville office, which was an interesting time. I lived in New York for a couple of months.
VB: So you actually joined his office up there then?
Burke: Yes, for just a brief time. My wife is also an architect, and she got her degree at Yale. So we were living in Connecticut, but we were thinking hard about moving back south. Somehow … this is an aside … but we put Charlottesville on the map and said, “We want to move there.” We had no idea how we’d get back here. And we kind of hit the trifecta because we got to move back to Charlottesville, we were both interested in our practice in this new-found thing called green design, and the first project I would be working on was in California. So it was like get all of it at once.
VB: And you were just telling me know that there are 30 people in this office?
VB: And then three in each of the other two offices?
Burke: Yes, three in San Francisco and three in Amsterdam.
VB: Tell me again, how was it that you came to have offices in those two places?
Burke: In San Francisco, the first thing was this assignment that we had for the Gap Co. We won a competition back in 1994, and we were competing against four other firms. And the competition was not for a green building. It was a concept for a great workplace. And so that was really the chance for the firm, and this was right before I joined, so the response of the competition was developed by some people in the New York practice, a couple of them that did move with us down to Charlottesville.
But the point I think then, sort of an early inclination of what the practice was about, was to say there really isn’t or shouldn’t be a distinction between green or sustainable design and good design. All design for people and for environmental health, human and environmental health should have these characteristics.
So what they really posited was what about a building where people could thrive? And for people to thrive, if they’re connected to each other, if they have access to views, they can see the changing conditions of the day, daylight and fresh air at their own control, operable windows in an office building … and that was another thing that made the front page of the Wall Street Journal … imagine you have a window you can open. We would never think of having our homes without operable windows. I hate being in a hotel without them, and yet we design these office buildings.
So there were these key fundamental things that we put in the project. And it was in the concept competition brief, and I think it captured the Gap’s imagination, and so they hired us to work on the project.
And that got us out to San Francisco literally on an almost two-week basis we were shuttling out there constantly to engage in that project. And with that, we started to build connectivity to builders out there that were also starting to see this just very beginnings of a market around sustainability, and owners, contractors, other consultants that were starting to see that.
So I think it’s a progressive landscape out there in a lot of ways. And we found with the building industry it was sort of an early adaptor of the sustainability. And in a way, it was a lot of the things you were seeing more in Europe than in the States were starting to begin to blossom there. So it kept us out there basically. And one project led to another. So that’s the San Francisco side.
With the Netherlands, I showed you about 10 years I had done the project for Nike, a corporate campus for them, and then another office building for IBM. And then we had a kind of hiatus of three or four years where nothing was taking us back there. But when Bill McDonough’s partner in a sister company, Michael Braungart, a chemist, when they wrote the book Cradle to Cradle, that started to have amazing ripple effects in the world. And it took a little while for the ripples to hit the Netherlands, but they kind of, the concept of Cradle to Cradle landed there when a film was made about Bill and Michael and our work called, “Waste Equals Food.” And it was a Dutch show that landed on Dutch public television. And the Netherlands is about 6 million people. It’s a small country. And it just, the concept spread like wildfire there. And I think the reason is the selling points of Cradle to Cradle are a positive approach to sustainability. Instead of kind of finger wagging and an official saying, “You have to reduce, reuse, recycle. You must reduce your footprint.” This is a way of encouraging positive behavior. How can we design things from the beginning to be beneficial and create healthy environments, healthy impacts? So that was one thing.
And then the other is that there is an inherent business proposition to Cradle to Cradle. It’s basically saying that business has basically ignored half of the value proposition. We create objects. We send them out. Nobody has really thought of the value of recapturing what’s out there to be put in infinite safe and healthy cycles.
And so that’s what Cradle to Cradle is about kind of in a nutshell. And that’s what the Dutch, who are an intensely commercial culture, it struck them. It became kind of a way because the older models were starting to sort of expire. There wasn’t much enthusiasm around sustainability. It was all seen as you’ve got to do this by regulation.
And so as that happened, we were invited to participate in a couple of projects, and our shuttling, instead of going West, we were going East to Europe. And I found myself over there over the course of a year monthly for about a year, once a month for a week. And a number of us were doing that, but for projects and just to engage with invitations to come and talk. And certainly Bill McDonough was over there a lot as well.
