Exploring the high demands for higher education facilities: sustainable buildings/energy efficiency

The design process for higher education facilities has its own set of challenges and requirements. Engineers discuss the current trends, challenges, and experiences with college and university facility projects regarding sustainable buildings/energy efficiency.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer October 28, 2016



Mark Fisher, PE, LEED AP, Principal, AlfaTech, San Jose, Calif.

Scott Foster, PE, LEED AP, Principal, Affiliated Engineers Inc., Chicago

Keith Hammelman, PE, Senior Vice President, CannonDesign, Chicago

Tom Hickey, PE, Plant and Building Services Market Leader, Stanley Consultants, Muscatine, Iowa

James Newman, PE, CEM, BEMP, LEED AP BD+C, High Performance Design Team, Leader, EYP Architecture & Engineering, Boston

Jose I. Torres, PE, MBA, Project Manager/Mechanical Engineer, RMF Engineering Inc., Raleigh, N.C.

CSE: Energy efficiency and sustainability are often requested by building owners and CIOs. What net zero energy and/or high-performance systems have you recently specified on college/university projects? 

Foster: We’ve specified radiant ceilings and panels, in-slab radiant cooling, geothermal fields (dedicated and campuswide), solar panel installations, variable-volume fume hoods, heat-recovery chillers, and chilled beams.

Hammelman: In a recent net zero energy project for Ohlone Community College, we specified the use of a reversible chiller connected to a geothermal borefield. This was needed to obtain the energy efficiency of the central utility plant and achieve the energy-use intensity at a level to be offset by the onsite PV-generation system. The chillers were configured in a way to properly produce the necessary heating and cooling water for the campus simultaneously. This system in combination with the use of LED lighting, integrated lighting controls, and an energy-efficient envelope allowed for this facility to be a net zero energy project.

Newman: The two primary areas of focus for designing a high-performance HVAC system to mitigate the peak-energy end use for science/laboratory buildings is high-efficiency heat recovery and occupancy/operational lab space controls for reduced flows. Specifying a high-efficiency run-around loop heat-recovery system for science/laboratory building applications allows for peak amounts of heat recovery while still meeting the requirement for keeping supply and exhaust airstreams separated. Designing the lab spaces with occupancy/operational lab space controls can allow for reduced airflows during periods of room vacancy. For this energy-intensive building type, a sustainable HVAC system can be achieved with the two-pronged approach of, first, recovering as much energy as possible from the exhaust air during normal operation and, second, constantly looking to reduce the amount of outdoor ventilation air delivered to the building whenever possible.

Fisher: We have designed PV systems, fuel cells, and solar hot-water systems. We have also designed state-of-the-art HVAC systems with variable refrigerant, chilled beams, and geothermal heat pumps for various colleges and universities. Our lighting staff was involved in a study to determine the most energy-efficient lighting solution for parking lots at University of California, Los Angeles, and the solution was implemented throughout the entire campus. We routinely specify transformers whose efficiencies exceed the Department of Energy’s 2016 requirements. We have found a 15% reduction in lighting energy by specifying lighting control systems with every lighting fixture independently controlled.

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

Hickey: In addition to a specific sequence of operations, successful future operations can many times be attributed to an interactive training session with the personnel of plant operations. This seminar should cover standard and emergency procedures and include classroom feedback and comprehension quizzes.

Fisher: Most important, you need to have a deep concern for the environment and a desire to be green. Engineers are taught to be conservative, do what everybody else does, and play it safe. A truly sustainable engineer needs to be able to break out of this mindset and look for innovative solutions that stretch us out of our comfort zone. Education is a key component. Our staff has many members of sustainable organizations who attend conferences or clinics and read various publications. Plus, we have an in-house sustainable design team that meets regularly to brainstorm and share ideas.

