United Therapeutics’ construction seen from existing office building. The location of the atrium can be seen in the lower right. Photo by Mike Diegel.
While construction continues on United Therapeutics’ new office building at Colesville Road and Spring Street, it’s not the reason for the recent traffic disruptions on Colesville, as the Source and others mistakenly assumed.
That work is part of Pepco’s efforts to upgrade transmission lines between two substations.
In the meantime, UT is getting close to topping off the new building, according to Thomas Kaufman, associate director, corporate real estate for the company.
The structure, known as the Unisphere, will incorporate 10,000 square feet of retail space on the ground floor and 120,000 square feet of office space and virtual labs in the rest of the building.
“We’ve been growing at a pretty steady clip,” Kaufman said, “and anticipate to continue growing at a pretty steady clip.
The Unisphere will be a net-zero building, meaning that “the site will have no carbon footprint of operations because the amount of electrical and thermal energy used in operations will be renewably generated on site,” according to the project website.
For example, UT will install more than 3,000 solar panels to provide more than 1 megawatt of power for the building.
Supply, however, is just one side of the net-zero equation, Kaufman said.
“The other side of the equation is how do you reduce your consumption of energy?” he said. “Because we’re in an urban environment, it’s a relatively small piece of land and the building takes up almost the entire footprint of the land.”
That limits the space available for solar installations, and the surrounding buildings create a lot of shade, reducing the opportunities to meet all the energy needs with solar power only.
Heating and cooling a building is a major component of energy consumption, Kaufman said, so they looked for innovative ways to reduce it.
“A big part of that strategy was using a geothermal system,” he said. “It’s a series of  500-foot deep, closed loop wells that circulate a liquid throughout.”
The wells will enable the company to use the cooler temperature of the earth to exchange heat to cool the building on a hot day, and the opposite on a cold day.
However, when it came to getting a permit for the wells, the company hit a snag.
The state treats geothermal wells the same way as a well drilled for drinking water, which need to be inspected and tested from time to time for health and safety. Regulations therefore don’t permit wells to be under the footprint of a building. Due to the small lot size, that’s where the UT wells were to be located.
“It’s a closed loop, no one’s ever going to access the water to sample it for any health or safety reasons, so there’s really no reason to have that regulation apply to a geothermal well,” Kaufman said.
Nevertheless, they couldn’t get approval for the wells.
The design team thought drilling a smaller number of 1,000-foot wells around the building would solve the issue, but that plan was nixed by Dr. Martine Rothblatt, the company’s chairman and CEO.
“She would not allow us to proceed with this alternate geothermal concept,” Kaufman said. “She said, ‘You guys need to figure out how to get the Maryland state regulations changed to allow geothermal wells to be underneath the footprint of the building.’”
Her reasoning was unless the rules were changed, no one would ever be able to do net-zero in an urban environment, in an area like Silver Spring, which this building is intended to demonstrate.
The company succeeded in getting the rules changed and work on the building continued.
There are other design elements that contribute to the net-zero goal, including natural ventilation through an atrium (which also will hold a thermal pool), increased insulation, triple-paned glazing, and electrochromic tinting glass.
Demolition of the former county garage on the site began on July 15, 2016 and Kaufman expects the Unisphere to be ready for occupancy in July 2018.
In the meantime, while UT did go into public space for new utilities, they never dug up Colesville Road, and the work was finished months ago.