Inside Sustainability Base: NASA’s Space Station On Earth

The new Silicon Valley installation is designed to test the terrestrial applications for the space agency’s technologies and create the most efficient building imaginable.

“How do you design a building like a tree?” It’s a question that William McDonough, an architect, designer, and one of the minds behind Cradle to Cradle certification, has been asking himself for years. The Sustainability Base, a just-opened building at the NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, is McDonough’s latest attempt at designing a living, breathing structure that participates in its surroundings.


Designed by William McDonough + Partners and AECOM, the Sustainability Base is a LEED Platinum test bed for NASA technology (and other sustainable components) that come together to make a building that generates all of its power onsite, consists of materials that can be reused at the end of their life, and learns how to best accommodate inhabitants as the years go on. NASA writes of the base in a pamphlet: “Just as the lunar landing on Tranquility Base represented a giant leap during the space race, so Sustainability Base will stand as an icon symbolizing NASA’s dedication to solving the environmental challenges we face on Earth.”

The onsite rooftop photovoltaic array provides 30% of the building’s energy. A Bloom Box fuel cell and small wind turbine provide the rest.

There are, in fact, a number of NASA-designed technologies integrated into the building, including the greywater system, which cleans and recycles water that’s used in toilets and urinals (originally designed for use on the International Space Station); the rooftop photovoltaic panels, and the onsite solid oxide fuel cell from Bloom Energy.

The $20.6 million building arrived on time and under budget. The upfront cost was a little more than a standard federal building, but the building’s efficiency pays off any extra costs in about nine years.

I wrote about the $20.6 million Sustainability Base once before, without having seen the then-under construction building. Last week, I visited the completed base, which has been populated with NASA employees for a few months. Check out the slide show above (scroll down for captions).

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.