The American Geophysical Union (AGU), a nonprofit professional scientific organization whose members come from different fields of Earth and space sciences, has a guiding philosophy grounded in a single notion: “science for the benefit of humanity.” So when the systems inside its aging Washington, D.C. headquarters began to crumble, AGU officials had a decision to make. They could fix the failing systems in the nearly 25-year-old building — and leave the rest of the structure intact — or take the whole thing down to its studs and start over. Seeing the opportunity to design an entirely new “green” workplace, they opted for the latter.

“When it became clear that the building systems were reaching the end of their useful life, we knew we had to make a choice. We could either renovate to replace the systems and keep the building as is, or we could challenge ourselves to live out AGU’s mission,” said Janice LaChance, AGU’s executive vice president for strategic and operational excellence. “Given our 100 year history — AGU’s Centennial takes place next year — and our members’ background advancing Earth and space sciences, AGU was a logical choice to take on this unique challenge and help others learn from our experience.”

An aerial view of the building that showcases its solar array. Source: AGU

Commercial and residential buildings generate a tremendous amount of global energy and greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change, accounting for nearly 40 percent of the U.S. carbon pollution, according to the U.S. Green Building Council, which issues Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEES) certifications to energy-efficient buildings. LEED certified buildings are responsible for 34 percent less carbon pollution, according to the council. And LEED buildings are catching on — according to a 2016 report, the number of green buildings worldwide doubles every three years.

With that in mind, AGU’s building — once finished — will be net zero energy, meaning it will produce as much energy as it consumes, all of it from renewable sources. The $41.7 million project has brought together dozens of technologies to meet this goal, “some of which had never been attempted in the United States,” LaChance said.

For example, “our building will be the first in North America to use a municipal sewer heat exchange system,” which will recover thermal energy from wastewater below the street, LaChance said, adding, “We worked with D.C. Water to tap into the sewer system, and they have now committed to become the second in North America to use a municipal sewer heat exchange by installing a system in their own new headquarters building.”

Delivery of the municipal sewer heat exchange system. Source: AGU

AGU has long pressed for urgent action on climate change. “One concrete step that we could take, in line with our position and mission, was look for ways to reduce our own greenhouse gas emissions,” LaChance said.

AGU’s 62,000-square-foot headquarters near Dupont Circle is believed to be the first commercial building in Washington to be turned into a net zero facility. “When we undertook this project, we wanted to make sure we did it in a replicable way and that it could serve as a model for other organizations looking to incorporate sustainable building practices and technologies,” LaChance said.

Among other things, the building will feature rooftop solar panels and a “green wall,” a wall of plants that will filter air from the building through their roots, then recirculates that air back into the office, cutting power consumption and improving air quality.

A rendering of the green wall and a conference room on a main staff floor. Source: AGU

The building also will have a cistern to collect rainwater from the roof and condensate water from an outdoor air system. The cistern will supply all the water needed by the building’s low-flow toilets. The building also will use a direct current electrified grid — saving the energy it takes to convert direct current to alternating current and back again — as well energy-efficient LED lighting. Finally, the building will feature advanced insulation and triple-pane windows that turn dark when the sun is shining, helping to keep the office cool.

“We’re in the final stages of construction: our solar PV array is going in and we’re finishing the interior spaces and hooking up the systems,” LaChance said. “This means the project team is doing things like putting in our terrazzo, which is made from recycled materials from the old window glass and crushed porcelain toilets from the original building, and finishing our conference rooms.”

LaChance said that their team approached the project’s sustainability from the bottom up. “We considered our footprint across the project — for example, not only did we recycle glass, porcelain and granite, but we found a local tile company to do the crushing and create the terrazzo mix to reduce the transportation needed,” she said. “We carefully removed, cleaned and recycled 5,000 pieces of brick, rather than sourcing new bricks. We donated more than 100 items to D.C. public schools, and we have diverted more than 90 percent of construction waste and materials such as cardboard, drywall, wood, from landfills through recycling.”

Marlene Cimons writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.