Autodesk® Revit® Architecture and Autodesk® Revit® Structure softwareGeneral Dynamics SATCOM
San Rafael, CA

NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, CA conducts critical research and development for the space agency, with a primary focus on supercomputing, networking, and intelligent systems. Recently, NASA Ames initiated work on the Sustainability Base, a $20.6-million facility designed to surpass standards for LEED Platinum™ sustainable design certification and approach net-zero energy consumption. When complete, it will be one of the federal system’s greenest buildings, and the first new NASA Ames facility in 20 years.

The NASA Sustainability Base at Ames Research Center.

NASA Ames selected William McDonough + Partners (WM+P) as design architect and AECOM as architect of record for the project. The WM+P and AECOM team provided a robust combination of programming, architecture, interior and landscape design, and LEED® consulting, as well as structural, civil, mechanical, electrical, and plumbing engineering services.

The building’s design challenges included a complex radial geometry, an innovative steel-frame exoskeleton, and numerous eco-friendly features such as geothermal wells, natural ventilation, high-performance wastewater treatment, and a photovoltaic roof, which will provide 30 percent of the building’s power.

On this project, AECOM team members were based in San Francisco, Moffett Field, and Orange County, CA; Albuquerque, NM; and Phoenix, AZ. To connect the geographically dispersed team, AECOM relied upon Autodesk building information modeling (BIM) solutions, including Autodesk® Revit® Architecture software and Autodesk® Revit® Structure software, complemented by Autodesk® Navisworks® Manage software, Autodesk® Ecotect® Analysis software, and tools based on the AutoCAD® platform, such as AutoCAD® MEP software.

To better obtain the full benefits of the BIM approach, WM+P used Revit Architecture software to help develop the initial model and perform preliminary structural and mechanical studies before passing the model on to AECOM. That enabled the engineers to move forward, while design work continued on the exterior skin.

Revit Architecture was used for the building’s complex, radial geometry. Every potential design change had numerous implications. The BIM process, supported by Revit Architecture, helped the WM+P design team understand those implications, communicate them to the other team members, and make faster, more-informed decisions.

Revit Architecture also enabled AECOM to more quickly examine and evaluate multiple design scenarios. For example, at one point during the design process, rapidly rising material prices forced the team to change the design in order to stay within budget. The model enabled them to adjust the floor-to-floor heights more quickly so that they were able to save enough on material costs to help meet the budget requirements.

One of the most visible aspects of the new facility was its innovative steel-frame exoskeleton, which required close coordination between the architects and structural engineers. A common BIM software platform enabled the architects to avoid duplicating the engineers’ work. They could more quickly see how structural changes impacted the architecture.

The exoskeleton was an essential component of another design goal: an open, but narrow, column-free floor plan that will encourage flexibility and collaboration among the building’s end users. By putting the lateral resisting system on the outside of the building, the team was able to free up the entire floor plan. The exoskeleton also increased structural performance during seismic events, and served as an armature for modular shading devices.

An axonometric view of the building.

During construction, which began in August 2009, the contractor, Swinerton Builders, imported the Revit Architecture model into Navisworks Manage software, using it as the foundation for further clash detection. The mechanical, electrical, and plumbing; fire protection; and sprinkler system subcontractors created models using AutoCAD MEP and other CAD tools. Twice a month, all of the models were imported into Navisworks Manage and clash detection was performed using the Revit Architecture model as background.

NASA’s goal was never simply to get to LEED Platinum. That was understood as a baseline. Right from the start, AECOM examined local climatic conditions and how the Sun moved across the sky throughout the year, searching for ways to take advantage of passive solar lighting in the building. To help meet the project’s exacting sustainability standards, AECOM exported data from the model to a variety of analysis software applications, including Ecotect Analysis. AECOM used these tools to compare the performance of the lighting layout against the team’s goals, designing, fine-tuning, and analyzing in a constant loop.

Traditional office spaces hide behind high walls. To encourage collaboration, AECOM wanted to introduce a new culture of lower walls and open spaces. With data from the Revit Architecture model, AECOM used Ecotect Analysis to investigate how far sunlight would extend into the building’s open workspaces. That helped determine the impact that lower partition walls would have on energy consumption.

WM+P also utilized information from the Revit Architecture model, using Ecotect Analysis, to better understand the cost impacts of its design decisions, particularly around floor-to-ceiling heights and integration of daylight into the design. They were able to optimize the daylighting, making sure that what was created worked for the benefit of the building from both an engineering and cost standpoint.

As the design developed, AECOM exported the Revit model to a third-party application for energy analysis by the team’s high-performance building engineers, who supplied feedback on window sizes and locations, helping the team validate the design direction. They were able to fine-tune the design within a very short time frame.

NASA Ames wanted the completed building to serve as a platform for experimentation with advanced technologies. One such technology is the building’s integrated control system. The building was designed to operate as an intelligent unit, where the shading devices, lights, windows, and ventilation are all driven by monitoring devices and computers.

Such a system — and the real-time data it produces — can help NASA Ames reduce energy usage. For example, to prepare a conference room for a previously scheduled meeting, the system can factor in current weather conditions and the number of people in attendance, and adjust the thermostat accordingly at the appropriate time.

Construction on the project is scheduled for completion early this year.

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NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the April, 2011 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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