Torres: In the design phase, the project engineer should review the design and function of the MEP systems with the occupants and the maintenance team. The occupants should be informed of the level of comfort and energy-conversation measurements intended for the project. This is an opportunity to educate the individuals who control the success of any sustainability strategy. The maintenance team should be educated on how the MEP system will function and how the new equipment or control sequences are intended to operate. In many of our 1-year warranty walks, we have witnessed how maintenance teams have overwritten control sequences because the maintenance staff didn’t understand the intent of a control strategy or the function of a monitoring point.

Foster: Keep it simple. Be mindful of ongoing maintenance associated with potential energy-conservation measures. If energy-conservation measures aren’t readily maintained, they won’t be used.

Newman: When designing HVAC systems for college/university buildings, it’s very important to have a strong partnership with the institution and a solid understanding of the building facility team’s capabilities and resources. The best way to ensure the operational success of a building with high-performance design features is for the building facilities team to have a full understanding of their usage and maintenance. Without this understanding, high-performance systems have the liability to use more energy than a standard system, and poor operation can equate to shortened equipment life. If the engineer can design a system that meets or exceeds the requirements of the institution while also being a good fit for the building facility team, the outcome results in a design that delivers a quality HVAC system to the owner at a good working value.

Hammelman: A way for an engineer to increase the chances of having a successful sustainable project is to have the building’s facility team involved early on in the project to understand why decisions are made and how these decisions positively impact the sustainability of the project. This early buy-in by the facility team concerning the decision-making process allows them the ability to change their current operations culture to have a sustainable facility. We also recommend that a design engineer review the operation of the facility after it has been operating for 6 to 9 months to determine if there are any operational and cultural changes that need to be made.

CSE: What types of renewable or alternative energy systems have you recently specified to provide power for such projects? Describe the challenges and solutions.

Newman: The main type of renewable energy system that I’m currently seeing specified is PV arrays. With the price of this technology continuing to drop and the multiple incentives still being offered on federal, state, local, and utility provider levels, PV installations are continually becoming more financially feasible. The quick payback and lowered operating costs are certainly nice incentives for the owner, but it is crucial to stay cognizant of any budgetary restrictions. One possible solution is to design every building as PV-ready by designing the required electrical infrastructure as well as designating space for an array, ensuring that even if the building doesn’t have an initial PV installation, there won’t be any added cost to install one later.

Foster: PVs have been specified with increasing frequency and, as a result, have brought light to some new and interesting design considerations. When designing a PV system, the design team often faces space constraints (typically total roof area available), which shifts the focus from individual panel efficiency to overall array potential. Given that each PV design presents a unique set of priorities, a multitude of panel tilt angles in conjunction with varying panel spacing are analyzed. The goal of this analysis is to provide the decision-makers with a clear understanding of possible outcomes ranging from the most spatially efficient array (tightly packed, less-than-optimal panel tilt angle) to the highest per-panel efficient array (loosely packed, optimal panel tilt angle).

Fisher: We have designed solar PVs and fuel cells at different universities. While gains are being made in the wind turbine field with horizontal blades, we haven’t found them to be economical on a building-level scale. PV costs are dropping below $3/W making them increasingly cost-effective. On a recent project at a college facility, we rejected a wind turbine suggestion due to the 49-year payback. However, we installed PVs on shade structures in the parking lot with horizontal-axis adjustments. The college found that the lots with shade structures were so popular that they were able to charge a premium to park in these lots, helping to offset the cost.

CSE: What types of water reuse or conservation systems have you specified into college/university facilities? Describe their performance and savings over the course of 1 year.

Fisher: We have designed rainwater-harvesting systems for landscape sprinklering. While we have designed greywater systems for commercial projects, we are looking for opportunities at the university level to implement grey- and blackwater strategies. We have seen a reluctance at the college level to use flushless urinals due to maintenance concerns, but we always specify low-flush fixtures and controlled faucets. We feel the next water-conservation opportunity will be in kitchen applications.

Foster: Minimizing water usage and reusing water when possible is an increasingly important part of design. Water use for university buildings can be substantial and vary depending on building type and climate zone. One system we have used on several projects is condensate collection for irrigation and cooling tower make-up.