And so I found myself giving talks and speeches and presentations in the Netherlands. And really grew to love the country, love the people. And one of the benefits is English is not a problem there. And just the openness at one level to the philosophy, but also that they’re an incredibly technically proficient country. So the building practices are at an extremely high level. Their sustainability is already at a high level. Engineering is obviously at a high level and infrastructure. And the country relies on that for its survival.
And they have something called the polder mentality, which is where the polders are the reclaimed land basically, where they will pump the water out, create a dike, pump out the water and create new land. And the way that that worked, even from ancient times was they had to be reliant upon their neighbor. It’s only as good as your neighbor and their activities. So they call it a very horizontal country, literally even socially. They’re not that keen on any individual person rising above. And what that has led to is this ability to work in groups really, really effectively. So we found we just would find ourselves on these projects or in discussions that were just very, very, at a very high level, and very engaged, and just very persistent.
But what they didn’t have that we could bring, which always sort of surprises us is a kind of synthetic overview, how to connect and give a sort of broader framework to sustainable thinking. And that’s what we’ve been able to … this protocol or the paradigm of Cradle to Cradle, and how you can apply it at different scales, is something we’ve been able to provide some guidance to them, which is at some level surprising for us but also really exciting because we’re learning tremendous things.
VB: Could you briefly describe what Cradle to Cradle means in terms of architecture?
Burke: Yes. There are sort of five basic tenets of Cradle to Cradle, and they apply whether you’re talking about architecture, the making of a carpet, a rug, or a chair. And the first fundamental tenet is is the product that we’re making biological or technical? And if it’s biological, that means that it’s designed from the beginning to stay in biological cycles. And at the end of its use period or its life, so to speak, it could go back to soil and create healthy soil, so you could compost it. It would have no adverse impacts. So that’s one metabolism.
And then the other metabolism is the technical metabolism. And that’s saying that the items or products are designed from the beginning to stay in that metabolism and not cross-contaminate. Things become toxic when they get in the biosphere basically. And so the key is that it’s not just closing loops, but it’s designing from the beginning so that you are closing loops in a safe and healthy fashion. So you’re understanding down to the parts per million what the chemical attributes are for any product. And that’s where the science comes into it. So that’s the first thing. And it’s just that sort of characterization of is it biological or technical.
The second is, is there a means of recapture? So do you have a plan for taking back? And what that means is the products in this chair are designed around Cradle to Cradle, doesn’t mean that chair has to go back to that manufacturer necessarily, but that that the materials within the chair can be intelligently codified in a way that they can be pooled at the end of its life, because some of the plastics that are developed have very particular tolerances or attributes that shouldn’t be degraded in their future use. They should stay at that high level, and so that’s part of it. So having a means of return is a critical thing, so that’s the second.
The third is the production powered on renewable energy? So, primarily solar. So how these materials are produced, the ideal would be that the manufacturing process itself would be powered by renewable energy. And then does the process create clearing water? And so in Cradle to Cradle, there’s this example of this factory in Switzerland that makes fabrics. And the water that comes out at the end of that process is actually cleaner than Swiss drinking water. So that’s a high bar assignment for a factory.
And then the last of the five is around social fairness. And so are the materials being produced in a way that still honors human dignity basically?
Bill McDonough likes to call that sort of the spine of Cradle to Cradle. Those are the attributes. And it’s really tricky for us because we’ll find in this excitement about Cradle to Cradle in the Netherlands, people say, “Well, we’re Cradle to Cradle architects. We’re a Cradle to Cradle city. We’re a Cradle to Cradle region.” But you’ll find that they might not even have the basics.
So as you extrapolate that from a product to a building, the thing that we’re really conscious of is it’s enormously complex when you take it up in scale. And so I had the chance to sit down at a conference next to a fellow who is developing a Cradle to Cradle backpack. And he was telling me how challenging the construction of the backpack was because you have these four materials and six fasteners, and I’m thinking, “Wait until you get to a building.” A computer, a building, and then a city.
So our sense is: take it step by step, but ensure that we’re looking at all opportunities to employ this protocol wherever we can. And the easiest thing to do is to just specify building products and materials that have already had Cradle to Cradle certification. The certification is provided by our sister company, McDonough Braungart. So they have a whole protocol to say something can be certified at a basic, silver, gold, platinum level. And so that’s one thing.
