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Google’s ‘dragonscale’ solar roof signals growing demand for sustainable workspaces | google

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Aabout 40 miles south of San Francisco, three futuristic structures rise from the ground. With sloping roofs covered in thousands of overlapping tiles, the buildings could be mistaken for the world’s most architecturally advanced circus tent.

They’re actually part of Google’s new campus in Bay View, which is due to take in employees this year — pandemic permitting — and is located a few miles east of its current campus in Mountain View.

The company says the finished buildings will have 90,000 tiles that form a ‘solar skin’ roof, which its designers have named ‘dragonscale’ and estimate will generate nearly 7 megawatts of energy or 40% of electricity needs. from campus. He sees this as part of his effort to deliver on CEO Sundar Pichai’s pledge that Google will run all data centers and campuses on carbon-free power by 2030.

Companies have never been under more pressure to track and make meaningful progress on carbon emissions from regulators and amid greater scrutiny around ‘greenwashing’ from environmentalists – and their own employees.

The demand for low-emission offices is greater than it has ever been, according to several US architects the Guardian spoke to. This is especially true in California, where the manifestations of the climate crisis are evident: hotter summers, drought and an annual wildfire season.

“Buildings are terrible for the environment,” said Eric Corey Freed, director of sustainability at architecture firm CannonDesign. “If we want to solve climate change, we have to fix our buildings.”

Google’s ‘dragonscale’ solar roof signals growing demand for sustainable workspaces |  google

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Workers constructing the “sun skin” roof in Mountain View, California. Photography: Bloomberg/Getty Images

In the United States, buildings consumed about 40% of the country’s electricity in 2020, according to data from the US Energy Information Administration, and are also one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world. planet, representing 37% of energy-related CO2 in the world. emissions. This does not include all emissions from refrigerants – chemicals that maintain air conditioning systems and refrigerators – which have a global warming potential hundreds to thousands of times greater than that of carbon dioxide.

Designers should consider the “operational carbon” of building management and the “embodied carbon” of its creation, such as emissions from materials production, project construction, and transportation of waste offsite.

Freed is optimistic, however, as sustainability costs are falling. “Considering the solar [panels] for your campus or building is so much cheaper than it used to be,” added Maria Papiez, Director of Sustainable Design for EwingCole. “It was really only for the Googles in the past, who had the money to do it. And now it’s the cheapest form of electricity in some places.

In addition to “dragonscale” solar panels, Google’s new campus also plans to have an underground geothermal battery where it will store heat to warm the building, said Asim Tahir, head of the tech giant’s sustainable energy strategy. in Grist. The idea behind all of Bay View’s innovations is “to jump-start this market in the United States by showing that it can be done,” Tahir said. Google worked on the project with architecture firms Heatherwick Studio and Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) as well as the Swiss company SunStyle, which has created arrays of solar panels on several buildings in Europe and wants to expand in the United States. United.

“I really like the idea of ​​a tipping point,” EwingCole’s Papiez said. “Once we get enough critical mass, there’s this opportunity to really swing in the right direction.”

Google’s ‘dragonscale’ solar roof signals growing demand for sustainable workspaces |  google

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The ‘dragonscale’ will generate nearly 7 megawatts of power, representing 40% of campus electricity needs Photo: /YouTube/Google Real Estate

Chris Chatto, director of architectural firm ZGF which has focused on sustainability for the past 15 years, said he has seen a substantial increase in clients asking for sustainable buildings. “Honestly, the number of conversations I’ve had in the last three to six months is probably the same as I’ve had in the last few years,” he said. ZGF is currently working with Microsoft, which has also set major targets to reduce carbon emissions. “I think in a way,” he added, “we’ve probably seen more consistent signals and interest from the tech industry on the West Coast.”

Architect Anthony Brower, LEED Fellow and director of sustainability at architectural firm Gensler, has also seen it beyond the big tech giants. “Some clients have very general requests,” he said, “They want to see sustainability built into their work. Other clients get very specific about exactly what they want in a very sophisticated way.”

Recruitment and Regulation

In addition to contributing to global climate goals, sustainable architecture has increasingly become a recruitment strategy, especially when competing for Gen Z workers who care deeply about the climate and want to work for a company that embodies their values. Even Pichai, CEO of Google, said switching to renewable energy will help the company attract employees. “If you don’t do it right, you won’t be able to attract talent,” Pichai told Bloomberg. “When I look at the younger generation, the teenagers now, I don’t see them making the choice to work for a company that they consider polluting.”

Freed agrees, noting that employees often enjoy the experience of being in a sustainable building more than a traditional office, even if they don’t know why, in part because sustainable spaces are often filled with materials. light and natural. As Freed said, “Spaces are just better to be in.”

But this movement is not just about recruiting or doing something ethical. As laws and building codes are updated, businesses face increasing pressure to devote resources to sustainable projects. By 2030, California aims to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 40% below 1990 levels. Companies also don’t want to be penalized for refusing to comply with potentially tougher laws. strict all the way.

Google’s ‘dragonscale’ solar roof signals growing demand for sustainable workspaces |  google

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One of the main buildings of Google’s existing campus in Mountain View. Photography: Jason Doiy/Getty Images

“There are carbon emissions laws where building owners are required to essentially increase their carbon efficiency…and if they don’t, they’re fined,” Chatto said. architect of ZGF.

These signals change the way investors perceive their properties. “At least some of our clients recognize that they will keep the building for 10 years. Then when they want to sell, recoup and make a profit on their investment, it could be a very, very different world 10 years from now,” he said.

One of California’s recent building laws could sway companies away from some of the dirtiest building materials. In July, the state gave the green light to mass timber buildings up to 18 stories. Solid wood – smaller pieces of wood fused together into solid slabs – is being touted as a more sustainable alternative to steel and concrete, and has been widely used in Europe for two decades already. Prior to the code update, California limited mass timber structures for commercial use to six stories, making it impossible to use for many projects.

Solid wood presents an exciting prospect in California. The material has a naturally lower carbon footprint than concrete and steel, and even sequesters carbon, removing it from the atmosphere, like trees, to turn a building into a carbon sink. California’s first all-log multi-story building, 1 De Haro, developed by SKS Partners and designed by Perkins&Will, was recently completed in San Francisco. With floor-to-ceiling glass windows paired with raw wood beams and ceilings, the space looks warm yet pristine. The project is zoned to be part office, part light manufacturing space.

With its pledge to go carbon-free, Google is attempting a bold feat. The goal is ambitious, especially since it is not only responsible for the output of its campuses, but also huge data centers housing its servers. It should be noted that Google’s plan does not account for company Scope 3 emissions – emissions that are related to the company, but which the company may not control. These include the manufacturing, production materials and transportation of Chromebooks and Pixels, according to Grist. While not foul play, it is a shortcoming of the net zero metric and applies to all businesses.

To move the needle forward, architects continue to promote sustainable workplaces as tools for change. “It’s been an exciting time to be in sustainability,” Freed said, “to see these pressures mount, and companies now not only have to take this seriously, but they want to, because they’re seeing these global trends. ”

Google’s ‘dragonscale’ solar roof signals growing demand for sustainable workspaces | google

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