AGU Headquarters Renovation Chases Ambitious Performance and Occupant Comfort

AGU, net zero, Metamorphosis Awards

1st Place, Whole Building

In 1994, the American Geophysical Union, or AGU, opened its 62,000-square-foot headquarters in the historic Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington, D.C. The non-profit represents a global network of 130,000 Earth and space scientists and enthusiasts, and the building incorporated symbolic design elements that refer to its members’ research.

Decades later, the building began to show its age. By 2013, the mechanical systems had come to the end of their useful lives and AGU leaders concluded they needed to move forward with a renovation. However, the group wanted to take this opportunity to demonstrate the organization’s commitment to minimizing the built environment’s impact on climate change. This kicked off a multi-year process that would result in a net-zero commercial renovation that provides a contemporary, mission-driven workplace for AGU staff.

“AGU hired an owner’s representative, architect, engineer and general contractor to work together from the start,” recalls Guilherme Almeida, AIA, LEED AP, lead project designer with Hickok Cole, the architect on the project. “In approaching the building’s renovation, we sought to make an architectural and environmental statement. It was important to situate the building in the conversation around the future of net-zero energy development while maintaining the integrity of the original design, which was of paramount importance to AGU, its neighbors and the local Historic Preservation Board.”

The ambitious renovation, whose lofty performance goals are intended to showcase progress in sustainable design and inspire similar approaches in other facilities, earned the AGU headquarters the 1st Place award in the Whole Buildings category of the 2022 Metamorphosis Awards.


The design team understood that a net-zero-energy building is difficult to design and relies heavily on mechanical/electrical/plumbing systems and innovative technologies. They were also quite aware that a major factor in building performance is occupant behavior and to achieve those ambitious performance goals required more than just smart design and advanced technology. The people who work in the space needed to understand the building’s operation and be part of the solution. That required an advanced level of operational transparency.

“Throughout the building, informative graphics point out significant operational features and explain how they contribute to meeting net-zero-energy standards,” Almeida says. “Mechanical spaces are set behind glass to allow visitors a closer look. Upon entry, an interactive dashboard in the lobby presents an overview of energy consumption throughout the building.”

Stepping beyond transparency to the regular occupants of the building, special attention was paid to make the space welcoming and informative of AGU’s mission to anyone who visits.

“Seeking to engage with the public in its new home, the design transforms AGU’s ground floor into an interactive exhibit showcasing members’ research,” Almeida explains. “Expanded street-level vitrine bays invite pedestrians to wander inside and attend regular public tours. A lounge and shared workspace welcome AGU members, giving them a home away from home to connect with and collaborate among peers. A flexible, state-of-the-art conference center supports AGU’s internal events, social functions and public programming. We also transformed the concourse
level to feature additional lounge space and showcase the building’s open command center that provides additional insight into building operations.”


Along with engaging the building occupants in the net-zero strategy, the project team always had a strong occupant focus. So often, projects of this magnitude can get lost in the form and function of the building itself, but in this case a primary goal was making this the best possible space for those who work and visit.

“AGU sought to transform its workplace into a dynamic and collaborative modern environment— a destination employees sought out,” Almeida says. “Our approach combined wellness and sustainable strategies that prioritize holistic health and support the changing needs of employees.”

Fulfilling this goal to AGU’s human assets involved some big changes in structure, flow and design.

“To foster a greater sense of connectivity and promote physical activity, we cut into existing slabs to make way for a new central connecting stair, uniting staff across three floors and providing easy access to a new café and other shared amenities,” Almeida continues. “We replaced opaque perimeter private offices with an open plan to maximize daylight into the building’s core. The open office is supplemented by a variety of flexible huddle and conference rooms conducive to different work preferences. Another strategy that combines sustainability and biophilia is the incorporation of hydroponic phytoremediation walls that function as a ventilation system to improve indoor air quality.”


The new AGU headquarters delivers a superior workspace to its staff and members, and the performance and sustainability goals are seamlessly wrapped into the full package. That involved everything from high-tech systems to basic material considerations.

“We sought to reuse or recycle as much as possible. In fact, 96 percent of the existing building’s materials are reused in addition to many pieces of furniture,” Almeida says. “Five-thousand bricks were salvaged and cleaned for reuse at the street level while stone, glass and porcelain from toilets were repurposed as terrazzo in the ground floor and conference-room table. On top of it all, about 90 percent of construction waste was recycled.”

Some of the biggest hurdles the project encountered came from deploying new and innovative solutions to achieve the net-zero goal.

“Understanding and properly applying leading-edge technology combined with our limited experience in designing for net zero were by far the biggest challenges,” Almeida recalls. “That’s why all entities had to be involved in every stage of development. We had to be creative in addressing energy consumption and generation, given the existing building constraints and its location in D.C.’s high-traffic and historic Dupont Circle district. For example, because of AGU’s footprint, photovoltaic arrays alone couldn’t offset the building’s energy consumption. This prompted the incorporation of an innovative sewer heat-exchange system to facilitate heating and cooling. Likewise, we worked with the local historic board and community organizations to ensure the design respected and blended well with the neighborhood’s character.”

The completed building earned a LEED Platinum certification and, at 96 points, is in the top 5 percent of all international LEED projects. It features enhanced envelope insulation, a radiant ceiling cooling system, and achieves a 77 percent reduction in water demand because of efficient water fixtures and captured rainwater.

“The project has been largely embraced by the surrounding community and the city of Washington, D.C.,” Almeida says. “AGU received the first Clean Energy DC Award from the D.C. Department of Energy & Environment at the District’s 2019 Sustainability Awards ceremony. Today, AGU stands by its commitment to transparency and education, opening its doors regularly for public tours, programming and exhibits.”

“That new roof structure is insane! Not only does it draw attention, it also meshes well with the overall building. Also, a lot of upgrades to the façade but still recognizable as the original building; it feels like a natural evolution for the building owner’s evolving needs.”

Charles Van Winckle, vice president, Thornton Tomasetti’s Renewal practice, Metamorphosis Awards Judge

Retrofit Team


MEP ENGINEER: Interface Engineering






METAL PANELS: Reynobond from Arconic




CARPET: Shaw Contract and Interface

CORK FLOORING: Capri Collections

RADIANT COOLING: Messana and Zehnder Rittling


COUNTERTOPS: Corian Quartz


LIGHTING: Erco, Vibia, JLC-Tech and Bega

GREEN WALL: Nedlaw Living Walls

ACOUSTIC CEILING TILES: Armstrong Ceiling & Wall Solutions

ROOF PAVERS: Bison Innovative Products

About the Author

Jim Schneider, LEED AP
Jim Schneider, LEED AP, has worked in the design and construction industry for almost 20 years. He writes about architecture, sustainability and construction from Denver.

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