Feb 21, 2013

A Remarkable and Beautiful Sustainable Building

It's obvious that this building is neither small scale nor a home, but it is a great showplace for many elements of sustainable energy and building practices.  That interests me a lot and hopefully it interests you at least a little bit too.  Let me show you around this living laboratory of sustainability. 

Canopy over the main entrance to Sustainability Hall
South side of Sustainability Hall  (photo taken autumn 2012)
North side of Sustainability Hall (photo taken February 2013)

 Just to quickly sum-up some of this building's cool features, here's a partial list...

1. 170 photovoltaic solar panels (w/ space to add 144 more)
2. Three wind turbines
3. A 400 kW fuel cell
4. "Green" roof 
5. Radiant slab floor heated and/or cooled by geothermal heat pumps
6. Rainwater management/reuse system
7. Four electric vehicle charging stations
8. Efficient LED dark-sky-friendly outdoor safety and security lighting
9. High performance building envelope
10. "Green" wall 

That's not a complete list, but it's some of the highlights.


The green roof
There's a green roof at one level.  The plants and soil help insulate the building, keeping it warmer in winter and cooler in summer.  They also protect the waterproof roofing membrane from the sun's UV rays, so it's predicted that it will last twice as long.  The plants are all native species, drought tolerant, and selected in close consultation with a nearby zoo, so they will make great butterfly habitat.  Green roofs such as this have been demonstrated to lower the summertime roof temperature by up to 96 degrees F compared to black roofs, so that ought to significantly lower summer-time cooling loads.  A portion of the green roof close to the building is set aside for 26 PV solar panels.  They're installed now, but they weren't installed when I took the photo above.  At peak sun on sunny days our 170 solar panels (26 on the green roof and 144 more on the high roof) generate more than 40,000 watts combined.

Narrated tour of the green roof

Wind turbines, bioswale, and dark-sky-friendly LED lighting.

The three wind turbines are the vertical axis variety.  This is a very windy spot, but the turbines won't be allowed to turn until we get their inverters installed and hooked-up.  Each turbine can generate 1 kW of electricity when the wind speed is sufficient.  

In the photo above you can also see a big gouge in the ground that has now become the bioswale.  It's purpose is to reduce runoff by gathering rainwater and  allowing it to percolate slowly into the ground.  Bioswales like this have been shown to return up to 30% more water to the aquifer than areas without bioswales.  Ours is planted with native plants selected for their ability to tolerate occasional standing water and saturated soil.  

The outside safety and security lighting is all efficient LEDs, in fixtures designed to limit light pollution.

1,700 gallon rainwater storage cistern
The rainwater harvesting system collects rainwater and stores it in a 1,700 gallon cistern in the basement.  The water used in the building's flush fixtures and for watering the green wall, but it's expected to reduce the need for municipal water by about two thirds.

The main staircase in the central space, called the Galleria.
This building is divided into three distinct zones that run parallel to one another on the east/west axis.  The northern edge is dedicated to labs, testbeds, and research primarily.  The south edge consists mostly of offices, conference rooms, and classrooms.  Running down the middle is a space called the Galleria.  It serves mostly as circulation space, but it's also a giant light-well, distributing daylight deep into the building.  That coupled with mostly glass walls facing the Galleria's northern edge means that even the labs on the north side of the building get plenty of natural daylight, so very little if any artificial lighting is required (except of course at night). 

The video wall consists of three 65 inch flat panel screens.
There's a video wall at the first level of the Galleria. One panel of the display will show the building's energy generation and usage in real-time.  At a glance, a person will be able to see how much energy the solar panels, wind turbines, and fuel cells are producing, and have produced in the past (day, week, month, year, etc).  The building has its own microgrid to manage the energy from all these different sources, and a 56 kWh battery bank for storing renewable energy for use during periods of peak power demand.  There's space to double the the battery bank size and capacity in the future.  Another screen on the video wall will most likely feature news about the type of research being conducted in the labs and how it all relates to sustainability.  The third screen will probably have information about the building itself, how it is constructed, its energy conserving features, how it obtained LEED platinum status, and that sort of thing.

