Paul Woolford: How Biomimicry Inspired the Design of NOAA’s Daniel K. Inouye Regional Center in Hawaii

Thanks to Paul Woolford, AIA, IIDA, LEED AP BD+C, design director in HOK’s San Francisco office, for this post describing the design of the new National Oceanic at Atmospheric Administration campus in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Scheduled to open in December, this will be one of the country’s most environmentally innovative national historic landmarks. Paul and WSP engineer Todd See will speak on, “NOAA Pacific: Preserving the Past, Sustaining the Future” on Tuesday, July 23 from noon–1:00 pm PT, as part of the AIA’s DESIGN[realized] series.

Our National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Daniel K. Inouye Regional Center project is in Honolulu on Oahu’s Ford Island, where the Pearl Harbor attacks occurred.

When it opens later this year, all the administrative functions that NOAA requires to monitor the weather across the Pacific Ocean will be headquartered here. The facility includes offices and labs, a tsunami warning center, the national marine sanctuaries, national monuments under the sea and state parks.

The project is renovating and adapting two giant World War II-era aircraft hangars and constructing a new building between them on a national historic landmark site. The hangars were designed by Albert Kahn and built for the war effort.

To inspire the design, we looked to the mission of the NOAA, which is responsible for monitoring climate, weather, oceans and coasts. This led to design ideas featuring air, light and water.

We repurposed and restored the hangars with a design that treats them as a giant shed, or shell, that is three stories tall, 700 feet long, 250 feet wide and open inside. A simple glass-and-steel pavilion unites these two historic structures and mediates the open space between them. The new architecture is distinct from the historic buildings while providing a quiet complement.

Inside the shed is a 350,000-square-foot government office and research campus. It has a central quadrangle and interior courtyards that allow us to drive daylight and ventilation deep into the building. The physically occupied space is stepped up in the middle of the structure so that it appears to be hanging in the rafters.

Hangar area

A Design Inspired by Biomimicry

We used the biological influences of this specific place in Hawaii as the guiding principles for the architecture, building systems and overall experience. Hydronic passive cooling and ventilation supported by a seawater well, natural daylighting and the absence of mechanical fans all support a high-performance design based on the ecology of the Pacific.

We looked at native Hawaiian trees, for example, to influence the lighting. A lesson from our Genius of Biome report is that the morphology of a tree is a beautiful paradigm of how diversity optimizes energy. People think of a tree as a collection of leaves on branches, with all leaves being equal. Yet no two leaves are the same. Each one acts in concert with the others to create and then drive down light so a tree can derive energy from its own natural system. The leaves on the outside shelter those underneath and redirect the light deep into the tree.

The team looked to the morphology of local trees to optimize the lighting system

This is a long, horizontal campus, with large floor plates that are slightly less than 150,000 square feet. We analyzed how the sun moves over the site and then designed a grid of apertures sprinkled across the roof. Under the apertures, which are about four feet square, tubular devices direct sunlight down into the building. Below these devices are translucent reflectors that capture the sunlight and glow like a light fixture during daylight hours. They also distribute light and mitigate glare by reflecting light back up to the ceiling of this shed. The entire ceiling becomes a luminaire.

Central courtyard without skylights

In places where we want to encourage people to congregate, we replaced the diffusers around the apertures with specially crafted light lanterns that look like an assemblage of descending, glowing planks hanging at different heights. These lanterns capture and reflect light down into the space. We placed them to provide visual landmarks and punctuate spaces.

When people move through this campus, they will notice, without being overtly aware, how even the light levels are – with minimal electric lighting. By adapting life’s principles, we are driving down electric lighting loads by more than 50 percent.

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