Unisphere: A Living, Breathing Building

Pushing design limits for people and the environment

“The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.” – Arthur C. Clarke

Best known for his film, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Arthur C. Clarke embodies what many organizations seek to accomplish with each significant investment in their work environment. At Haworth, we’re driven to expand the possibilities of design, particularly when it drives us closer to a true circular economy.

One customer recently challenged us to deliver solutions that supported their ambitious goals. To celebrate their achievement and inspire continuous limit-pushing, we’re sharing their story—the story of the world’s largest commercial net zero energy building.

United Therapeutics Corporation

United Therapeutics is a biotechnology company founded by a parent, Dr. Martine Rothblatt, who wanted to help her daughter and others diagnosed with pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH), an orphan disease. A growing, mission-driven company focused on saving lives, United Therapeutics wanted to add a signature building to their downtown Silver Spring, Maryland campus.

The company sought to accomplish two main goals with the project:

  1. Embody and advance its mission of creating breakthrough solutions for people with chronic and life-threatening conditions.
  2. Create a solution that challenged the limits of design for commercial architecture—a building that generated enough energy to sustain its own needs.

Named the “Unisphere,” the 210,000 square-foot facility houses clinical operations for pulmonary disease, heart failure, and organ transplantation as well as a virtual drug development lab. It is the world’s largest commercial building to offset its own energy use with renewable energy produced onsite, contributing little to no greenhouse gases to the environment.

A sustainable energy project of this scale proved to be a remarkable challenge, particularly in a densely populated urban environment. Typically, neighboring high-rise buildings cast shadows that can make placement of solar panels challenging, and the use of wind turbines is difficult to accomplish.

Architecture, engineering, and interior design firm, EwingCole, was called upon to design the building for net zero energy usage through an innovative combination of technologies.

“We took a layered approach—considering the design from the outside-in and from the inside-out,” noted Howard Skoke, Principal at EwingCole. “All options were evaluated, from a massive solar panel installation to building systems and furniture solutions that helped accomplish the goal.”

EwingCole Principal Gayle Lane added, “Our approach involved incredible collaboration, asking questions as to what’s possible. Even to the extent of county legislation being changed to accommodate geothermal systems.”

Project team members also included contractor Whiting-Turner, owners’ representatives Stranix Associates, experience design agency HUSH, and furnishings partners Haworth and Price Modern.

Strategies used to achieve the Unisphere’s goals involve:

  • 3,000 solar panels generating 1,175 megawatt-hours of energy each year—enough to power 100 homes.
  • A quarter-mile-long concrete maze located 12 feet below ground. Known as the Earth Labyrinth, it’s the foundation for the natural ventilation system. Also, underground are 52 closed-loop, dual-circuited, geo-exchange wells drilled 500 feet into the earth to provide energy storage.
  • An atrium pool used as a heat sink to help balance the overall system and provide passive heating of pool water.
  • Daylight harvesting. The lighting system dims when adequate sunlight is available, and electro chromatic glass technology changes the window tint level based on changes in season as well as the position of the sun and clouds.
  • Moveable walls and flexible furnishings sitting atop raised access flooring round out the interior.

Haworth and Price Modern collaborated with the team to craft an interior work environment that aligned with project goals. A melding of design, sustainability, brand, mission, and culture fueled the performance and functional requirements for the space. Research was put into practice by first identifying how the workspace could affect the ability of employees to do their work. The solution features movable walls; flexible, reconfigurable workspaces; collaboration zones; and spaces to connect, recharge, and focus.

During Earth Week—and frankly, every week—we thank and celebrate our customers and industry partners who push the limits of sustainability. You inspire us to think differently as we continue our long-standing journey to be a more sustainable organization. In our drive to create Organic Workspace solutions, you help us think beyond our business with a collective purpose to make the world better.

Discover additional projects with ambitious sustainability goals:
HITT Contracting
EPM Business Group

Visit our Sustainability page to learn more about our efforts to create shared value for the people, communities, and environment we serve.

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