Passive survivability is the new buzz phrase and the future of sustainability.
WRITTEN BY Mary Grauerholz | Photographed By Emily Hagopian

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.


Cover: Shipwire’s headquarters in Sunnyvale, California. John Andary and Neil Bulger of Integral Group. Above: The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has become a world model and living laboratory for net-zero energy buildings of the future. Photo supplied by NREL


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.”

The buildings are art and science wrapped in sleek, beautiful architecture.


Integral Group has 13 office buildings that prove that the best mechanical can be simple and cost effective.

Among the firm’s 90 LEED-certified projects (and another 50 targeted projects now in design) are 34 LEED Platinum buildings. One of them is the green-roofed David & Lucile Packard Foundation Headquarters in Los Altos, California. Integral Group worked with EHDD Architects to design the 40,000-sq-ft structure.


The makeover of the two-story Packard building reduced energy demand by 60 percent over code baseline and plug load energy use by more than 50 percent, thanks to a highly efficient envelope and building systems. (The rest of the power comes from photovoltaics.) The building also uses 50 percent less water than baseline through features like the collection of rainwater for landscaping and toilets. For half the year, the mechanical systems of the office shut down completely, and employees open their windows for fresh air.


The building is the largest project to receive the Living Future Institute’s Net Zero certification. Integral Group did the MEP engineering and project commissioning (assuring that the building’s systems and components are designed, installed, tested, and operated properly), and now is tracking the building’s performance to assure net-zero energy operation: as Andary says, “modeling and simulating how these buildings will perform every hour of the year.”


Many of Integral Group’s projects have a more modest physical profile, yet have garnered impressive awards and attention. Bulger and Andary worked on a retrofit of an uninsulated 30,000-sq-ft office building constructed in the 1970s, located on Indio Way in Sunnyvale, California. Today, it is a model for carbon-neutral, net-zero energy retrofits. Working with Sharp Development, RMW Architecture, and Hillhouse Construction, the office center is 100 percent day-lit and 100 percent naturally ventilated, with 43 skylights, integrated rooftop photovoltaics, and electrochromic glass windows.


The building’s high-performance nature was primarily achieved through upgrades to the envelope, using the high thermal mass, and reducing the mechanical load, Bulger says. This meant using innovative techniques and an open, collaborative spirit.


“We worked with the developer and builder to look at what the envelope would need to look like for the air conditioning system to be as small as it could be for fresh air,” Bulger recalls. “We recommended insulation on the outside and new skylights to bring in light. The real value came from the builder and developer coming up with field fabrication solutions instead of buying expensive products.” The skylights were custom framed, Bulger adds, and insulation was wrapped all the way up to the glass to eliminate thermal bridging using information from Integral Group’s electrical design principal, David Kaneda. The solutions helped assure the project’s financial success.


Always, the firm aims to meet the developer’s bottom line. The profit factor is critical, Bulger says. “A new building is often perceived as needing all the expensive bells and whistles to be sustainable and resilient,” he says. “There is so much knowledge at the table already; you don’t need all those bells and whistles. The developer was almost more excited than we were.”


Deep green engineering and bioclimatic design result in a much healthier building with more fresh air and natural light. As Andary says, “It’s adapting a building to the climate for the health of the occupants.”


Both Andary and Bulger see their priorities as human and planet health, attained within a reasonable cost. As Bulger says, “To me, human health is planet health.” This reality has led Integral Group to work with both LEED standards and the WELL Building Standard—the first building standard focused on human health and wellness—within a framework of the latest science.


“I believe we as a society are just now beginning to map the relationships of human health through a language of science and biology,” Bulger says. He mentions studies now being done on light levels and how the human eye senses and balances chemicals in the body. These findings, he says, “are pointing us more toward being creatures of the planet.”


Both Andary’s and Bulger’s work carry a strong stamp of idealism about what makes a building great. Bulger has been involved in sustainability principles since his college days. “Great cities,” he says, “need to adapt to a changing society and changing weather; buildings are a key part of this.”


Andary, the head of Integral Group’s bioclimatic design practice, was working in more traditional mechanical engineering until his son was born in 2002. It was a defining moment for Andary, as he pondered the world his son would inherit. “I devoured the written literature on how to reduce the carbon associated with buildings, and how much we were contributing that his generation would have to deal with,” he says.


Harnessing the power of green building, science, and nature, Andary says, has revealed new, fertile ground for positive change. “These buildings are part of the solution,” he says. “For me it is an issue of being truly invested in solving this problem for future generations.”