High expectations in higher educational facilities

Colleges and universities must keep up with a demand for high-tech facilities, sustainability requirements, competition for students, and decreasing public funding. Engineers are charged with meeting the complex needs of such buildings.

By Jenni Spinner, Contributing Editor September 6, 2011


CSE: What engineering challenges do college buildings and campuses pose that are different from other structures?

Mike Broge: College and university buildings are frequently expected to have a significant life span. That life span dictates higher levels of durability, sustainability, maintainability, and flexibility. Building systems are designed to be highly sustainable, but also more easily maintained to reduce both energy costs and maintenance activities. System economic payback durations are many times considered viable at 10 or even 20 years; industrial clients target under 5- or 10-year economic paybacks. Lastly, many buildings, especially science- and technology-based buildings, are planned with sufficient flexibility to change programs during the life of the building. Floor-to-floor heights, system infrastructure, and distribution are all designed to bring about certain program changes without wholesale renovations and system replacement.

Mark Cambria: District energy distribution and centralized energy plants can limit the amount of design flexibility the building systems are afforded. When a district heating and cooling system is part of the campus infrastructure, the design may be relegated to using an inefficient chiller plant and/or high-pressure/high temperature steam or hot water as part of the heating and cooling system in an otherwise state-of-the-art building. Building system selection may also hinge on the seasonal operations of the central plant, making systems that require year-round chilled water unfeasible. Another challenge unique to university work is that those who are directly involved in academia tend to be more dubious, or worse, more argumentative when it comes to embracing ideas outside of their present knowledge base.

Rick Glenn: Many college buildings are older and sometimes deemed historic. This creates a challenge in that there is usually little space available for retrofitting fire and life safety systems. This challenge is compounded when the building is a historic structure and aesthetics are a primary concern. The life safety systems need to blend into the background so as not to visually intrude on the appearance of the building’s interior. When dealing with student residence halls, the systems should be designed to minimize the potential for tampering with sprinklers and valves.

Michael Kerwin: These buildings serve a population with unique and often conflicting demands. For example, students desire easy access in and out of buildings throughout the day, while campus safety professionals desire to limit the access based on time-of-day and identification. These conflicting but valid goals require a detailed programming and design effort to achieve a mutually acceptable system. Many campus buildings such as research labs need to be accessible 24 hours per day by researchers and investigators and therefore cannot be “locked and alarmed” as conventional buildings many times are. College buildings and campuses support a broad variety of environments and activities, often ranging from residential through educational and recreational. Each of these buildings/activities has varying demands for technology and security. These operational tensions need to be addressed on a case-by-case basis. The unique engineering challenges include providing appropriate infrastructure to support current and emerging technologies and systems, given the broad range of requirements and the rate at which new demands arise.

CSE: How have the needs and characteristics of colleges changed in recent years?

Cambria: I am seeing greater involvement of the administration and professors in all aspects of the design. Colleges are competing for talent on their faculty and must cater to them in order to attract the best staff and, in turn, the most cutting-edge research programs.

Kerwin: The recent rapid emergence of new technologies including social networking, portable computing, etc., have placed significant demands on teaching spaces and styles. The emergence of collaboration as a part of the curriculum and lifestyle leads to a demand for locations that support small group work. Successful collaboration areas require power, network connectivity (wired and/or wireless), AV displays or projection, and supporting systems such as HVAC, lighting, and furniture. The extended use of teaching spaces for group or individual use needs to be coordinated with building management systems to ensure that the building systems, lighting, HVAC, etc., are available to support these uses.

Broge: This question tends to separate public institutions from their private brethren. Budget reductions in many states have hit public universities hard with reduced building maintenance and operations funding, while the already huge backlog of deferred maintenance issues grows. The reality of the current energy situation has significantly impacted most colleges and universities; many have altered their design standards to require energy modeling and sustainable design approaches that as a minimum achieve reduced energy costs. While public universities are making do with less, private colleges seem to be taking significant advantage of lower construction costs and are updating antiquated facilities and constructing replacement buildings.

CSE: Many learning institutions are choosing to expand and remodel existing facilities, rather than construct new buildings. What unique challenges do retrofitted buildings provide that you don’t encounter on new structures?