But ultimately Cradle to Cradle relies on transformation of markets. We need more building materials to follow Cradle to Cradle protocol. And so I think what we’re seeing is that our role is to articulate what the demand side of it should be. How do we as architects who want products to perform in certain ways, what it is that we want, and how do we articulate that to industry? And the more that we can have a gathered voice as builders, as contractors, as developers, as the demand for it is one way that we can start to transform markets.
But the first is to kind of, as a pioneering firm, the first is for us to articulate what that is. And so that’s how we are starting to look at it in terms of buildings. And one protocol that we’ve used to kind of simplify this complex stew that’s a building, stew of materials and products is to take a paradigm … I don’t know if you’re familiar with, he’s a scientist and writer, Stewart Brand. He developed a book … he’s actually the person that long ago developed the whole earth catalog. And then he developed a book called How Buildings Learn. And he borrowed a framework from an English architect that we actually also work with named Frank Duffy. And basically what they did was they disaggregated buildings looking at different timeframes of the life of different components of buildings. So you’d say that the site is permanent. The structure you generally want to last the life of the building. But as you sort of work you way to the skin of the building, in the commercial office building, you’re probably going to have to replace it once or twice in the life. So that has a sort of metabolism. The systems, mechanical systems, three or four times, lighting and all of that. What they call the scenery, which is like the internal walls, you start to do space plan changes and all. That material comes in and out over time. And then what they call the setting, or the scenery, the furnishings and all the carpets and all, through the life of a commercial building, over 50 years, they’re flowing through quite readily.
So what we’ve said is well let’s disaggregate the building and look at each one of those layers from the Cradle to Cradle standpoint and ask different questions about the defined use periods, the performance attributes that we want for each one of those.
So our take on Cradle to Cradle is that, in Cradle to Cradle for architecture is that it’s almost something that we can describe in words, and we can take the first steps towards and articulate it. And we’re trying to build generationally, each generation grow more and more Cradle to Cradle products, more and more understanding of Cradle to Cradle approaches. So the tools that we develop are really ways for us to say how on any one project can we leverage our efforts and create the greatest impact around what the owner wants and what Cradle to Cradle can provide?
And so an example is that we were co-designers for a hospital project in San Francisco, for UC- San Francisco. And we also were lead in sustainability there. And they wanted to think about what would a sustainable hospital look like in 2015, because that’s how long it will take for this thing to … so you kind of have to hedge your bets and say this is where it’s headed. And so we said well it could be informed by Cradle to Cradle thinking. And looking at something as complex as a hospital, we thought we can’t do everything on it from a Cradle to Cradle standpoint. But if we were to look at places where we could have the greatest impact on healing, it’s the individual patient rooms. So we said: How can we try to optimize the materials in the patient room to be as Cradle to Cradle as possible? And that would have impact both on the patients but also the caregivers.
And so Cradle to Cradle and other attributes that we think are good design that lead to increased health, access to views, and daylight, and those sorts of things, that they’ve found have, are beginning to have evidence that speeds the healing process, we said let’s concentrate our efforts in each of these individual typologies.
VB How would you compare Cradle to Cradle to LEED? That’s the sustainability measurement that everybody hears about. What’s the difference?
Burke: Well I think, first of all, LEED has done an unbelievable job in market transformation. If you look at it, it’s basically within, it was founded and actually some of the first meetings were here at U.Va. when Bill was the dean here; he helped convene some of that. So we were present in sort of the founding of LEED.
But I think as LEED has developed, from our standpoint, incredibly positive because of how it has transformed our kids now. So, there is not a project that comes out from a corporate, civic, or institutional client that doesn’t have LEED as a criteria. So that’s phenomenal in itself.
But our concern with LEED is that it kind of gets back to the broad thinking around Cradle to Cradle. Cradle to Cradle is saying being less bad is not good enough. Reduce, reuse, recycle is not going to solve the global challenges. And so there still are vestiges of that way of thinking about sustainability that are sort of at the basis of LEED. That would be our criticism.
