Avi Halpert, vice president of corporate real estate at United Therapeutics Corporation, at the company’s Unisphere building site in Silver Spring

Setting a Sustainability Example

Downtown Silver Spring is not the ideal location for a net-zero energy building. In a dense urban environment, it’s tough to generate enough renewable energy on-site to cover what is consumed each year.

“Net-zero has been done before, but never really in a situation like this,” says Thomas Kaufman, associate director of corporate real estate at United Therapeutics Corporation (UTC), a biotechnology company that develops drugs and medical devices to treat chronic and life-threatening conditions. “Bigger net-zero projects are on the West Coast, where you have nice weather year-round, a lot of sun, and larger parcels of land so there is more space for solar panels.”

Those challenges didn’t stop UTC from designing a six-story headquarters, dubbed “Unisphere,” on its campus at the intersection of Colesville Road and Spring Street to be energy self-sufficient. Ground was broken in March 2016 and completion is expected next summer. The three existing buildings on the campus also have sustainable features.

Solar panels on Unisphere’s elliptical-shaped roof will be positioned to maximize a southern exposure. Windows will automatically open during moderate weather to provide natural ventilation, and the central atrium will act as a thermal chimney to circulate air throughout the building. Two energy-efficient features will take advantage of the relatively constant 45- to 50-degree temperatures underground to keep the indoor environment comfortable: geothermal heating and cooling (a system that uses water to absorb the temperature underground by pumping it through a series of 500-foot-deep wells, then circulating it throughout the building) and an earth labyrinth or concrete maze (air is pushed through it before being pumped through the rest of the building). Out-of-date state regulations regarding where geothermal wells could be located needed to be changed, and UTC pushed for that, paving the way for others interested in environmentally sustainable design, says Avi Halpert, vice president of corporate real estate at UTC.

“They have a lot of innovative elements in their design,” says Diane Schwartz Jones, director of the Department of Permitting Services for Montgomery County. “It’s wonderful and very progressive that United Therapeutics is trying to push the envelope and achieve a far greater degree of sustainability.” 

Caralee Adams is a freelance writer in Bethesda


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