A look inside NASA’s net-positive building

March 28, 2016

Although best known for exploring the heavens, NASA has proven time and time again that its capacity for innovation has the potential to also transform life here at home. From LEDs and memory foam to improved firefighter gear and prosthetic limb technology, countless products developed for NASA's space programs have eventually become staples of domestic life on Earth. Now, in a building at its Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, the agency that took us to the Moon is experimenting with the next generation of energy-saving technology.

Built with the vision of becoming "the greenest building in the federal government," the aptly-named Sustainability Base was designed to minimize energy consumption and waste while maximizing recycling and reuse. The result? A building that achieves "net positive" status, meaning it generates more energy than it consumes.

Built with the vision of becoming "the greenest building in the federal government," Sustainability Base minimizes energy consumption and waste while maximizing recycling and reuse.

To reach such an impressive level of efficiency, Sustainability Base is packed full of space-age innovations. The building is framed by a steel skeleton that, in addition to protecting the structure from earthquake damage, allows in breezes that can cool the building on warm days. At night, rooftop air handlers bring in cool air, which is then stored in subfloor spaces until it is needed for ventilation and humidity control during daytime hours. When a fresh air isn't enough, Sustainability Base relies on a passive cooling system instead of traditional air conditioning, using cool water running through small tubes below the ceiling to lower temperatures.

The steel frame also lets in sunlight, meaning that, for most of the year, the building requires little to no artificial light. Atop the roof sit solar panels, which provide electricity along with a fuel cell, an electricity generator NASA frequently uses in spacecraft. The solid oxide fuel cell produces energy by chemical reaction with steam and air, rather than combustion, reducing CO2 greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent, according to NASA.

What's more, Sustainability Base is even equipped with a purification system that allows it to reuse water from toilets. "Instead of flushing it down the sewer system, we collect that water from the building, we clean it up, and we put it back into the building to flush toilets and flush urinals," Zornetzer said in an interview with NPR.

Just as NASA engineers pack space shuttles full of new tools destined never to find their way into civilian life, it is unlikely that tomorrow's buildings will include all of Sustainability Base's green tech. Like the shuttle, however, the building pushes us to consider just how far we can go with the technology at our disposal.