Ecological Design Shapes High-Tech Headquarters at Pearl Harbor

by Timothy A. Schuler
Architecture - Feb 16 2016 - 6 min read
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NOAA’s Daniel K. Inouye Regional Center on Ford Island. Courtesy Alan Karchmer Photography.

Unless you’re on a tour of the USS Missouri, you need a badge to visit Ford Island. Either that, or you need to be in the back seat of a federal car, which is how I found myself being shuttled over the Admiral Clarey Bridge, past the guard stand, and onto the desolate, bean-shaped isle at the center of Pearl Harbor.

I was there to see the new Pacific headquarters of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The car belonged to Patty Miller, NOAA’s education coordinator, who had agreed to take me to see the Daniel K. Inouye Regional Center, as the building is known, this past December.

Designed by HOK, the LEED Gold facility consolidates nearly 800 employees from across Oahu into a single facility that houses everything from necropsy labs to offices and seawater tanks for wounded sea turtles and monk seals. It was completed in 2014, having been in the works for nearly 10 years.

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NOAA’s Daniel K. Inouye Regional Center. Courtesy Alan Karchmer Photography.

The 350,000-square-foot building is really three buildings. The architects repurposed two historic hangars designed in 1939 by Albert Kahn, which they glued together with a new three-story steel-and-glass volume. Several cutting-edge technologies, including a passive cooling system never before used in Hawaii, help the complex use less than half of the energy of a comparable building.

Such a balance of historic preservation, ecological design, and sensitive architecture could help inform building design in Hawaii. Honolulu is currently experiencing an unprecedented boom in new construction (permits reached a record $2.07 billion in 2014), and site-specific, sustainable design strategies are needed more than ever.

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One of the two Kahn-designed hangars that survived the Pearl Harbor attack. Courtesy NAVFAC.

Known to early Hawaiians as Moku’ume’ume, Ford Island went from goat farm to sugar plantation to naval base in less than 100 years. It was ground zero for the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, which claimed more than 2,400 lives and pulled the United States into World War II. Today, the island is still an active military base, operated by the U.S. Navy.

In 2001, the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed Ford Island as one of the country’s 11 most endangered historic sites. The primary threat? Development. So when NOAA and its team proposed reusing the two Kahn-designed hangars, which survived the 1941 attack, it was both reason to cheer and cause for concern.

Was it possible to preserve 70-year-old buildings and also accommodate critical programs like the National Weather Service’s Tsunami Warning Center?

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Atrium in the Daniel K. Inouye Regional Center. Courtesy Alan Karchmer Photography.

Because the site was a national landmark, the architects were required to present their design before a committee that included representatives from the National Trust, National Park Service, Historic Hawaii Foundation, Office of Hawaiian Affairs, State Historic Preservation Division, and Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. Early drawings—featuring more organic, curvilinear forms—were met with resistance by the preservation review committee, says Glenn Mason, president of Mason Architects and the project’s historic preservation consultant.

“As we worked with the historic agencies, what we found is that they wanted something that was complementary to the historic buildings but not derivative from them,” says Paul Woolford, the design principal of HOK’s San Francisco office. “The early work was perhaps too much of a contrast. So we did something that was clearly contemporary and modern and was not any kind of simulacrum of the historical buildings but that felt like it was a comfortable companion.”

But one thing couldn’t change: the cooling stacks the architects wanted to put on top of the building. The proposed hydronic passive cooling system—the first of its kind in Hawaii and a centerpiece of the project’s sustainability strategy—required a battery of rooftop chillers that use the island’s trade winds to cool the building without the use of mechanical fans.

Thermal system designed for the Daniel K. Inouye Regional Center. Courtesy HOK.
Thermal system designed for the Daniel K. Inouye Regional Center. Courtesy HOK.

HOK made the case that the cooling stacks were essential to the building’s design (the environmental benefits of which helped win over the committee) but agreed to make the stacks as small as possible. According to Mason, the rooftop elements were heavily discussed and modified during the course of design. They could not rise above the existing roof monitors, the committee stipulated, and had to be removable “should future generations decide to return the building to its exact original state,” Woolford says.

The passive cooling system essentially works like a reverse radiator. Joseph Ferraro, a principal at Ferraro Choi and a consultant on the project, says the system uses deep seawater pumped to the roof from a 1,300-foot-deep well. The water, naturally cold at 58 degrees Fahrenheit or so, flows into a series of chilled coils.

Air captured by the building’s wind scoops flows over the coils, and as it cools, it drops to the base of the building through a thermal chimney. From there, it is distributed throughout the building using nothing but the natural buoyancy of warming air.

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Dining area in the the Daniel K. Inouye Regional Center. Courtesy Alan Karchmer Photography.

But the system didn’t work—at first. When the building opened, it was only partially occupied. Because the ventilation system relies on body heat to warm the cooled air, without enough workers in the offices, the cooled air struggled to reach the exhaust vents and create the proper airflow. Today, with the building closer to capacity, Woolford says the system is working as designed, contributing to a 60-percent improvement in efficiency over the ASHRAE baseline.

A reduction in mechanical lighting also contributed to the building’s energy savings. Like many early-20th-century industrial buildings, Kahn’s original hangars took full advantage of daylight, but once they were filled with offices and cantilevered conference rooms, much of that daylight was impeded.

Using Autodesk Revit, Woolford’s team built a fully realized 3D model of the complex and analyzed the sun’s path across the site. Using that information, dozens of apertures were punched in the hangar roofs. Solar tubes direct sunlight into the workspaces through finned diffusers that drop from the ceiling like enormous, square Slinkys. Those translucent fins, which are connected by steel cables, serve two purposes: scattering the sunlight to reduce glare and reflecting it back to the ceiling, where it is further diffused.

According to the architects, this passive lighting system reduces electrical lighting loads by 50 percent (a considerable savings in Hawaii, where the price of a kilowatt-hour of electricity is more than three times higher than elsewhere in the U.S.). Woolford says using Revit also allowed the architects “to test ideas in ways that we could verify and confirm—because the government didn’t want to build an experiment.”

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Daniel K. Inouye Regional Center. Courtesy Alan Karchmer Photography.

Most Hawaiians will never see the Daniel K. Inouye Regional Center because Ford Island isn’t accessible to the public, but Woolford says there are lessons to be drawn from the way that project responds to Hawaii’s unique ecology.

“There are things that you can learn just from natural phenomena,” he says. “The air, the water, the diurnal swings of the day. Especially in Hawaii, designers and constructors and those who are developing buildings should really look to local ecology, to the lessons of how that particular place functions.”

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