Continuing our coverage of the 2014 AIA COTE Top Ten green projects, this article is part of a series of 10 pieces that examine a specific, defining design challenge or innovation of each of this year's winners.

Increasing a building’s passive survivability—its ability to shelter and support occupants in the case of a power outage or major disaster—is a growing part of the sustainable design movement, and one of the latest buildings to incorporate these strategies is the Wayne N. Aspinall Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Grand Junction, Colo.

Built in 1918, this three-story, 42,000-square-foot neoclassical federal building has been in continuous use for nearly 100 years. Although the building was expanded in 1939, over the decades it had become cramped and outdated, which precipitated a recent renovation led by the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), working with a design/build partnership between The Beck Group and Westlake Reed Leskosky (WRL).

The LEED Platinum building aims to be the GSA’s first site-net-zero-energy facility on the National Register of Historic Places. Strategies to accomplish this include a roof canopy–mounted 123-kW photovoltaic array, storm windows, a geothermal exchange system, lighting upgrades, and post-occupancy monitoring capabilities.

Just as boosting daylight is essential for energy savings, it is also critical in a power outage. Given that the Aspinall’s historic window openings could not be altered, the design team worked to bring natural light into the space in other ways, such as minimizing building systems that blocked windows near work areas and by designing a 300-square-foot skylight with two elements, one facing north and the other facing south, installed over a tenant space.

The building already had a high level of mass, with 2- to 3-feet-thick walls made of Indiana limestone, brick, terra-cotta, and plaster. To this, the team added spray foam and rigid insulation, further stabilizing internal temperatures and increasing the amount of time occupants could comfortably shelter in place. The building’s basement, which was an approved radiation fallout shelter during the Cold War, is also a major factor in its survivability. “With a lot of buildings that are lightweight construction, you’d have to get out of the building pretty quickly,” says Roger Chang, Assoc. AIA, director of engineering for WRL.

The team also looked into creating a microgrid to tie the PV array directly into the building (instead of being connected to the utility) so that it could power lower-voltage systems in an outage. Because of funding and scheduling issues, however, this aspect was shelved. But the designers are not ruling out a future retrofit for this capability. They also hope that other LEED projects will place a greater emphasis on designing for survivability.

“We often design under the assumption that power is ubiquitous and plentiful, and it’s really not,” says Paul Westlake, FAIA, managing principal for WRL. “Many buildings make an enormous investment in emergency power systems, when in fact they’re inadequate for the length of time of the outages and the demand loads of the building. The ultimate cost to utilities and consumers is extraordinary. Design should be given much stronger consideration in improving the survivability of these buildings.”

Click here to access our full coverage of the 2014 AIA COTE Top Ten Green Projects, including more information on each project, additional images, and exclusive Q&As with each winning firm.