Three-Star Certified Pilot Project

Location: Golden, Colorado
Project Size: 29.44 acres 
Project Type: Governmental Complex
Site Context: Suburban
Former Land Use: Greyfield
Terrestrial Biome: Temperate Grasslands, Savannas & Shrublands
Budget: $27,400,000
photo by: Robb Williamson, courtesy of RNL

Project Overview

The Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) puts their mission into practice by constructing high performance buildings and infrastructure that showcase clean energy technologies, renewable and recycled materials, water conservation, environmental stewardship, and waste reduction. Another aspect of their mission is fostering employee behavior change towards sustainable living.

NREL’s 327-acre South Table Mountain campus currently includes 17 buildings, which house offices, laboratories, test facilities, and more than 2,447 workers. The vision for the sustainable campus is documented in their master plan and implemented through utilizing high performance sustainable building requirements. NREL’s sustainable campus is also achieved via: 

Habitat Protection: NREL’s 175-acre conservation easement protects native habitats and provides access to hiking trails for staff and community members.

Low Impact Development: NREL incorporates low impact development techniques that establish natural drainage for stormwater and minimize impacts on local habitats.

Smart Growth: Build-out strategies promote walkability and interaction on campus. The Smart-Growth inspired campus concept encourages staff to adopt alternative commuting options by providing all employees with free mass transit passes, access to 36 electric charging stations, and preferred parking for “smart green vehicles” and carpools.

The Research Support Facility (RSF) is one of the newest campus additions. Construction was completed in October 2011 for the 30-acre site and 361,000 square-foot LEED® Platinum facility housing 1325 employees. Its rooftop photovoltaic array offsets its annual energy use, making this a net-zero facility. Project scope also included integrated campus transit, pedestrian LED site lighting, regional storm water management, prairie restoration, and expanded campus utilities.

Regional Context

NREL’s South Table Mountain (STM) campus is located near Golden, Colorado. The campus lies at the base of STM with its pristine hillsides, rock outcroppings and arroyo drainages. The altitude of the NREL STM site varies between 5750 and 6050 feet above sea level. The site is in the “foothills life zone,” a transitional region between the grasslands of the plains life zone and the higher, tree-dominated montane life zone of the Rocky Mountains. With its location near the foothills, the weather conditions impact facility designs and maintenance considerations due to the climate changes, snow loads, and high winds.

The site soils consist mostly of bedrock on the mesa top and mostly clay loam and cobbly clay loam in the areas where most of the development has occurred. Vegetation on the campus consists of a mixture of grasslands, shrub lands, and a very small amount of wetlands.

Prevailing winds are from the south direction all year round with weak intensity and long duration. Annual precipitation ranges from 12 to 18 inches per year. The region is also prone to long periods of drought. In summer, this arid climate reaches an average high temperature of 89 degrees. January, the coldest month, has an average high temperature of 44 degrees and an average low of 13 degrees. The optimal building orientation in this climate lies within 5 degrees of the true east-west axis in order to gain the greatest advantage for solar access and daylighting.

SITES Features + Practices

Given the project's location in the arid west, water is treated as a precious resource. NREL implements all available measures to reduce water consumption using integrated water resource management practices and water-efficient systems. NREL capitalizes on every opportunity to use all water types as a resource, including the use of surface stormwater flows to irrigate vegetation and enhance water quality before returning to the watershed.

Recent construction of new facilities on the NREL campus has significantly increased impervious land areas within the campus' central arroyo basin and created extensive disturbance to existing grassland communities. Such enormous disruption necessitated responsive and progressive measures for stormwater management, sediment control, pollutant removal, and site restoration. A series of drainage components (bioswales, vegetated forebays, and bioretention areas), in addition to the existing central arroyo acting as a main spine for conveyance, were designed to replicate the existing hydrologic condition. This innovative and holistic system addressed essential ecosystem functions with an ultimate purpose of detaining stormwater runoff from these areas, reducing peak flow events, and discharging higher quality water downstream in a controlled manner.

The implementation of water-efficient irrigation systems will help establish the native high plains desert landscape in the short-term, and after two years the plants will be weaned off supplemental irrigation and returned to a non-irrigated state. Installation of innovative products, including pre-vegetated coir mats expedited the growth of prairie grasslands and wet meadows and mitigated invasive weed impacts.

Site materials also contributed to the project's sustainability goals. Salvaged bedrock excavated from the site was used to build retaining walls, and also related cultural history of utilizing the land's resources. Bus shelters and parking garage stairwells incorporated etched and striped glass to reduce bird injury and mortality from in-flight collisions with exterior structures. Porous pavers adjacent to the perimeter of the RSF and roadways provided exceptional performance for reducing peak flows during stormwater events and increased infiltration to enhance water quality. Their light color also assisted in reducing heat gain. These paving materials provided an aesthetic textural quality creating inviting courtyard spaces and pedestrian walkways.


