It is doubtful that even a visionary such as Alexander Graham Bell could have imagined the ways in which his 19th century Bell Labs building has been changed today. Purchased by Somerset Development in 2013, the 2 million-square-foot complex in Holmdel, New Jersey – one of the largest buildings in the state – now is not only a technology hub, but also is environmentally friendly, according to an April 7 report by the Asbury Park Press.
“It was built at a time when energy was almost irrelevant, cheap and free and flowing,” Ralph Zucker, president of Somerset Development of Holmdel, told the local news outlet. But all that has changed, and the famous site has evolved, along with the times.
Now it has gone through several generations of owners and of redevelopment. At its peak, nearly 6,000 people worked at AT&T’s Bell Labs research complex, an iconic building designed by Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen, the newspaper said. After its successor, Alcatel Lucent, foundered, the company closed the building in 2007 and sold it six years later to Zucker’s Somerset Development for $27 million. The company said it would spend $200 million to renovate the building.
“Our tenants are primarily forward thinking, technological companies,” Zucker told the Asbury Park Press. “It requires a certain amount of pioneering spirit and creativity to want to come to Bell Works and a lot of their employee base – very Millennial, very socially and environmentally minded individuals – say to us that greening the building is important to them.”
Among the steps that Somerset Development has taken, or plans to put in place, to boost the energy efficiency of the complex are the following:
Solar glass. Bell Works is replacing 3,200 skylights, which span the quarter-mile-long atrium roof and cover 60,000 square feet with state-of-the-art photovoltaic glass. The clear glass solar cells will be the largest such installation in the country and supply more than 15 percent of the building’s electricity, Zucker told the local news outlet.
“The cost of operating such a large atrium, such a large pedestrian street, it’s far from typical,” he said. “We are greening it and reducing the cost to operate.”
New heating and cooling system. In the old days, Bell Labs had to heat and cool the entire building all the time – even when the building had few occupants, such as at night and on weekends, making it inefficient. Instead, Somerset Development has installed an energy management system that can control every space.
“You can have an employee sitting here at 3 o’clock in the morning in their own little space and we can heat and cool that space,” Zucker said.
Lighting. About 8,000 light bulbs in the common areas have been swapped out with more energy-efficient bulbs, resulting in about 35 percent energy savings, the newspaper reported.
Electric car chargers. Bell Works plans to provide electric vehicle charging stations in the parking lots, which will use the energy produced by the photovoltaic glass.
And finally, the possibility of parking lot solar. Solar panels over the parking lots are on the Bell Works wish list. But any proposal has to conform with the building’s designation on the National Register of Historic Places and be approved by the state’s historic preservation office and the National Park Service, Zucker said. “We’ve had it laid out numerous times,” he said. “It would be really a phenomenal energy provider. We’d love to have a zero carbon footprint for a building of this size.”
It has to be approached primarily from the building’s historic nature, Zucker said. “We are working our way through that as we speak.”
And that work has been recognized by environmentalists nationwide. “Part of the problem we see around the state as we’re trying to adapt these older research buildings that were built decades ago to the modern era … is trying to make them more energy efficient,” Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, told the Asbury Park Press.. “It’s not easy. It’s a lot of engineering. It’s a lot to try to make them energy efficient.”
But there is a substantial payoff, which tenants have noticed. “We love the idea of the photovoltaic cells,” said Paul Banco, CEO of tenant etherFAX . “The building is truly innovating … for the environment.”