Kerwin: Existing college buildings generally have relatively low ceiling height. This poses challenges for the design and implementation of the new security, technology, and audiovisual systems that are required to support the residential and educational environments. While there are many successful renovation projects, significant efforts must be given to identifying and coordinating the raceway and infrastructure systems to support current and emerging technology demand. Renovation of an existing structure is often limiting in what can be added for infrastructure in the form of conduits and boxes, especially when the original construction is stone, block, and concrete. Such structures impose a need for creativity and close coordination for power, signals, and HVAC additions.

Glenn: The main challenge for fire and life safety systems is space; identifying suitable locations for new equipment and the routing of piping and conduit above congested ceiling spaces. Most existing buildings have limited space for new equipment, piping, and conduit as they were not designed with these systems in mind. In addition, many student residence halls have concrete ceilings with full-height doors. This makes routing new piping below the ceilings but away from the doors somewhat of a challenge because aesthetics is a key objective for these buildings.

Cambria: When existing buildings get repurposed, the infrastructure may not accommodate the new program. Retrofit building designs also present challenges with space constraints, hazardous materials, and obsolete construction. I can recall one project with concrete plank construction that presented challenges when penetrating floor slabs. However, these projects are by far the most interesting—not from their outside appearance, but by virtue of how unassuming the finished product appears to be since the most complex problems and solutions are hidden within the building construction. With today’s variety of products and applications, retrofit buildings are where we unearth opportunities to push the envelope.

Broge: Floor-to-floor heights are the greatest challenge to the design of renovated science and technology buildings. Considerable building code and safety standard changes have occurred over the years, nearly all of which have created more or larger distribution systems. Additionally, the nature of the research conducted in laboratories and the standards by which that research is conducted have significantly increased the required infrastructure and distribution required at the laboratory level. These changes have made the 1950s-era laboratory building with 12-ft floor-to-floor levels obsolete in most cases. Today’s modern laboratory building typically requires floor-to-floor heights of 15 ft or more.

CSE: Please describe a recent college or university project you’ve worked on—share challenges you encountered, how you solved them, and engineering aspects you’re especially proud of.

Broge: We recently renovated a 1950s-era chemistry research building at a major private university in the Midwest. Renovating older science and technology buildings is challenging due to the low floor-to-floor heights used in buildings of that era. Ventilation standards for laboratories and fume hoods are much greater today, requiring large ductwork and numerous piping and electrical distribution systems that simply do not fit with building floor-to-floor heights of 12 ft. To remedy the floor-to-floor height issues we developed a design concept that placed major duct distribution systems in a prototypical vertical configuration. Installing major ductwork distribution vertically allowed major piping and electrical distribution to fit easily into a horizontal configuration and still allows the open laboratory environment.

Glenn: Over the last two summers, I’ve been involved with fire sprinkler system retrofit installations for four student residence halls. The main challenge was the fast-track construction schedule. Both projects involved two buildings each, where the system installations had to be completed within a 12-week period so that students could move back in by mid-August. I needed to work very closely with university staff and the installing contractors to ensure that the projects would be completed on time. Extensive coordination with all parties and resolving construction issues quickly were both essential.

Kerwin: The new American University in Cairo posed a significant engineering challenge given that its 2,200,000 sq ft were designed and constructed of traditional masonry architecture. Careful planning for the implementation of current technologies and developing a vision for the deployment of emerging wireless and collaborative technologies allowed the design team to incorporate sufficient raceway and access through these rigid structures to support future generations of technology. In the three years since the university has opened, multiple new technologies (including real-time lecture streaming and recording) have been implemented without requiring any disruption to the physical buildings.

Cambria: We were asked to design a 400 sq-ft laboratory space in an existing building with existing ventilation issues. The space required a changing room, shower room, biological safety cabinet, cascading pressure control, and tight humidity and temperature tolerances all year. Exhaust systems required HEPA filtration and redundancy, while supply air systems required spare capacity for future expansion. All new dedicated equipment on emergency power was required; however, no HVAC equipment could be installed above the ceiling in the lab. Two-zone adaptive offset pressure controllers and airflow stations were installed and integrated into the energy management system, and a custom packaged rooftop unit delivering outside air was installed. The unit was oversized, equipped with digital scroll compressors and electronically commutative condenser and evaporator fan motors to control capacity and airflows to meet temperature and pressure parameters as loads fluctuate throughout the day, and as the seasons change. The beauty behind the project is found in its simplicity. The owner’s design intent was met with a system it can afford, understand, and operate.

CSE: What cutting-edge energy-efficiency projects have you worked on at a college or university recently? What design aspects or products were included?

