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Solar Power Outside Promotes Collaboration Inside MITRE Center - Case Study

Employee collaboration was a central goal for the MITRE Center building -- and its planners started the collaboration with the design process. Owners, builders, architects and vendors worked together to craft a sustainable design. This LEED Silver candidate's "green" elements create a synergy that brings together energy efficiency and comfort. Financial incentive programs worked in unison to support the integration of renewable energy into the building. Photos.

"One of our goals is knowledge sharing and collaboration, that is, bringing the entire company to bear on our clients' problems and questions," explains Ray Leavitt, MITRE Corporation's Director of Facilities Planning and Operations, who managed the design and construction of the new MITRE Center building. "We're spread out over 750,000 square feet in six buildings. The MITRE Center was designed as a focal point of the campus, a place that would bring our 2,500 employees, sponsors and contractors together for formal and informal collaboration."

Architectural glass canopy covers the walkway leading up to the MITRE Center main entrance. The canopy creates solar power, using custom-manufactured photovoltaic modules. (Solar Design Associates photo)

The MITRE Center opened this month as an amenities building in the center of MITRE's hundred-acre corporate campus in Bedford, Massachusetts. Inside are a cafeteria, coffee shop, research library and meeting rooms, plus offices and common areas.

From the street, the MITRE Center is a clearly visible centerpiece, yet shares the understated elegance of the surrounding architecture. Walking into the building from the campus’s main visitor drop-off, it's easy to see how employees and visitors would gravitate toward the Center -- especially on a clear day.

Solar glass canopy sparks curiosity
A visitor's first experience of the MITRE Center is an architectural glass canopy leading up to the main entrance, creating an interesting mosaic of shadows on the semi-circular walkway.

That canopy also creates electricity from the sun, using building-integrated solar modules custom manufactured in Holland (see related article). A companion array of standard solar modules on the roof generates additional power.

The MITRE Corporation has 5,700 scientists, engineers and support specialists with expertise in systems engineering, information technology, operational concepts, and enterprise modernization. MITRE manages Federally Funded Research and Development Centers for the Department of Defense, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the Internal Revenue Service. MITRE also has its own independent research and development program that explores new technologies and new uses of technologies.

The combined solar output supplies a fraction of the building's total power consumption, but interest in the photovoltaics -- especially the canopy's 15 kilowatts of architectural glass panels -- draws people to the Center.

"The roof array generates the majority of the solar power," Leavitt states, "but the canopy is what everyone sees."

Chris Leary of Stubbins Associates, a member of the building's architectural design team, notes the intangible benefits of the solar canopy: "MITRE is a high-technology operation, so the people who work there get excited about cool new technology, especially one that yields efficiency. For visitors, the canopy makes a statement right away about the technology focus at MITRE and their awareness of environmental issues."

Solar Design Associates, the vendor who designed and procured the solar power equipment for MITRE, also installed an informational display inside the building. On the flat-panel screen, visitors can see an interactive explanation of the building's green features, complete with real-time readings of the arrays' power output.

"There's a lot of interest in the canopy by our tech staff," Leavitt says. "We get a lot of questions about how it works, and how much energy it's producing. Our customers are intrigued by it, too. I think there's intrigue in for everyone, not just for technology enthusiasts."

The MITRE Center is a clearly visible centerpiece of the MITRE campus in Bedford, MA. The building is a LEED Silver candidate. (MITRE Corporation photo)

Effective use of daylighting
"Sunlight is a theme throughout the building," Leary explains. "It starts with the glass canopy casting an interesting shadow pattern that animates throughout the day. As a visitor, when you get out of your car at the MITRE Center, your first experience of the campus is this wonderful interplay of shadow and sunlight."

Carefully designed daylighting features carry the sunlight theme inside. The building is carefully oriented to take advantage of natural light. The lobby is bathed in sunlight from large windows that look out onto the attractively landscaped campus.

"We designed tall windows with light shelves to bounce light into the building," Leary continues. "The building has a shallow floor plate, so you're never far from a window. Anywhere you sit, you have a nice view."

"Daylighting is important, not only to the energy efficiency of the building, but to the way the building is received by its users," says Leavitt. "We've gotten rave reviews from employees and customers on this building. Daylighting is always part of their comments."

Energy savings though building automation
Sophisticated lighting controls continually balance natural and artificial light in each space. Light sensors feed data to a central building automation system (BAS), which also monitors the heating, cooling, and ventilation systems.

Large windows bring the sunlight theme into the interior of the MITRE Center and save on artificial lighting. The common areas are a convenient way for employees to connect informally. (Stubbins Associates photo)

The BAS manages these and other systems to achieve substantial energy savings. Just how substantial is yet to be seen -- the building just opened in September 2005 -- but preliminary modeling shows the building's design to be far more energy efficient than an industry-standard baseline established by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE).

"We have a very efficient mechanical system," Leary says. "When we compared it to ASHRAE 90.1, this building was 32.6 percent more efficient than the accepted baseline."

