At Google’s newly opened campus in Mountain View, California, it isn’t immediately obvious that the roofs are covered in solar panels. But the sprawling canopies on each building—looking a little like futuristic circus tents—are covered in 50,000 small, silver-colored “dragonscale” photovoltaic panels, shaped to optimize the times they can generate solar power throughout the day.
It’s part of an approach that the company, along with architects from Bjarke Ingels Group and Heatherwick Studio, took to making the new campus, which covers more than a million square feet, as sustainable as possible. In an area currently undergoing a severe drought, it’s designed to save water. A massive geothermal system, the largest in North America, makes it possible to heat and cool the buildings without fossil fuels. The landscaping helps support biodiversity. The buildings’ solar skins, along with local wind power, will help the campus work toward Google’s goal of running on 100% carbon-free power, 24-7, by the end of the decade. (Right now, it runs on 90% carbon-free power.)
“We started out really looking at how to solve problems holistically,” says Asim Tahir, who leads district and renewable energy strategy for Google’s campus development projects. “Typical design processes have optimized for solving problems in silos.” The canopy-like roofs, for example, are designed to serve multiple functions—protecting the space inside, letting in light through clerestory windows that give employees views of nature from their desks, and maximizing the amount of water that can be captured and stored when it rains for later use in irrigation. The curved shape also helps capture sunlight on solar panels.
Typical solar panels generate power in the middle of the day, and as the amount of solar power in California has grown, the state has struggled to deal with the mismatch between the time that power is generated and the time that it’s used. “Every year, clean energy from solar plants gets curtailed in the middle of the day because it’s too much, and there isn’t enough load,” Tahir says. Because the solar panels sit on the new roofs facing different angles, some catch more light early in the morning and others get more afternoon light, both times when the larger electric grid has less renewable energy. The texture of the glass in the panels also helps capture light from different angles. “You can imagine a lot of little prisms that are connected together in a sheet of glass,” he says.
The team also focused on the aesthetics of the panels. “We went deep into understanding the solar supply chain, how panels are manufactured, figuring out where we might have the ability to change components, elements, and all that you need—that vision,” he says. “So that in this case, the goal was really to show that it can be beautiful and efficient at the same time.”
Underground, a geothermal field taps into the steady temperature below the surface to pump heat back and forth for heating and cooling. The geothermal system helps cut carbon emissions on the site in half. It also shrinks the huge amount of water that would have been used in a standard cooling tower, eliminating the use of around five million gallons of water a year.
“What really allowed us to become ‘net positive,’ generating more reclaimed water than we’re using, was reducing demand,” says Tahir. The campus also recycles any water that’s used, so it can be used again to flush toilets and irrigate the landscape. Rain is collected in above-ground pools and also combined with the recycled water.
The grounds, restored to bring back native habitat, connect to a public trail with native plants next to a stream that’s home to wildlife (on a walk by, I saw a heron and frogs in the water).”We said, okay, as we are laying out the site, what more can we do besides just the building efficiency? What can we do to restore the ecology, provide habitat, use native plants, and almost make it look seamless with some of the natural surroundings?” Tahir says. The path also gives employees another way to commute: If they live in certain areas, it’s possible to use the trail to bike to work.