But the positive thing about LEED is it has taken on this concept of constant improvement. So, LEED 3.0 already has started to engage some of the issues around it isn’t a one size fits all protocol. It’s becoming more regionally based. It’s becoming more typology based. There are these improvements that are built into it. And we’d like to see 4.0 or 5.0 start to take on attributes of Cradle to Cradle thinking.
They do have a point, the previous version had a point for Cradle to Cradle as an innovation point. If you had a certain percentage of your materials on a cost basis, you could get a LEAD point. We’d love to see it go further.
And so I think LEED, it’s tremendous, but it’s not the end game, I think is how we would put it. Or it can’t afford to be the end game I guess is even the stronger …
VB: My understanding, the term Cradle to Cradle was like first coined back in the ‘70s. So was what they were thinking of then different from what it is now? Has it evolved over the years?
Burke As I understand this, and this would be a good question [McDonough associate] Kira [Gould] could follow up on and, but there’s, I think, a European scientist, Walter Stahel, who had developed it. And I think the basis of it is the notion of instead of cradle to grave, which is the sort of thinking about life of product, that it has that trajectory of end of life, goes to the landfill, that’s where Cradle to Cradle came up. And I think the difference that Bill and Michael gave to it was not just the notion of from the cradle to the cradle, or closing loops, but it was adding the notion of biological and technical nutrient closure, and the safe and healthy side, the sort of chemistry at the molecular level to inform that. So there is a difference. But yes, it’s a term that has a longer life than just where Bill and Michael started.
VB: In doing some research on this, one of the criticisms I’ve seen is that some people think going to a bigger scale is just impossible Cradle to Cradle. What is your response to that?
Burke: Well, I think it’s kind of the same take we have with the buildings. At one level, we know enough about green buildings or just buildings in general to know that it’s an incredibly complex assignment to say that you’re going to achieve Cradle to Cradle out of the box. We can’t declare victory right now. But by the same token, the interesting thing about this whole approach, and I think what’s necessary in this approach is that we can define what the end game looks like. We can define where we need to get, and that’s going to be essential. We can’t afford to continue to make things and create buildings and cities in the same way. We literally, we’re going to run out of resources. We’re going to run out of space.
So we have to think of things that we design, which is sort of the basis of Cradle to Cradle, the things that we design can have positive, beneficial impacts.
So is that achievable? Probably not, fully formed out of the box, no. But if somebody would have said to you 40 years ago, you can’t smoke in a café in Paris, or 45-50 years ago that East and West Germany would be rejoined, or the Soviet Union would not exist anymore, transformations occur, and they occur exponentially and in some ways the whole tipping point argument, unexpectedly.
And I think the key is that, and this is where Bill really places his emphasis, it’s sort of beyond the architectural realms that he’s working in, is that there’s a commercial aspect to that. It’s not just ask businesses to do the right thing, being benevolent. By doing something that has a commercial value and creates these benefits, you get a sort of triple top-line win instead of creating profit but still leading to environmental degradation.
So I think it’s, the engine of this, and I think we can hope, and I think there will be a component where people say, “We need to transform how we live,” because of the environmental impacts that we’re seeing very readily. But I think the engine that’s going to spur it on even quicker is the commercial engine.
VB: That sort of leads to my next question. Do you see a tipping point as far as the acceptance of sustainability in architecture, in the business community? Now we talked about how LEED has seemed to catch on. Do you think it can go farther?
Burke: Yes. I think the tipping point has really happened, at least in the architectural realm. It’s phenomenal when you go, and I’ll just the metric of the AIA convention. If you were to look at the agenda for the AIA convention from 10 years ago, you might see a couple of green conference elements. If you look at it now, the entire theme, 75-80 percent of what’s being talked about is around sustainability. So that’s one indicator. The other is around, as I mentioned, just city, states, governments, federal government, the criteria are being known, and they’re being laid out there as a set of criteria. So I think that’s sort of happening.
So I think we’re at a tipping point within the professions. I think the sort of general public is also starting to … you can see that as well. The great Super Bowl commercial, the Audi commercial about … I don’t know if you saw it … it was the sort of green police that was catching everybody. And you can actually poke fun at it. I think it sort of reached a point of prominence.
