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Algae Powers Design of Net Zero Energy Building Retrofit

Process Zero Concept Building
Los Angeles, California, USA

“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
Editor-in-Chief, Metropolis Magazine

A team of architects and engineers from HOK and Vanderweil collaborated to design the winning net zero building retrofit submission for Metropolis Magazine’s Next Generation® Design Competition.

Young designers were challenged to develop net zero energy solutions for a 46-year-old federal office building in downtown Los Angeles. The building’s owner, the U.S. General Services Administration, has a goal of reducing building emissions 30 percent by 2020.

“Process Zero: Retrofit Resolution,” the HOK/Vanderweil team’s retrofit design process, reduces the building’s overall energy demand by 84 percent while generating the remaining 16 percent on-site. The design uses proven energy conservation and renewal strategies, including 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.

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.”


760,000 sq. ft. / 70,600 sq. m.


Interior Design


International Algae Competition – First Place in Algae Landscape Design Track

Katerva Awards – Finalist for Best Sustainability Idea of the Year

Metropolis magazine / US General Services Administration – Next Generation Design Competition Winner


Reduction of the building’s overall energy demand


Building power generated by the proposed microalgae bioreactor system