Cambria: Union Graduate College in Schenectady, N.Y., had a perfect application for a closed-loop geothermal well field and heat pump system. The building has a year-round air conditioning load which in the heating seasons allows heat to be rejected from interior spaces to the heat pump loop, and then extracted by units serving exterior zones. The design is not only energy-efficient, but it greatly reduced the need for combustion equipment and indoor mechanical space. A small condensing boiler provides backup heat for the building and delivers hot water to the energy recovery ventilator when the enthalpy wheel needs to defrost. To make the most use out of this redundant piece of equipment, it was also used to heat domestic hot water for the building. The well field was carefully sized to eliminate the need for glycol in the system in order to save cost on the project and improve system performance.

Broge: We specialize in science and technology building system design. We use chilled beam or radiant cooling technologies in sensible heat-driven spaces to reduce fan horsepower, reduce ventilation air reheat, and reduce primary cooling energy. We challenge traditionally “once-through air ventilation” in certain spaces to utilize more “return-air-based ventilation” systems where possible. Most of our clients will permit use of molecular sieve technologies for general laboratory exhaust, and some clients will permit use of that technology for certain fume hood exhaust. We also recommend heat pump or heat recovery chillers in many of our science and technology designs where year-round cooling is necessary for process cooling or large scale special space cooling. In certain applications we have designed an enhanced run-around heat recovery system utilizing a heat pump chiller in conjunction with a traditional run-around heat recovery loop.

CSE: What factors do you need to take into account when designing building automation and controls for colleges and universities?

Cambria: Visibility, expandability, and the sophistication of the facility’s staff.

Kerwin: One area where the tight integration of controls is often overlooked is the teaching spaces. Opportunities to create energy-efficient spaces, such as the use of daylighting, may pose a challenge to achieving excellent audiovisual (AV) and educational technology outcomes. The introduction of natural light can easily conflict with the projection quality. Control systems need to be coordinated to facilitate simple, rapid, and automated control of the different building elements on a per-use basis. In spaces that are AV-intensive and requiring display of large images either projected or using videowall technologies, the use of front projection has slowly begun to diminish as prices of large-format displays have dropped. In planning spaces where light control is challenging, the use of multiple flat-panel displays or video-cube walls is many times within reach of the planned systems budget, and usually results in a display area with superior image characteristics. We also find that the expectations of the users of AV systems have increased over the last few years, with an increasing demand for large images that can match the excellent resolutions one would normally experience with a laptop or good desktop monitor. There also is the emerging concept of the HDMI/DisplayPort digital connector slowly replacing the traditional analog VGA connector for video connectivity. This change in connectors on consumer-level devices is creating serious ramifications in the professional AV world, and many facilities need to plan ahead and make choices to stay current with the ongoing product development of portable user devices such as laptops, pads, and tablets.

CSE: When recommissioning or retrocommissioning control systems in colleges, what challenges do you encounter, and how do you overcome them?

Cambria: The biggest challenge to the commissioning authority in general is to garner the full cooperation of those assisting in the process. Building owners and operators know the systems inside and out, but on occasion, gaining access to their knowledge to identify problems and develop solutions as a joint effort is stifled by the operator’s sense of ownership of the present conditions and compounded by a resistance to change. Promoting a team mentality and educating all involved as to the benefits of the commissioning process tend to ease some of the tensions. The demeanor of the commissioning agent—calm, sensitive to owner input, and humble when making suggestions—can make or break a successful outcome.

CSE: How have changing HVAC, fire protection, life safety, and/or electrical codes and standards affected your work on such structures?

Cambria: Changes to energy codes specifically have increased project costs and complexity, and have involved more time in the schematic phases to educate the architects when discussing system design, building mechanical/electrical space, and installation requirements.

Glenn: The 2000 edition of NFPA 101: Life Safety Code and all subsequent editions thereafter require that all existing high-rise dormitory buildings be protected by fire sprinkler systems. In addition, several states have recently passed laws that require the installation of fire sprinkler systems in all existing dormitory buildings. This has resulted in many universities retrofitting their student residence halls with fire sprinkler systems in recent years.

Kerwin: The emerging NFPA 72: National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code requirements for mass notification systems, specifically the requirement for intelligibility, have generated some non-obvious design challenges. One example is that the intuitive assumption that more enunciators will produce a high level of intelligibility is actually not the case. There is a requirement for serious study and evaluation of each space, including size, materials, and finishes to ensure intelligibility. Regarding HVAC, the effort to limit cooling systems size and use needs to be balanced with the growing requirements for technology equipment cooling on a year-round basis. These issues need to be addressed early in the project to achieve a balanced and appropriate solution.