But the question of how, what’s the sort of meta tipping point towards this, the Cradle to Cradle view, I think to me that’s what’s so exciting about places like the Netherlands. It’s a small enough, coherent enough country that it’s … Petri dish is too small … but in some ways it’s a test bed. And we’re working with the city of Amsterdam on some projects that are starting to look at how you could use Cradle to Cradle as an assessment of what they’ve done in the past and an informant of how to design cities on a larger scale in the future.
So I think that to me, if we can get to some successes there, we’ll see things spread.
VB: The reason you’re in Charlottesville is Mr. McDonough was the dean at U.Va.?
VB: Now you’re doing business in California and Amsterdam. I looked in your portfolio; I didn’t see a lot of things in Virginia. Does Charlottesville still make sense?
VB: Great question, and there’s a little bit of background to that. One thing is, I think the main reason we’re here is that we all love living here. It’s just a great town to live in. And a lot of us came here with young kids and bought houses. My wife and I built a house, designed and built a house. So we put our roots down, and so that’s a part of it. We kind of got into a positing of not doing local work in part it was when Bill was dean and just he was the dean here, he was going out in the world, and he really wanted a place to return to without being in the local news, to put it as simply as possible. And so that has kind of stayed with us. But we actually do have a couple of potential local assignments that we’re looking into. We’re rethinking that a little bit.
But I guess part of the type of practice we are, we made a commitment … in a funny way, we made a commitment to stay small, but then we also said we’re going to grow … our growth will happen remotely. We’ve got the central core here. And I think that’s something that we’ve just hung onto.
I think it comes with its pros and cons. Ultimately, a practice like ours, you would expect it to be in the Washington-Boston corridor somewhere or in San Francisco. So that’s the one thing. And we miss out … hiring can be a little trickier here. There’s a great wealth of architects in town, and certainly the school is a great resource. But people with experience on working at the scale of projects and the pace of projects, it’s not as easy to find here as if you were in a major city so there’s definitely that. Administrative help and just other things that you don’t necessarily find in Charlottesville.
And I think there’s also, which is one of the reasons why we love being local in San Francisco or being local in Amsterdam, those are the places that we have the potential to engage with or compete against these other practices. So we’d like to think of it as a little bit of a best of both worlds.
But there are challenges. The travel can be a drain.
VB: I was going to say, there’s no international airport in Charlottesville.
Burke: Exactly. We noticed. So we either take the shuttle up to Dulles, or drive up.
VB: And how far is that from here?
Burke: Depending on traffic, it’s about an hour and a half, two hours. [we also have] Richmond, so we have a lot of good options is the other thing. You just have that it’s either a short hop or a drive as the first or last leg. But if you can get to Dulles, you can get pretty much anywhere. So it’s not that bad.
VB: What sort of work have you been doing in Virginia?
Burke: We have residential projects actually. One that we’ve executed, I guess it has been about 10 years, 10 or 11 years, and another couple are in the offing potentially. And perhaps some work with the university.
VB: If you were to kind of pick a building that you would say, of the projects you all have done, that kind of epitomizes what you’re trying to do, what would it be?
Burke: I think it’s the Barcelona project that I showed you, the tower, the Ferrer Tower. I’ll say that and then I’ll give you an alternate. But I think one of the reasons why I think everybody in the office is really excited about that is as a practice, it has taken a tremendous amount of our energy and resources to look at how to embody this philosophy. And so you can see the early vestiges of that in the Gap, when we were talking about the atrium, the delivery of the air and the light, and how to integrate all of these systems.
And so for the last 15 years or so, we’ve been cutting our teeth on and really working on those challenges of integrated design around this philosophy.
And now what we’re finding is a lot of that is starting to become second nature. A lot of those things we’ve internalized we’ve gotten quicker at. We just know it more intimately. So we can really start to focus on the expression. And I think that’s the exciting part for us is that. And I think the difference for us, and this is not to speak badly of other designers, but other designers that look at form and form making have other considerations in mind. They might be just straight sculptural. Is it beautiful? It might be sort of this whole philosophy of making a form like a Frank Gehry thing. ..What we’re looking for is form making that’s driven up out of these forces, out of these things that we find in a particular place.
