The NASA Sustainability Base - The Future for Sustainable Buildings

By Louise Bilham, March 17th 2015

The NASA Sustainability Base is one of the most sustainable federal buildings ever constructed. The building has extremely intelligent technology that learns from itself and significantly reduces energy consumption as well as keeping water consumption down to the bare minimum. It also has an abundance of natural daylight, fresh air and is decorated with materials that are beneficial to its employees and visitors health.

In 2012 the NASA Sustainability Base was awarded LEED Platinum certification. LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design is a rating system developed by the US Green Building Council where buildings are assessed via the following criteria:

- Energy and atmosphere

- Water efficiency

- Materials and resources

- Indoor environmental quality

- Sustainable sites

- Innovation in design

There are four levels of LEED certification which are; Certified, Silver, Gold and Platinum, with Platinum being the highest. At a minimum, buildings in California are required to be certified LEED Silver. The fact that The NASA Sustainability Base has been certified with LEED Platinum is a great achievement, but how exactly have they achieved this?

How it all Began   

In 2008, Steve Zornetzer, Associate Center Director of NASA Ames Research Center visited the Johnson Space Center in Houston to hear a presentation by the architect William McDonagh of William McDonagh and Partners. The Leadership at NASA were interested in William McDonagh’s theories about healthy building materials in hopes that they could use them in a potential Mars mission. However, William McDonagh was soon able to bring those ideas back down to earth;

“I asked NASA, would you mind if we work on coming back to Earth first, before we go to Mars? What if I design a space station on earth?” – William McDonagh

In April 2012 The NASA Sustainability Base was complete.

“Working closely with Bill McDonagh and his team was inspirational and extremely beneficial. The collaborative process yielded a highly sustainable and beautiful design optimized for building performance and representative of our values ...I see this as a prototype of a 21st century building. This is the way we’re going to have to think about building in the future”-Steve Zornetzer, Associate Director, NASA Ames Research Center.   

The elements that make up this innovative design are listed below.


The Building Structure

The NASA Sustainability Base is a 50,000 square foot building located at NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field in California. It is designed to be ‘native to place’, with all elements of the building designed for its own unique environment. It is designed to have maximum airflow and sunlight based on the sun’s arc across Moffett Field, also taking into consideration the areas specific wind patterns.

The building has an exoskeleton which means its supports are on the outside of the building instead of the inside like most other buildings. This creates a spacious uninterrupted interior space for a smooth flow of fresh air and daylight throughout the building. It also has a steel rather than a concrete structure meaning that it can be easily dismantled and repaired. The exterior of the building has aluminium shades which stops the building from getting too hot and reduces glare.

The building has floor to ceiling windows which allows for a lot of natural light as well as supplying a constant flow of fresh air. Second floor skylights also provide additional natural light meaning that artificial lighting is only required in the building for approximately forty days out of each year.

As well as providing natural ventilation the windows are controlled by computers which programme them to flush the building with cool air every night. The buildings narrow width also allows daylight to reach the desks in the middle of each floor.

The NASA Sustainability Base also has outside workspaces with natural shading and views of nature.

Even though the initial cost of constructing a building as sustainable as this one is higher than other buildings, over time it will be more cost effective as the energy bills and maintenance costs are lower.


Sensor Technology

The smart technology in the building has the ability to anticipate and react to changes in sunlight and temperature creating a comfortable environment without using any unnecessary energy.

The heating and cooling systems, lighting and employee calendars are all hooked up to a central computer system which is designed to optimize building performance by creating a comfortable working environment that minimises energy usage and also learns from itself. The computer system will set a target which will be checked during the meeting and if it failed to meet this target it will be adjusted for next time.

There is a large LCD display in the lobby which shows NASA Ames Employees and visitors exactly how much energy the building is using and where that energy comes from. The employees also have their own personal dashboard which says how much energy they are using together with energy conservation methods.

Solar Power and Fuel cell

The NASA Sustainability Base creates more power than it needs with the majority of the energy needed to power the building generated on site via a fuel cell, a wind energy turbine and photovoltaic panels on and surrounding the building.  The solar power creates 30 percent of the buildings electricity and solar thermal panels also provide domestic hot water.

Recycled Water

The sites uses low flush plumbing fixtures as well as a Forward Osmosis Water Recycling System, which is a dual plumbing system designed for a space station which cleans the grey water that comes from the sinks and showers and recycles it to flush the toilets and urinals. The site uses just ten percent of the potable water used by an average building of its size.

Recycled Materials

The materials used in the building are locally sourced. The interior of the building is also made from non toxic and recycled materials, such as the oak planks from an old NASA wind tunnel which now line the second floor lobby.

Any materials that are used in the sustainability base will be recycled when they are no longer needed.


The sustainability base uses plants, flowers and trees that are ‘native to place’ so the majority are drought tolerant with seventy-five percent of the plants requiring very little water.

The grass used on the site is from a hybrid hydro seed blend that requires very little maintenance and the little water that is used is non potable recycled groundwater.


The NASA Sustainability Base is not only a showcase for NASA technology but is also a symbol of their dedication and commitment to advancing technology that can be used to reduce the impact of the challenges that the earth faces in terms of climate change.

“This recognition of our accomplishments attests to the fact that NASA is a model of sustainability,” - NASA Ames Associate Center Director for Research Steven Zornetzer


Recommended further reading;

NASA Sustainability Base website

Overview of the NASA Sustainability Base

NASA Sustainability Base Awarded LEED Platinum

William McDonagh and Partners and overview

William McDonagh and Partners

Overview of technology


Photography by Bruce Naegel

Keywords: Green Design, Sustainable Building, LEED, Renewable Energy, NASA, Recycling, Sustainable Energy Solutions, Solar, Wind Energy, Water Efficiency