CSE: Which codes and standards prove to be most challenging in university work?

Kerwin: We’ve seen a growing tension between the higher education requirements and desires for access control and security systems and the fire code. In many cases, the desired locking arrangements are not in compliance with the code requirements for egress. The development of a cohesive access control solution for an academic building requires significant coordination with security staff, code officials, and the design team. In particular, the building codes for delayed egress locking are in conflict with what would normally be expected for security functionality for a campus library.

Cambria: ASHRAE Standard 62.1: Ventilation for Acceptable Indoor Air Quality, while thorough, is particularly difficult to navigate to a compliant design.

CSE: What is the one factor most commonly overlooked in electrical systems in colleges?

Cambria: Means and methods behind shutting existing systems down—particularly coordinating downtime of critical systems—in order to provide new electrical feeders.

Kerwin: The most commonly overlooked electrical capability seems to be the requirement for convenient electrical outlets to support student individual and collaborative work. Students tend to create small work groups wherever they are, when the opportunities arise. Collaborative groups form in classrooms, corridors, casual gathering spaces, etc. The traditional configuration of convenience electrical outlets, lighting, and network access do not adequately address this type of work.

CSE: What types of electrical products do you most commonly specify in a college, and why? Describe the UPS system, standby power, generators, etc.

Kerwin: We find there are often opportunities to use fewer, larger UPS units to support multiple technology systems and functions. In general, this approach results in a more cost-effective initial solution and a lower operating cost. We do not see rotary UPS units being installed outside of the data centers. We do see traditional UPS units being deployed in the technology equipment aggregation spaces throughout the campuses. In non-essential areas, we are designing more UPS systems to support orderly shutdown of equipment as opposed to providing generator support for the systems.

CSE: How have sustainability requirements affected your approach to electrical systems?

Kerwin: The commitment to sustainable and cost-effective project design has motivated us to recommend consolidated technology equipment spaces to minimize the number of UPS and generator sets while maximizing their use and efficiency. This approach results in fewer, higher capacity installations and reduces the quantity of systems, fuel storage locations, batteries, etc.

Cambria: More often we are finding that our sustainable electrical systems require integrated design, and coordination with other trades. PV designs necessitate careful coordination with the structural engineer. Fuel cells require plumbing and a sink for the low-grade waste heat. Some owners require that lighting controls systems be integrated into a comprehensive energy management network. The use of variable frequency drives, and all variable control energy plants, requires detailed specification coordination with the HVAC engineer for proper interface parameters.

CSE: Discuss daylighting in college/university buildings. What recent successes have you had?

Kerwin: One area of important coordination that we identified is the requirement to integrate the AV systems and control systems for teaching spaces. For example, the introduction of daylighting into a teaching space in conflict with the quality of a projected image. Therefore, the audiovisual presentation systems need to be interfaced with the control system so that the teaching space can effectively support projection, as required. The control systems also need to return the spaces to the energy optimized configuration easily and quickly so that the energy objectives of the project can be realized.

CSE: Have you had experiences with photovoltaic (PV), wind turbine, or other renewable energy projects on a campus? If so, describe it.

Cambria: PV is a promising technology, but at present, if not for government or utility incentives, the vast majority of our clients would opt not to install these systems due to their long payback periods in New York. If the government needs to continue to write checks to incentivize private businesses to install this technology, it is, by definition, unsustainable.

CSE: What trends, systems, or products have effected changes in life safety systems in colleges? Please include mass notification systems (MNS), emergency communication systems (ECS), etc.

Kerwin: The under-recognized safety trend that we see in our practice is the growing requirement demand for public safety radio enhancement systems. Academic buildings tend to be built in the style and of materials that diminish the effective distribution of radio signals. The requirement for safety personnel to have excellent radio communications within buildings and from buildings to their broader networks creates the demand for in-building radio amplification and distribution systems. While these systems are not uniformly required by code, they need to be addressed on a project-by-project basis. As designers we have the opportunity to introduce this technology in the projects, even if it is not a legislative requirement this time.

