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Algae Powers Process Zero Concept Building

Algae Powers Process Zero Concept Building

Architects and engineers from HOK / Vanderweil showcased their creativity and sustainable design expertise with a winning net zero building retrofit design in Metropolis magazine’s Next Generation Design Competition 2011.

Young designers were challenged to develop net zero energy solutions for a 46-year-old federal office building in downtown Los Angeles. In alignment with President Barack Obama’s mandate that federal agencies lower their greenhouse gas emissions, the building’s owner, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), has a goal of reducing building emissions 30 percent by 2020.


HOK / Vanderweil’s “Process Zero: Retrofit Resolution,” a retrofit design process, reduces the building’s overall energy demand by 84 percent and generates the remaining 16 percent on-site. The design uses proven energy conservation and renewal strategies, including atria and light wells that bring daylight into workspaces, integrated louvers for natural ventilation, a new facade with 35,000 square feet of photovoltaic film, 30,000 square feet of rooftop solar collectors that circulate water through floors to help with climate control, and office equipment operated by a cloud computing system.

The design team’s breakthrough idea, believed to be an architectural first, uses energy-producing microalgae to help power the building. The biomimetic-inspired design proposes a 25,000-square-foot microalgae bioreactor system that generates 9 percent of the renovated federal building’s power supply. A modular system of algae tubes wraps the building and absorbs the sun’s radiation to produce lipids for fuel production on-site, simultaneously shading interior office spaces. This photobioreactor transforms the building into a living entity.

“What is particularly remarkable about this solution was how a large, interdisciplinary team collaborated on a comprehensive plan that not only achieves net zero, but also deploys its design and technical solutions in a humanistic and contextually integrated way.”

Susan S. Szenasy, Metropolis Editor-in-Chief

GSA Chief Architect Leslie Shepherd said he and other jurors were impressed by “the sophistication of the winning entry, and of the many other inventive submissions. With appropriate testing and validation, certain Next Generation strategies could be replicated across a wider swath of our Great Society-era buildings.”


The HOK / Vanderweil team will reinvest its $10,000 prize as seed money for further research and development of its proposed renewable energy technologies. “Our solution suggests that designers, energy researchers and manufacturers partner to develop high-performance, aesthetically appealing building technology,” said Quinn.

Inspiration for this building retrofit came from nature. The bio-inspired design aligns with HOK’s move to use sustainable systems thinking. In 2008, this strategy led to a formal alliance with Janine Benyus and Biomimicry 3.8, a bio-inspired innovation company. The two organizations have collaborated to develop a new planning and design methodology called Fully Integrated Thinking. This (FIT™) tool is rooted in life’s principles and draws from nature’s proven design solutions.