So the Barcelona building is really, if we put that in Paris, we would have to tweak it. It just wouldn’t be the … it’s not a one size fits all solution. And a lot of the informants are starting to in terms of performance are also starting to drive the form making, so that’s really exciting for us.
VB: Just so I have it on the tape, describe a little bit about the Barcelona project.
Burke: It’s a 15-story laboratory building from a pharmaceutical company in Barcelona. And it’s located just on the outskirts of the city on the freeway as you drive the main freeway approach as you drive from the airport. And it’s located in a portion that’s taking on a tremendous amount of new growth and some real interesting modern architecture is starting to be developed there. And our project is across the freeway literally from a hotel designed by Richard Rogers. So you kind of think of our building and this really interesting hotel forming a type of gateway into the city. And when I just landed at their new airport, got off my plane and was walking down the glass connector, and I looked over and I saw all of our neighbors are right there, very prominently, and I could see right where our project was going to go. And it was like this is really going to have a significant place here.
So it’s a great site. And really a site where the hope for the owner and for the city was to be something that would be iconic in a way. And so as a laboratory building, one of the challenges is the lab functionality is very prescribed in terms of air quality and light, all of these sort of prescriptive performance-based attributes. And they were very interested in creating a floor plan that would be smaller than typical, and would be made up of two laboratory components so they could have teams that would have their lab space and their attendant offices and sort of organize that way.
And we were very interested then in creating a compelling space in between where people would come together and this notion of creation of community. And that’s where a lot of, in the end, what we found is that’s where a lot of the invention actually takes place is around the water cooler.
So that’s the basis of the design. We can introduce very controlled day lighting and optimized day lighting of the lab and solve for that. We couldn’t introduce natural ventilation in there. We can do this in this connected space. So we have a 15-story open from the bottom to the top atrium space that runs the full height of the building. And there are bridges that connect the two sides and then landings where people gather all up and down the building. And to the South side, it has horizontal shading devices that shade the sun, but operable windows that will open and close. So basically in that climate, for much of the year, if you’re in shade, you’re going to be comfortable. And you can feel air moving, because it’s a Mediterranean, beautiful climate.
And so that space will have that attribute of being shaded, primarily naturally ventilated, and with a backlit view to the city basically. So you can see where the Olympics were held. You can see the skyline of the city and also the adjacent mountains. So, just a spectacular view.
So again, I think it’s just this quality of a building … I guess we’re looking at sort of getting to optimizing what the owner objectives are and how we can give a building … create a place that represents and celebrates their community, their culture, and their business, and match that to sort of the local forces.
And then we’re really pushing how far can we take this in terms of Cradle to Cradle. So it’s very exciting because all of these images that I showed you out in the studio, very early on we were working with a Spanish company that is looking at developing all of the details, and they’ve really committed their practice to going towards Cradle to Cradle. So they’re energized by this because it’s an early opportunity for them to employ that.
VB: My last question. You were saying you can’t take a building like this and put it in Paris. Does this mean that every building will be completely distinctive? If this philosophy is carried through, all buildings will be unique, all buildings will be distinctive at least in their own region. You won’t find Colonial or modern or Bauhaus classes or schools of architecture.
Burke: I think that in general ideally buildings would be rooted to their place and their climate, and there would be a responsiveness. I think with globalization, with the way that economies work, you will find the need for commonalities of approaches, and efficiencies that are found are going to have an influence. So I think, in some ways it will a sort of combination. But for buildings to approach the type of performance that they need to approach to go towards zero carbon and positive energy production, I think we’re going to see that the localness, the regional design has to have a greater impact than perhaps it does right now. And for us, that’s an expressive opportunity.
So other componentry though, I think you’ll see there may be types of responses, great ideas around structural systems that can be easily exported. And that could be something that’s more ubiquitous. It’s not going to be either/or. I think it’s going to be taking the best of what’s global and what’s available and what’s imminently local.
But materialization, all things being equal, the more that you can find locally, the better, reducing the cost of the transport.
VB Well thanks. I’ll open this up. Is there something we did not cover that you wanted to talk about?
