Green Building Operations

Aug. 31, 2010
Universities review their experiences with green building operations.

With rooted investments and research-driven motivations, it’s no surprise that universities and colleges have been the flagship for the green building movement. And yet, despite their forward-looking enthusiasm, higher education facilities face a steep learning curve in regard to green building operations.

Universities are more likely to be aggressive with their green buildings, thus taking on a higher level of risk. New technologies and innovative designs can lead to product failure, design flaws, or installation errors.

The sustainable university building is akin to a real-time experiment, with facility managers and their support crews onsite to tally the results. Clark University, Georgia Institute of Technology, and the University of Northern Iowa share their insights about performance and maintenance needs in their green facilities over the years.

Clark University Saves Money with LEED
Awarded LEED-Gold certification in 2007, the Lasry Center for Bioscience was Clark University’s first LEED facility. Located in Worcester, MA, the building set a benchmark for the private university and cemented its long-standing commitment to sustainability. "It’s been a very good building for Clark," says Paul Bottis Jr., Physical Plant Director. "It met all of our expectations, is easy to maintain, has reasonable costs to keep cool, and is a showpiece for us."

Though LEED certification has become more widespread since the building opened, the Lasry Center still represents a small handful of high-performance laboratories and mixed-use university properties. The 3-story, 50,000-square-foot structure houses labs, faculty offices, lounges, and conference rooms.

To Bottis, the building exemplifies why sustainable design is crucial, even in a down economy. "We’ve been green before it became fashionable, not to save the environment, but to save resources. We find that going green actually saves us money."

Lasry’s energy costs alone are 45% less than other campus buildings, with additional water savings of 31%. Clark was also able to offset its soft costs for LEED commissioning and design by taking advantage of incentives offered by the Massachusetts and national power grids. The university secured 45 cents per square foot in rebates, bringing down the LEED costs of the building to $2.54 per square foot.

Throughout the space there are many sustainable elements common to LEED projects: low-flow fixtures, occupancy sensors, sustainable wood and fiber products, and extensive daylighting. The facility maximizes its south-facing orientation with a triangular layout. It includes an enthalpy ventilation system and originally had waterless urinals.

Clark also has a campus-wide policy of using green cleaning products. "We find they’re reasonable in price, they make our students happy, they’re good for the environment, and they clean as well," says Bottis.

Since the building opened, only two problems were found with the design. The first was with aspects of the lighting control system. Several components not only didn’t function as anticipated, but also weren’t operating correctly. "It was really our only disappointment in the building," says Bottis, who expressed the performance concerns were mostly tied to the brand.

The other issue was the waterless urinals, which didn’t last long in the building. "We probably didn’t give them a fair shot because they were fairly new when we tried them," Bottis admits. "They didn’t really work well — there were problems with the odors — so we did away with them."

Despite these complications, Clark is satisfied with its decision to pursue LEED certification. Bottis recommends picking a good commission firm as they can make all the difference in the process. He adds that selecting quality components and products, as well as having good building practices, will help prevent many headaches down the road.

Georgia Tech Uses Solar to Generate 3.2 GW of Power
In 1996, the Georgia Institute of Technology (GT) was the site of the Olympic aquatic events in Atlanta. At the time, the Campus Recreation Center (CRC) had the world’s largest roof-mounted PV system. The array holds almost 3,000 PV silicon crystal modules configured in a series string, and spans over 2 football fields.

The CRC isn’t just green on its roof, however. It also has cisterns that capture HVAC condensation. This greywater is used for irrigation around campus, which is particularly important during drought conditions. Daylighting, automated building controls, green cleaning, and low-flow fixtures round out the building’s environmental focus. The PV array also generates solar thermal energy that is directed to heating the pool.

While much larger arrays have since stripped GT of its title, the university is nonetheless pleased with the advances in PV technology since the array was installed. In its 14 years of performance, the array has been a boom for GT. "One of the purposes of the array was to conduct research: what can we expect from a large-scale array of this size and what can we tell other communities who are intending to install such an array," says Ian Cooper, a research engineer for GT.