Electric vehicle charging station
The two electric vehicle charging stations can each charge two vehicles, for a total of four.  If demand is sufficient, vehicles may have to move once charged to allow other vehicles to charge there too (up to eight vehicles per day).  Our charging stations are powered by solar and wind energy stored in our battery bank.  There are also parking spaces close to the building set aside for high fuel efficiency and carpool vehicles.  There's a bus stop just outside the main entrance, and it's also convenient for pedestrian and bicycle traffic.

Airblade hand dryer
Water bottle refilling station
Dyson Airblade hand dryers in the bathrooms eliminate paper towel waste there.  Plastic single use water bottles are banned, but you can refill your reusable water bottle when you wish at any of the refill stations.

400 kW phosphoric acid fuel cell
 A 400 kW fuel cell stationed right outside the building  meets 100% of the building's energy needs and has enough to spare that we can generally export about 240 kW out to the rest of the campus.  Maybe you already know that fuel cells are far more efficient than conventional electric generators whose efficiencies are generally somewhere in the 30% range.  They also have the advantage of being quiet and releasing comparatively little CO2.  By themselves those are good qualities, but this one also heats water for the building and elsewhere on campus, raising its efficiency to somewhere in the 90% range.  A fuel cell lab in the building can accommodate at least six more research fuel cells, capable of generating more than  200 additional kW.

Anaerobic digester
Our biofuels development lab adjacent to the fuel cell lab houses an anaerobic digester to produce biogas, a biodiesel production unit, and  fermentation reactors to make ethanol and butanol.  All of our biofuels can be used in internal combustion engines, which will be tested in the building's sustainable vehicle propulsion lab. The biofuels can also be reformed for hydrogen so they can be used in the fuel cells too.  The feedstocks for all the biofuels are organic wastes like used cooking oil and food waste from our dining halls, and cow manure from nearby dairy farms.  It's so cool that we are able to solve waste disposal problems and help meet energy needs at the same time with this arrangement.

The green wall is 8' x 38' and covered with thousands of living plants.
A prominent feature in the building's interior is its green wall, which is eight feet wide and 38 feet tall.  It consist of almost 2,000 living plants giving off oxygen, absorbing carbon dioxide, and adding humidity to the otherwise dry winter air.  It contributes quite a bit to maintaining healthy indoor air quality and setting a positive tone in the building.

Scale model of the building in the Sustainable Building Materials Lab.
The Sustainable Building Materials Lab has a great view of the wind turbines.
One lab in the building is for sustainable building materials research.  Students in the architecture program will test materials and assemblies in the environmental chamber where they can manipulate temperature, humidity, light, and acoustics.  They can subject whatever they're testing to rapid aging to to see how they stand-up over time, how they affect air quality, and so on.

They'll also have a heliodon to simulate the sun's rays at any location, date, and time.  They can apply that to scale models of buildings to take maximum advantage of sunlight and shade in their designs.

Central staircase in the Galleria
Even though the building has two elevators, the large central staircase is the most obvious choice for traveling between floors.  This is by design.  It's meant to encourage working a bit of exercise into the occupant's everyday lives, and to create informal chance encounters between faculty, students, staff, and visitors.

There are eight geothermal wells near the building through which a fluid is pumped.  That fluid then circulates through a network of pipes in the concrete slab of the main floor heating it up in the winter or cooling it down in summer.  The network extends outside the building too, helping to melt snow and ice away from the entrances and outdoor stairs.

Pretty well thought-out, huh?  The architects, designers, and engineers involved tried to meet or exceed LEED platinum standards in every category, and I think the results are impressive.  The energy consumption of this building is expected to be 57% less than that of an identical building just built to code requirements, and the carbon footprint is reduced 62% in that same comparison.  It's quite a statement, quite a demonstration, quite an achievement, and quite a place.

I'm including a few more photos below.

Looking across the Galleria toward the green roof.
View showing the fixed, perforated metal louvers that keep the south facade in shade during the peak of summer sun.
Central staircase
Close-up of vertical axis wind turbine
Inverters and other equipment associated with the building's three wind turbines
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