In the United States, buildings account for nearly 40 percent of carbon emissions mostly due to the energy required to heat, cool, and illuminate them. But the “Unisphere”—a new office building on the biotech company United Therapeutics’s Silver Spring, Maryland, campus—stands apart.
Thanks to a number of low- and high-tech design details, the 210,000-square-foot space has achieved net-zero status; it creates as much, if not more, energy than it consumes.
Instead of letting the building’s climate-change-busting systems work silently and invisibly in the background, United Therapeutics decided to turn the structure into an interpretive experience. The building announces to its occupants how much energy it makes and uses to help people understand and conserve resources. These visualizations, created by the experience design agency HUSH, include a sundial-like “energy dial” sculpture, interactive digital screens throughout the building, and light animations.
The architecture and engineering firm EwingCole fitted the building with over 3,000 solar panels; built a quarter-mile-long concrete “maze” under the structure to use the earth’s thermal mass to cool air for ventilation; drilled 52,500-foot-deep geo-exchange wells to store energy; installed electrochromic glass windows that automatically darken based on the intensity and direction of the sun (think of them as transitions lenses for architecture); and incorporated natural daylighting systems.
“While the building runs virtually autonomously because of its complex technological systems, sensors, monitoring and operational tools, it still exists in a beautiful—and delicate—balance with its inhabitants,” says David Schwarz, a partner at HUSH.
“The human factor—the choices people make in regards to their own electrical usage, systems of heating and cooling, and behaviors, etc.—have an impact on the building’s ability to achieve net-zero energy goals. People are in harmony with the building, and awareness and understanding is the best means of encouraging that balance.”
The building’s control system feeds data to the energy dial, which has 40-foot-long rays that lengthen and contract depending on energy consumption. HUSH also programmed the sculpture to pulsate during solar noon, or when the sun is at its peak intensity during the day. A touchscreen near the sculpture goes into greater detail about how much energy each of the building’s systems is producing or consuming.
Through the artwork and installations, HUSH intends to “engender a kind of empathy between inhabitant and building,” Schwarz says. The walls of the Unisphere talk and they’re making net-zero architecture feel exciting.
See the installations in action below: