Set snugly under a blue canopy of open sky in Golden, Colorado, the country’s largest net-zero energy building comes alive with the morning sun. Welcome to the Research Support Facility at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Measuring 360,000 square feet, the technological wonder glints as sunlight hits its sleek exterior. The structure’s reputation in the sustainability world shines just as brightly, with a trove of accolades that includes a COTE Top 10 Award from the American Institute of Architects. The building has become a world model and living laboratory for net-zero energy buildings of the future—all at a modest cost of $259 per square foot.
John Andary, a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-accredited professional engineer who is now a principal at Integral Group, was one of the key players in the inception of the research facility, built by the U.S. Department of Energy in 2010. At the time, Andary worked at the engineering firm Stantec and consulted with RNL Architects on the building’s sustainable design strategies and engineering systems.
The milestone structure was a pivotal moment for Andary, who had made a commitment to help create a healthier world after his son was born. As Andary says, he began looking “for those who were doing the most innovative work.” He has worked at Integral Group since 2011. The firm was founded in 2009 by Kevin Hydes, a British-born visionary who formerly chaired the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and the World Green Building Council boards, in addition to founding Canada’s Green Building Council.
Today, Integral Group, headquartered in Oakland, California, is building a strong profile as an innovator in passive survivability—assuring a structure’s ability to maintain basic conditions if power and other critical services are lost. The firm sees buildings as living organisms: natural, breathing entities that serve the community and evolve over time, just as people do.
Andary and his colleague Neil Bulger—also a LEED-accredited professional engineer and a principal at Integral Group—are changing the world’s landscape by making buildings as passive as possible. With buildings accounting for 40 percent of the world’s carbon emissions, the potential effects are enormous.
At Integral Group, transforming a structure means combining building systems with architecture. “For forever, people have known they needed heavy, massive structures that could retain heat,” Andary says. “Next to operable windows, it’s the oldest thing that’s ever been done in building design to provide indoor comfort.” Success, he adds, often comes down to “the right structure, the right amount of glazing (for daylight while reducing heat gain and loss), and the right way to organize those things.” This, he says, “is the reality of bioclimatic design.”
Integral Group, which started as a collection of previously existing firms, calls its work “deep green engineering”—transforming mechanical and technological systems in new and existing buildings with sustainable principles taken to the max. For Hydes, the firm is the culmination of a wide-scale vision. “I founded the firm explicitly to make a difference on the planet,” he says, “by designing and delivering buildings at scale that lead us to a regenerative future, globally.”
The quixotic nature of Integral Group’s work—melding complex technological strategies with the simple power of nature—is not lost on Bulger, who leads the firm’s West Coast building performance team. Approaching a design project, Bulger says, means thinking in the lofty context of the future and what is possible. As he says, “What are the holistic paths to renovate this building so it serves the community today and through time?”
Today Integral Group has 13 offices throughout the country, as well as operations in the United Kingdom and Canada. With a staff of roughly 350 employees, the firm designs systems to create high-performance, high-efficiency buildings. Whether it is new construction or a retrofit, the goal is to make the building as passive as possible. In 2015, the firm had $45 million in earnings.
Integral Group buildings are proof that the best mechanical systems can be elegantly simple and cost-effective—a comingling of art and science wrapped in sleek, beautiful architecture that supports the triple bottom line: people, planet, and profit. The key, Bulger says, is resiliency. “It’s something to think about today,” he says. “I see a building that might be an office today, providing a comfortable working environment. Then it might evolve into something else – it could be a center for the arts, or even for public events.”