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Architects and Engineers Envision Algae and Buildings

May 12, 2011

From Linda Hales at, a story about the proposed energy retrofit of a Los Angeles federal building called “Process Zero: Retrofit Resolution,” winning the 2011 Metropolis Next Generation Design Competition.

The winning design team, 15 architects and engineers working mostly in the Washington, D.C., offices of HOK and Vanderweil, combines an array of proven renewable strategies with energy-producing microalgae.

Developed in partnership with the General Services Administration, this year’s challenge was to bring a typical, energy-guzzling 1960s federal building—an eight-story structure in downtown L.A.—to a net-zero energy standard.

Scott Walzak, a 25-year-old junior designer at HOK who completed a master’s degree at Roger Williams University just last year, persuaded colleagues to think abstractly and look to nature—see the building as a living cell.

Developing the algae module and bioreactor fell to Sean Quinn, a 31-year-old sustainable-design specialist for HOK and the lead architect and project manager for Process Zero. Quinn transferred the mechanics of tube technology to the side of a building, adding a full-scale closed system of holding tanks and filtration ponds. Inside the glass tubes, the algae swim in a slurry of recycled wastewater and consume carbon dioxide siphoned from an air-intake pipe at the freeway. In principle, oxygen would be pumped out to the street as a byproduct, and oil pressed out of the algae and processed to provide some of the building’s power.

Walzak designed the tubular setup as a neat, panelized grid that gives the building far more than a metaphoric green cast. Team members agree that Walzak’s living cell provided the “Aha!” moment, when biomimicry emerged as their core principle. “It was no longer about countering energy use; it was going back to the beginning,” says John Jackson, a 30-year-old team architect at HOK. As for the algae, “it was definitely an out-there idea, but not so out-there that it couldn’t be done.”

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