Project in the NewsProject Update

Building AGU: Achieving Sustainability and Leading by Example

By Chris McEntee, AGU Executive Director and CEO

This post was originally published on the Getting to Zero Forum blog. 

As AGU, a global community of 60,000 Earth and space scientists, celebrates its Centennial year, we don’t just reflect on past accomplishments. Instead, we’re also looking to the future to transform and improve our world.

This spirit is what drove AGU’s decision to renovate its headquarters building in Washington, D.C. When AGU’s original building and infrastructure began to show its age, a course of action that aligned with AGU’s science and values was inevitable. The AGU community decided to take advantage of this opportunity to make the building a living representation of the organization’s mission of science for the benefit of humanity. The way to do that was to strive for net zero energy.

As construction continues to wind down, AGU is already seeing the benefit of this decision—not just for staff and the community, but for our neighborhood, the city, and the country. AGU’s building is the first net zero energy commercial renovation in the District, and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser signed historic legislation at AGU’s headquarters, making Washington a leader in shifting to clean energy sources. AGU was also honored this spring with the city’s first Clean Energy D.C. Award.

This notable achievement was made possible by the support AGU received from the city and our project partners, from the local water utility, to our engineers, architects, and policy makers. By focusing on four engineering principles—reduction, reclamation, absorption, and generation—AGU was able to target net zero energy.

For reduction, AGU looked to reuse and recycle as much material as possible during the demolition and renovation stages. Windows, sinks—and yes, even toilets—from the original building didn’t go to waste. Instead, they were crushed up and utilized in the renovated building’s terrazzo flooring. In addition, we are reducing our overall energy demand through the use of efficient systems and equipment, such as installing LED lightbulbs and Energy Star appliances. AGU will also monitor the energy usage of individual workstations to ensure we stay within our energy budget.

AGU also looked at ways to reclaim energy and water. We have a Dedicated Outdoor Air System and a hydroponic phytoremediation, or green, wall to enable us to recover conditioned air for free cooling. Through our rainwater collection and cistern systems, we reclaim water for irrigating the green wall and flushing toilets.

AGU literally broke ground to absorb energy from surrounding resources. Our team thought outside the box and proposed utilizing a municipal sewer heat exchange system to help reduce AGU’s carbon footprint. AGU installed a Huber system, the first of its kind in the United States, to tap into the city’s sewer dating from the late nineteenth century. This sewer heat exchange system extracts material from the sewer, screens the solids, and then pumps the liquid into the building to provide cooling and heating.

Once installed, AGU’s photovoltaic (PV) array will generate electricity to power everything from the building’s LED lights, to computer monitors and workstations. AGU has been able to target net zero energy while located on a tight urban footprint by generating electricity through the installation of more than 700 solar panels. Most panels are to be installed flat on top of the roof canopy and approximately 20 more panels will be vertically mounted on the south wall of the building.

As a trailblazer, AGU faced some challenges during the renovation process. For example, to truly maximize the number of solar panels we could install on the building, we needed to extend the PV array beyond our property line. Fortunately, we worked closely with partners in the D.C. government, and they gave us the right to expand our solar canopy structure over the line.

These are just a few highlights of AGU’s key strategies. More strategies were implemented in AGU’s renovation project. I encourage communities, local leaders, policy makers, and building owners, as well as members of the broader building industry, to support and embrace these strategies. Even if they each undertake just one key strategy that AGU has employed, those combined efforts can have a huge impact on creating a more sustainable future for us all.