Glenn: The use of chlorinated PVC sprinkler piping with quick-response, concealed type sprinklers is a trend I see for installations in existing buildings. For new buildings, fire alarm systems using speakers that broadcast prerecorded evacuation messages or allow personnel to broadcast live instructions are now being installed over the traditional horn-type systems. In the past, smoke alarms were typically provided in the student sleeping rooms, which sound a local alarm at the detector when activated. More universities are now installing system-type smoke detectors in their student rooms that not only sound the local alarm at the detector, but also transmit an alarm signal to the campus police or fire department. Higher education institutions are required by the Higher Education Opportunity Act (H.R. 4137) to have the capability to immediately notify the campus community of significant emergencies. Many colleges and universities have implemented a system employing cell phone text messages and e-mail messages as a means to alert students and staff. This is essentially the least expensive method of providing mass notification. However, studies have shown that only approximately 48% of students and staff are notified immediately of an emergency via text and e-mail messages. As a result, the 2010 edition of NFPA 72 recognizes text messages and e-mails only as a supplemental means of mass notification; not a primary means. Consequently, colleges and universities are now investigating other methods for providing mass notification. The use of high-powered speakers on the tops of buildings activated by wireless transmitters and receivers are one such method.

CSE: What fire and life safety lessons have you learned on past college campus projects?

Glenn: A university can have several departments that either work in, or have responsibilities for, a given building. It is important to understand each department’s concerns and objectives, and to incorporate those items into the project design. It is also important to design fire and life safety systems not only with the building in mind, but also the occupants and the university staff.

Kerwin: In many higher education projects, the institution may implement some design-build AV systems outside of the project team. This can lead to situations where the public safety systems and AV systems integration is not complete. One specific example is that it is easy for the design team to miss required interfaces between the emergency announcement system and the audiovisual systems. This can lead to situations where emergency announcements are competing with active sound distribution. It is often helpful for the design team to ask for specific documentation for each of the university-provided systems and to provide appropriate interfaces.

CSE: What are some important factors to consider when designing a fire and life safety system in a college?

Glenn: An important factor is to remember the environment that these systems are being installed to protect. You are providing fire and life safety systems in buildings that are mainly occupied by young adults, some of whom may have an over-curiosity when noticing some of the fixtures within a building. For this reason, we try to conceal as much of the systems from view as possible. For example, sprinkler system control valves and drain valves are better located within locked rooms accessible to university staff, but not to students. This helps to eliminate the tampering of these devices by students. Concealed-type sprinklers are preferred over exposed sprinklers because they are less susceptible to physical damage.

CSE: What things often get overlooked?

Glenn: The amount of testing and maintenance that these systems require after they are installed. Some components of life safety systems are required to be functionally tested at frequencies as often as every three months. A good system design takes into account items that would make the systems easier to maintain and test by university staff after the systems are installed and operational. These include providing test/drain facilities that discharge water outside of the buildings, instead of in sinks or floor drains. They also include providing test switches for duct smoke detectors, so that they can be tested without the use of ladders. There are several methods and items that can be incorporated into a system design that would help reduce maintenance costs.

CSE: What unique requirements do HVAC systems in colleges have, and how have they changed in the past one to two years?

Cambria: Many college campuses have signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, which requires tangible actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. One such action is that all new construction projects be built to at least the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Silver standard or equivalent. A few years ago, many of our clients were registering their projects with the USGBC, but given today’s economy it seems that more colleges are requesting that the consultants simply design to LEED standards without a formal submission.

CSE: Discuss chiller and/or boiler plants in a project you recently worked on.

Cambria: Almost all out-of-the-ground projects we design start with a condensing boiler plant and variable flow pumping. Justifying this technology for retrofit projects involves some creativity when many existing systems are designed for water temperatures that preclude the ability of a boiler to operate in the condensing mode. We have had to develop creative flow diagrams for retrofit hybrid systems that involve using condensing boilers in series with conventional boilers for the peak seasons, and then resetting the boiler water temperature to condensing levels for the shoulder seasons. The boiler plant complexity reaches new heights when a dual-fuel gas/oil plant is combined with biomass burners, and three or even four different forms of flue venting and combustion air intake material are required. With the advancements in chiller technology over the years, there is no limit to the opportunities for creative design. We have developed plans for all variable speed plants with optimization protocols, and we have utilized cogeneration in a campus system to produce electricity from microturbines while capturing the waste heat to produce chilled water in an absorption chiller. Now that chiller packaged controllers can adjust the system dynamics to allow for variable primary flow, plant piping arrangements can be designed without an overabundance of pumps, and chillers of various sizes and performance curves can be coupled and controlled for optimum plant efficiency.