So far, the array has produced a cumulative output of 3.2 GW of electricity. With approximately 20 years more to go, the array has lost little power – approximately 1% annually. It was designed to produce 342 kW but maxed out at 320 during the Olympics. It currently performs at 302kW. "For the technology as it stood in ’96, we’ve seen a fairly consistent output," says Cooper.

Despite its age and size, the array has had few maintenance issues. As part of an urban campus, few trees eliminate the threat of falling branches, debris from leaves, and potential issues with insects or birds. With a 1-foot clearance between the panels and the metal roof, most debris is washed away by rain. The panels’ most constant threat is from storms, particularly lightening.

The array is large enough that GT has a full-time staff member to supervise its performance. Kenny Trotman, a PV technician and an electrical engineer for GT, oversees the monitoring systems and responds to falloffs identified by data acquisition. His duties include panel replacement and wire and inverter maintenance.

For those contemplating solar energy, Trotman recommends keeping the array’s output at the top of your shopping list. "Be aware of the efficiency the solar cells are generating as compared to price. Also, do a lot of research on the inverter because it is a very important part of the array."

Due to the system’s age and the region’s low energy costs, GT’s system will never completely pay for itself. Georgia has some of the lowest electricity premiums in the country – 8-10 cents per kW – which means the university is unlikely to recapture the cost of the array over its life cycle. However, solar power costs less than maintaining grid-connected electricity, and GT’s array has significantly offset its peak time loads.

Cooper underscores the need for continued investment to help make solar a reality for more facilities. "For an owner to consider PV as an option, it’s very much dictated by the cost. Unfortunately, it takes an altruistic attitude to choose a PV array, because in the end, it may not pay off in terms of that ‘pay for itself’ scenario," he says. "However, I encourage designers and owners to consider the option because ultimately, it provides a momentum to drive those costs down."

University of Northern Iowa Facility Creates Green Leaders
In 1994, the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) was awarded a Department of Energy grant to build a national research and resource center to pave the way for energy and environmental education. The result was the Center for Energy and Environmental Education (CEEE). "It was the first major project where from the very beginning of design and construction we were looking at using energy-efficient practices and renewable energy," says Eric O’Brien, UNI’s sustainability coordinator.

The 31,000-square-foot facility in Cedar Falls, IA, was built well in advance of LEED standards, yet incorporates many of the features the process typically rewards. Designed to use 30% less energy, the 16-year-old building still performs at 32% less than typical campus buildings. Daylighting was a prime focus – virtually every room has access to natural light. Passive solar offsets energy demands while overhangs on the exterior help with overheating. Natural facades are used extensively, eliminating the need for repainting and reducing the use of petroleum and VOC products.

The CEEE’s lasting impact has been its ability to serve as a physical think tank for educating students and the public about sustainability. It is a site not only for classes, but workshops, lectures, joint programs with the community, and green consulting services. The building is host to programs such as the Green Iowa Americorp and the "Buy Fresh, Buy Local" campaign, as well as solar installation training and Iowa flood planning instruction.

"The educational aspects are one of the CEEE’s greatest benefits," says O’Brien. "It’s one of the areas we hold many outreach events at because we’re seen as a group that is very involved in energy conservation and environmental issues. It’s been a place where a lot of engagement has been able to occur."

Compared to its regent cousins, UNI is a modest-sized campus with infrequent new construction. Its most recent project, a parking garage, is the first net-zero government building in the state. However, like most universities on a tight budget, its focus remains on achieving energy efficiency through renovations and retrofits.

Preparing the Future
Higher education is one of the best breeding grounds for green practices and buildings not only because of its willingness to sail into uncharted – or at least untested – waters, but because of the attitude it can instill in students. "Universities are their own communities," says O’Brien. "We’re a corridor for the leaders of tomorrow who are making their way into the workforce. We’re creating a culture that they’re bringing into the leadership of the next generation. It’s really important to be able to create that culture of sustainability through the college experience."

Jennie Morton ([email protected]) is assistant editor for BUILDINGS.

About the Author

Jennie Morton

A former BUILDINGS editor, Jennie Morton is a freelance writer specializing in commercial architecture, IoT and proptech.

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