Burke: The only thing I might say is just around sustainability base here, the project for NASA. That’s a project, this would be sort of 1-B, I guess, of projects we love. I mean we love all our projects, but this is exciting. The Ferrer project is exciting because we’re right in the midst of design. This one is exciting because now it’s under construction. And this is also out in California, and so in a way, what was neat about this project is that it summarized a lot, 15 years of working in that region across a wide range of office typologies to get an opportunity to design a 50,000-square foot building for NASA was a great opportunity.
And they actually approached us because they had heard, the director of the NASA Ames Research Center, had heard Bill McDonough speak at a speaking opportunity in Houston at their command center there. And he was developing an office building on a different site with the same aspirations, but he was concerned that the design that had been developed wasn’t reaching high enough. And he actually put the project on hold, and he didn’t know what he was going to do. And time was ticking, because he wasn’t going to get his funding if he didn’t deliver in time.
He heard Bill speak about this Cradle to Cradle approach and just the aspirational approach of how to really push in performance. And he said, “I want to get those guys engaged.” And part of the buzz was that, the realization was that NASA, the engineer and the missions and all, Cradle to Cradle was almost, they don’t call it that, but they’ve had to think in those terms from the very beginning. And NASA, they’re the ones that developed the fuel cell, alternative waste water systems, all of those things because they have to.
And so Bill presented a thought piece to them, and said, “What if we design this building as if NASA landed back on Earth and looked around and said, ‘How can we become native here?’” So where are we going to get our energy? Well, let’s do it from the sun. Where are we going to get cooling? Let’s get it from the earth. How are we going to deal with our water? Well, let’s recycle it for safe uses. This kind of how can we take NASA’s thinking and apply it to Planet Earth in a simple way.
And so that’s where they come with this notion of sustainability base, kind of ground zero thinking about sustainability.
And so what I mentioned to you during the tour, for us, again that notion of how can any one element serve a multitude of uses? And to optimize that issue of energy use, the first thing that we want to do is just cut down the solar gain, reduce the loads on the building. So we want to shade the building. So we created this kind of porch structure that provides all the shading. But the other thing that we did, was we moved the structural systems, the outboard of the building, and created column-free space. So you get 50-foot spans, and over time they can lay out the spaces however they want. They can put in closed offices, open offices. It’s all free. So for us, that’s a very useful thing.
And by moving the structure to the outside and providing these braces, that’s the seismic stiffening for the building. So the seismic brace becomes the armature for the shading, that can then take on future photovoltaics to produce energy. So that became sort of the driving element behind the building and informed the design of it.
And then what we did in that period of design was look intensive energy modeling where we could optimize the orientation of the building, East-West, slightly to the Southeast, which is optimal, but prevailing breezes literally run in this direction. During the day, they come from the bay and at night they reverse. We optimize the daylight penetration so you don’t need to use much artificial lighting, maybe a little bit for task lighting. And then you can run the building most of the time on natural ventilation.
And so that became sort of the immediate optimization. And some of it was just the serendipity of that site was just perfectly oriented. And it happens to be right off … this is the gate for the NASA Ames entry into their facility. So it’s basically their front door.
So for us, it’s a really simple design around a lot of our principles of usefulness and flexibility and adaptability. And one thing serves many purposes.
The other exciting thing is that I think you’re talking about what the trends in the industry and what’s next and what we might be seeing. And what we see as a need is to get more data off of building designs. And even our own projects. The project at Oberlin College has a tremendous amount of data on performance. But projects like for the Gap and Nike and otherwise, the companies, it was enough to get them to try to build the green building, but they weren’t thinking about how they operated in different ways, get data to optimize operation.
In this case, NASA is going to be looking at not just getting an immense amount of data off of performance, but developing software systems and protocols to optimize the operations and using some of the, actually the engineers and the thinking that has worked at optimizing some of their control centers and how that can lead to sort of adaptive controls of these various spaces. So in a way, it’s going to be a building that anticipates weather, anticipates use, looks at patterns of uses of different spaces and suggests how the settings could be tweaked to optimize performance.
So for us, that’s probably the most exciting part, that we’ve created a type of platform, and now NASA can use this as a test bed, and they can swap in systems, different panels to test different performance. They can look at the operation of that wing versus that wing run in different ways. One might be on radiant cooling. One might be on natural ventilation and just test over time which is more effective. So it’s a lab building, a sort of prototype laboratory.
VB: OK. Well thank you very much.
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