NREL utilized integrated project teams (IPT) for review and decision making. The emphasis and structure of the IPT is on the involvement of all stakeholders (users, technical experts, management, and contractors) in a collaborative forum. The gathering of a multi-disciplinary group demonstrated effective project results because involvement began in the early stage of development. This process also benchmarks a critical need in that project expectations, roles, and actions were defined within a set time period. The breadth of technical expertise produced a focused, collaborative effort to enable the integration of each project feature generating a more a holistic result.

Maintenance + Stewardship

As a Department of Energy national laboratory, NREL meets environmental and energy-related requirements that foster the sustainability of NREL's campus. The implementation of long-term maintenance strategies is achieved through staff upholding and executing established laboratory sustainability and environmental policies and procedures, identified performance strategies and targets in NREL's Site Sustainability Plan, and the commitment of executive management sponsorship.

NREL has executed a Landscape Maintenance procedure for all campus landscape maintenance, including scope, roles and responsibilities, procedures, and monitoring. the pupose of the NREL Landscape Maintenance Procedure is to:

  • Comply with the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) certification for exterior design, construction, and maintenance practices
  • Comply with NREL's Natural Resource Conservation Procedure
  • Maintain, protect, and restore natural and landscaped environments to sustain natural and native ecological systems, both on and adjacent to NREL campuses
  • Protect and maintain NREL's monetary investment in new landscaping associated with recent construction activities
  • Demonstrate environmental stewardship
  • Facilitate a collaborative work effort among the Environmental Health and Safety, Sustainable NREL, and Site Operations Offices to work on plans for the upcoming year to facilitate budget planning

NREL also continues to coordinate with appropriate local and regional planning organizations and government agencies to improve land use, transportation, growth, and sustainability within the community. All campus projects integrate physical boundaries, connect to transportation and utility systems, and protect ecosystems and open space. All of these elements have linkages that forge strong community, neighbor, and user relationships.

Continued monitoring will also take place to provide long-term measurements for SITES and other practitioners for the following credits:

  • Credit 3.4: Rehabilitate Lost Streams, Wetlands, and Shorelines
  • Prerequisite 4.1: Control and Manage Known Invasive Plants Found on Site
  • Credit 4.9: Restore Plant Communities Native to the Ecoregion

Project Goals + Successes

NREL strives to operate and research in the most sustainable manner possible. All project pursuits are guided to minimize the impact of doing business by balancing environmental, economic, and social resources. NREL’s “living laboratory” approach has established an environment for landscape, infrastructure, and building research that allows the continuing evaluation and improvement of design approaches and technologies that facilitate their transfer to the marketplace.

The facility also seeks out mutually beneficial partnerships that allow performance standards to be developed and deployed to the marketplace with the desire to help shape performance benchmarks through testing their most energy efficient building and site to date. This federal project is dedicated to setting standards for sustainable landscapes and high efficiency buildings and the SITES criteria will be rigorously tested against NREL standards. The performance benchmarks will in turn provide guidance to NREL allowing for long-term maintenance and operations goals to be met.

NREL’s assemblage of project elements forged a dynamic fusion of natural systems and the built world. Each sustainable feature did not function in isolation but emphasized a mutually beneficial relationship. These project results delivered optimized performance, enjoyable surroundings, and a foundation for sustained environmental health and longevity.

Lessons Learned

As the facility moves forward with other construction projects, gathering more documentation of existing site conditions to use as a baseline will be integrated into standard practices. Transitioning the project from construction completion to owner maintained was another challenge that became a lesson learned.

Project Team

Drew Detamore, Deputy Director SITE Operations
Frank Rukavina, Director of Sustainability
Michelle Slovensky, Senior Sustainability Project Manager
Bret Cummock, Civil Engineer/Project Manager
Genny Braus, Senior Environmental Specialist
Brenda Beatty, Senior Biologist
Tom Ryon, Senior Wildlife Biologist
Lissa Myers, Transportation Planner
Ellen Fortier, Waste Management

RNL Design
Rich von Luhrte, Principal-In-Charge
Steve Breitzka, Project Manager
Brian Nicholson, CA Manager/Project Designer
Eric Pearse, Project Designer
Matt Duncan, Project Designer
Rachel Fitzgerald, Lighting Designer

Haselden Construction
Jerry Blocher, Senior Project Manager
Katie Barrows, Assistant Project Manager
Shawn Morrison, Site Superintendent
Rachel Rodocy, Project Engineer

Martin/Martin, Civil Engineering
Matt Shlageter, Project Manager
Phil Krieble, Senior Project Engineer

KL&A, Structural Engineering
Joe Kaul, Senior Project Engineer
Jason Blankenship, Project Engineer

Restoration Group
Deb Keammerer, Owner/Ecologist

Hydrosystems KDI, Irrigation
Jim Geary, Irrigation Designer
Jason Naughtin, CA Manager

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