Attention to indoor air quality
Perceived air quality, and a sense of personal control, are important to the comfort and productivity of a building's occupants. The team planned ahead to reduce construction odors. The architects specified low-emitting materials -- carpets, paints, sealants and adhesives. And the builders carefully flushed the building before move-in.


Building-integrated solar modules are architectural glass products that replace standard glazing in commercial buildings. Embedded in the glass are photovoltaic cells, spaced apart to allow light to pass between them. The building's architect selects the shape and color of the embedded cells and the desired spacing.
»Read Building-Integrated Solar Glass in a Nutshell»

Now that the building is occupied, sensors watch for unhealthy CO2 levels, and fresh air is constantly balanced, while the HVAC system maintains comfortable temperatures. But this hands-off automated building doesn't forget who's in charge.

"There's a lot of individual control," Leary explains. "You can open your office window, a feature you don't get in many offices." Some buildings on MITRE's campus have sealed envelopes, the norm in building for many years. Paradoxically, occupants are happier with the air quality in buildings with operable windows, even though it is measurably better without.

Solar canopy energizes design team's dedication
Before the solar glass canopy began its role in drawing employees together, it played an important part as a motivator during the lengthy and tedious design process.

In any project, the finished building doesn't include the team's full wish list of features. Sustainable-design features fall off the list easily: attributes like water conservation are important, but not observable. For the MITRE Center team, the very visible canopy symbolized those behind-the-scenes elements.

Leary elucidates from an architect's perspective: "Finding a feature that sparks the team's passions can be very valuable to the whole project. That's what the solar canopy did -- it was a catalyst for the team's excitement about sustainable design overall."

And it produces electricity. The canopy's solar modules are connected to a series of SMA inverters that turn the rated 15kW of photovoltaic DC into AC power for immediate use in the building. The 9.6kW-rated rooftop array employs standard solar modules, connected to a single Xantrex inverter. The combined system is expected to produce about 15,000 kilowatt-hours per year.

LEED Silver candidate
MITRE is applying for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Silver certification for the MITRE Center. LEED is a relatively new set of guidelines established by the U.S. Green Building Council to promote the use of green technologies in buildings.

Building owners and managers across the country are taking advantage of programs like LEED that support environmentally-friendly building practices. Nearly 2,000 buildings in the U.S. have qualified for an earlier standard, the Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star designation.

LEED goes beyond energy efficiency to provide a rating system for environmental sustainability. Building designs are awarded LEED Certified, Gold, Silver, Bronze, or Platinum status based on points earned for environmentally friendly features. In some cities, LEED certification also wins tax incentives, but in most locations -- including Bedford -- owners follow LEED guidelines for the energy cost savings alone.

The MITRE Center design team started with the goal of achieving LEED Silver, and that target was a helpful guide when it came to making decisions about which features should survive the difficult but necessary choices.

"Whenever we made those tough decisions, we asked ourselves if it would jeopardize the LEED application," Leavitt recalls.

The process of qualifying for LEED certification involves a substantial amount of documentation about the building's environmental qualities, including its energy efficiency. Through the documentation process, the MITRE Center team confirmed that their wish list was on the right track. Leavitt says, "In our case, we found that LEED was less about doing things differently, and more about documenting what we were doing."

Six lessons from the MITRE Center design team
  • Have a culture of environmentally responsible projects
  • Set goals early through workshops with entire team
  • Use a common language to define sustainability
  • Value sustainability features, visible or not
  • Consider new technologies and occupant-friendly features
  • Find a visible feature that will rally and motivate the team

"One of the great things about LEED is that it establishes a common language," says Leary. "With that common language, people can talk about what is sustainable design, using one definition."

Documenting the building's LEED-related qualities helped MITRE qualify for financial incentives from the Massachusetts Technology Center (MTC) and MITRE obtained a US$415,000 grant for renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies. Leary believes the MTC, in reviewing the grant application, looked favorably on LEED certification as a standard measure of those efficiencies.

Open for collaboration
"There's a lot of talk about green design and how hard it is to do from day one," says Leary. "So many things converged for this project -- we had the right team, the MTC grant, some utility rebates, the LEED certification -- we investigated a whole range of sustainable building ideas and incorporated many of them into the building."

"This is my third building here at MITRE, and it's had the best reception yet," Leavitt says pridefully. "Users like the idea of working in an environmentally-friendly building. They feel comfortable knowing that we used sustainable materials."

Other measures, like airing out the building prior to move-in, ensured a clean, safe work environment for the new occupants. Steps like these are documented as part of the LEED application. These, says Leavitt, "are things we've normally done, but just haven't talked about. This time, the user community got more information about what we were doing for them."

Now that the building is open, its features are working to gather employees here. "The daylighting is a huge success," Leavitt declares, "not just in energy efficiency, but also in attracting people into the space. People like a warm, welcoming place. They like the windows looking out onto the lawn. Some things can't be measured in terms of financial payback, but still they have a huge return."

Summarizing how the building is achieving its goal of fostering collaboration, Leavitt says, "The best part is the informal connections. You run into people you wouldn't normally run into, and you exchange information. MITRE Center is designed as a gathering place, and it really works from that perspective. A building is, after all, a tool."