Constructing college, university buildings wisely: Sustainability and energy efficiency

Engineering mechanical, electrical, plumbing (MEP), and fire protection systems in colleges and universities requires designers to look toward the future of postsecondary education, and consider all aspects of a building and its occupants, including sustainable design.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer December 29, 2015


Aravind Batra, PE, LC, LEED AP, Principal, P2S Engineering Inc., Long Beach, Calif.

Craig Buck, PE, LEED AP, Associate, RMF Engineering, Charleston, S.C.

Jeffrey R. Crawford, PE, LEED AP, CCS, Vice President, Director of Higher Education & Research Market, Ross & Baruzzini Inc., St. Louis

Andre M. Hebert, PE, BEMP, LEED AP BD+C, Principal, Senior Mechanical Engineer, EYP Architecture & Engineering, Boston

Sergiu Pelau, PE, LEED AP, Principal, Syska Hennessy Group, New York City

Scott Robbins, PE, CEM, LEED AP BD+C, Senior Vice President, WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff, Boston

CSE: Energy efficiency and sustainability are often a request from building owners. What net zero energy and/or high-performance systems have you recently specified on a college/university (either an existing building or new construction)?

Batra: We are currently in the process of designing a new net zero energy facility for a university. The facility will serve as an alumni center and comprises meeting rooms, offices, open spaces, conference rooms, and display areas. The proposed alumni center will be oriented effectively with enhanced envelope insulation to minimize internal loads; incorporate natural daylighting; promote passive solar heat in winter; incorporate variable refrigerant systems; include energy-efficient LED lighting and integrated dimming, daylighting, and occupancy controls; and incorporate PV panels to offset all of the energy usage in the facility.

Pelau: The last three major university buildings we’ve worked on, Cooper Union New Academic Building, Cornell CIS Gates Hall, and Manhattan College Student Commons, have achieved or are in the process of receiving LEED Gold or higher. Cooper Union is 39.3% more efficient than a standard building of this type and is the first LEED Platinum-certified laboratory building in New York City. Some of the features of sustainable design provided for this building include radiant-system ceilings for heating and cooling, an airside heat-recovery system, and a greywater system that uses the stored stormwater from the green roof. The Cornell CIS building includes a combination of active and passive chilled beams and air handlers with energy-recovery systems (energy wheels). Both buildings include a high-performance building envelope with a double-wall façade, demand-control ventilation, efficient lighting, radiant floor heating for the lower levels, and integrated occupancy sensors and controls with an advanced building automation system. Manhattan College Student Center includes air-handling units working together with a VRF system. The building is provided with daylight controls, and automated shading of the curtain wall operates on preset positions determined by a solar study.

Buck: The UFAD system at the Clemson Watt Family Innovation Center is designed as a high-performance HVAC system. The College of Charleston Rita Hollings Science Center recently designed a ventilation-driven laboratory facility with a high quantity of fume hoods and biosafety cabinets; and because the project authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) prohibited the use of energy-recovery wheels, RMF designed a high-performance, networked, run-around coil loop system in conjunction with indirect adiabatic/evaporative cooling of the exhaust airstream. The specialized energy-recovery coils in the exhaust airstream transferr energy from the air to the water/glycol fluid circuit, which is piped to the supply air stream energy-recovery coils to precool the outside air. By adiabatically cooling the laboratory exhaust air prior to passing through the exhaust-energy-recovery coils, the cooling of the heat-transfer fluid is further increased, which in turn provides additional cooling of outside air and increased recovery efficiency.

CSE: Many aspects of sustainability (power, HVAC, maintenance, etc.) require building personnel to follow certain practices to be effective. What, if anything, can an engineer do to help increase chances of success in this area?

Buck: Getting the owner involved early and throughout the entire design process is critical to getting building personnel to follow the appropriate sustainable practices. By making the owner an active participant in the design decisions, he can provide feedback about system-maintenance procedures and how best to accommodate the abilities and limitations of the staff. This process can be helped if commissioning is part of the project, as most commissioning agents require some level of owner training as part of the commissioning process.

Crawford: We have found the most effective way to ensure building personnel follow correct practices in operating the building is to:

  • Engage them early and often throughout the design process to make sure they understand the systems you are proposing and can provide input on their own capabilities to operate them
  • Provide a rigorous commissioning and training process to properly educate them on operating the building before the "keys are turned over."

Robbins: We find the systems are designed to maintain setpoints within rooms that are often changed after the building is operational. Lowering room temperatures in the summer has a big impact on performance. It takes training and a commitment from the end users to accept the design conditions. Engineers need to invest time with the client to explain the impact of their control changes.

Batra: An engineer can ensure that facility staff is adequately trained in the various aspects of power and HVAC systems to ensure that the systems are operating as designed and that facility personnel understands the importance of operating them efficiently while meeting user comfort.

CSE: Please share a college/university success story in which you were able to enhance sustainability of an existing building. Annual statistics on energy savings and other supporting evidence would be helpful.

Batra: We have recently completed a retrofit of a liberal arts complex at one university. The project included improving the envelope, improving efficiency of both lighting and HVAC systems by providing LED lighting and demand-control ventilation, and providing flexible classrooms equipped with wireless data and AV systems. The complex achieved LEED Silver certification and exceeded the California Title 24 requirements by 25%.

Buck: The Hunter Hall Chemistry Building at Clemson University houses multiple research and chemistry labs and was the largest energy user on campus. RMF Engineering was tasked with upgrading and retrofitting Clemson’s existing air handlers to make them more energy efficient. We also went through an extensive rebalancing exercise using control banding to ensure the appropriate amount of air changes given the types of experiments being performed, chemicals used, and current safety procedures. This same control-banding exercise was done at the Basis Science Building at the Medical University of South Carolina. Both projects reduced the energy consumption of each building significantly.

CSE: Please describe your experience in smart or intelligent college/university buildings or campuses.

Batra: We have completed designs for a number of educational buildings that are equipped with smart lighting and HVAC control systems to maximize energy efficiency and provide the users with the flexibility of controlling their systems to suit their needs and monitor their systems. This helps to not only monitor renewable energy power generation, but also real-time energy consumption of each of the systems serving the facility.

CSE: Have you worked with a college/university client to specify kiosks or other prominently displayed energy efficiency monitoring systems in a dorm or other campus building? What types of tools are schools requesting to encourage their students to competitively save energy?

Crawford: As I stated previously, lobby displays and Web-based interfaces explaining the sustainable features in a building and showing both instantaneous and aggregate energy consumption are becoming commonplace in new buildings on college/university campuses, and we have specified several such installations.

Batra: We have designed energy dashboards that provide real-time energy usage and trending data for a campus facility creating more awareness among students and promoting energy conservation.

Buck: Several universities we work with have installed these kinds of systems to show students the energy being saved by the building. This has led to energy-saving challenges between departments or dormitory floors in the same building, making the users aware of their energy consumption and working to reduce occupants’ energy use.