Government Buildings

NASA's Out of this World Green Building

November 2, 2010
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All images: Courtesy LPA Inc./Costea Photography

Saying the newest building on the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's campus is “out of this world” may not be completely accurate, but considering what goes on inside the 190,000-square-foot Flight Projects Center, it’s headed in the right direction.

The $70 million, six-story facility is used to house the design and development phases of NASA’s space missions, providing engineers and scientists from various countries a place to work and think while planning decades-long missions throughout our solar system. It is also the first completed NASA facility to be certified Gold by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system, as established by the U.S. Green Building Council.

“I'm particularly proud of this building because we're at the leading edge in NASA, and in the country, to some extent, of showing that green buildings can allow us to do our jobs better, and at the same time, reduce our carbon footprint,” said JPL director Dr. Charles Elachi. “That really makes us proud. JPL, in addition to being on the leading edge of space exploration, is on the leading edge of green building as well.”

NASA now requires that all new buildings be at least LEED Silver. Initially the Flight Projects Center was budgeted to be just that, but the designers at California-based LPA Inc. managed to achieve a gold ranking without spending any extra money. Additionally, demand-reducing features at the Flight Projects Center will earn JPL about $100,000 in up-front rebates from both Southern California Edison and Pasadena Water & Power.

“It’s a great demonstration for all of the federal agencies on how sustainability doesn’t have to add cost,” says LPA president Dan Heinfeld. “It’s really about adding value, and value that’s measurable to the bottom line.”

LPA architect Keith Hempel said one of the reasons the Flight Projects Center was able to achieve LEED Gold was a focus on maximizing green efforts, literally from the ground up.

“The sustainable design of the project started without any high-tech systems or new technologies. It was about being smart with the envelope and responding to the solar orientation of the building,” explains Hempel. “When you see the project, what you’ll find is the east and west sides of the building are very solid. That’s because low sun angles are difficult to protect against, so we want to minimize openings. This freed us up to open up the north and south to a lot more glass. That’s what you see what when you walk around the building, it’s a four-sided approach to the architecture.

The Flight Projects Center will also reduce its environmental footprint in both low-tech and high-tech ways, by planting drought tolerant, native plants and landscapes that consume 72 percent less water and installing “smart ventilation” systems that regulate airflow via carbon dioxide sensors that calculate the number of people in a room.

Maximizing use of natural daylight when the sun’s up and advanced lighting controls at night helps the facility perform 25 percent more efficiently than the typical California office building. Low-flow faucets and toilets will reduce water use by more than 44 percent compared with typical fixtures, saving an estimated 500,000 gallons of water every year. Onsite showers and bike racks encourage employees to leave their cars at home, and bike or walk to work.

Wood used in construction was acquired from Forest Stewardship Council certified suppliers, ensuring sustainable harvesting of trees. Additionally, more than 93 percent of the waste generated during construction was diverted from a landfill to a local recycling facility.

Money saved in other areas of the building’s construction were used for the Flight Projects Center’s auditorium, making it the project’s flagship of sustainable design complete with a green roof and displacement ventilation system. The vegetative roof helps keep the building cool in the summer and warm in the winter. It also helps minimize storm water runoff into the Arroyo Seco, a dry riverbed near JPL.

“The green roof is a great technology, not only from an aesthetic use, but it allows us to insulate the auditorium and make it more energy efficient. It also allows us to slow down storm water runoff,” continues Hempel. “It’s a very sloped site, so we want to slow down water runoff as much as possible, and it’s very effective for that. The plants shade the roof of the auditorium, so that increases the energy efficiency of the strategy.”

Beneath the auditorium’s terraced seating, ducts quietly carry conditioned air and deliver it to the 400-seat space to be used for media events, symposiums and large project team design meetings. This method of delivering air at the floor level with return air openings in the ceiling, called "thermal displacement ventilation," is more efficient and quieter than traditional HVAC systems.

Since the air arrives at the level of the room’s occupants, it is distributed at a lower velocity and at a warmer temperature than a conventional system, which supplies colder air from the ceiling and then forces it down. Also, as the conditioned air enters at the auditorium at floor level, it is heated by equipment, lighting and people causing it to rise naturally and displace the air in the room. As the warmer room air rises to the ceiling, it is collected by return air grilles. The resulting air flow carries heat and contaminants away from the occupants with much less air mixing than conventional ceiling based systems, improving the overall indoor air quality.

“Clearly, being a green building is one of the most important features. In addition to that, we were able to have a building which is very effective and efficient for the purpose of the people working in it,” finishes JPL director Dr. Charles Elachi. “This shows that by being a green building we don’t have to compromise the functionality of the building. And that way we both have a win-win situation. It’s highly functional for our purpose and at the same time, it has a low carbon footprint.”  

For more information, visit or The JPL project team included Swinerton Builders and Vanir Construction Management Inc.    

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