Students, tech, COVID drive higher ed design of electrical, lighting systems

College and university building design is being driven by student needs, technology and new air quality demands

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer October 28, 2020


  • Patrick McCafferty, PE, LEED AP, Associate Principal and Education Business Leader, Arup, Boston
  • James Michael Parrish, PE, Associate Vice President, Department Manager Electrical, Lighting, Technology, Dewberry, Peoria, Ill.
  • Tom Syvertsen, PE, LEED AP, Project Manager, Associate, Mueller Associates, Linthicum, Md.
  • Kristie Tiller, PE, LEED AP, Associate, Team Leader, Lockwood Andrews & Newnam Inc. (LAN), Dallas
  • Randy C. Twedt, PE, LEED AP, Associate Principal/Senior Mechanical Engineer, Page, Austin, Tex.
  • Casimir Zalewski, PE, LEED AP, CPD, Principal, Stantec, Berkley, Mich.

Are there any issues unique to designing electrical/power systems for these types of facilities? Please describe.

Kristie Tiller: Research labs and data centers provide the most challenges for the electrical designer. Losing climate control due to loss of power can devastate years of research and potential revenue for the university. Data centers for research institutions are looking at 5-nines (99.999%) reliability of reliability at a minimum which requires highly reliable equipment in redundant configurations.

James Michael Parrish: We just completed a large engineering building with many lab spaces. Much of the equipment was to be relocated and some new. Acquiring a roster of all this equipment was a challenge and designing around one piece of existing equipment did not mean the specific equipment was to be reused, so, flexibility and adequate power was the norm.

Casimir Zalewski: Electrical systems need to be economical, safe and reliable. Many campus systems have medium voltage distribution systems of varying capacity. These medium voltage systems can be radial or looped with each effecting the reliability of the central system. The economics of the building’s electrical system balances with the system reliability in regard to the quantity and configuration of the central building substations, quantify and location of zone level transformers and panels and the amount of capacity for future growth and expansion. The sizing of each of these components can have a direct effect on the building’s efficiency. Additionally, what level of quality will each light fixture and how much control will directly affect first cost and the efficiency of the building as well.

What are some of the challenges when designing high-voltage power systems in college and university projects?

Casimir Zalewski: The biggest challenge with medium voltage systems on campus are in regard to the campus system limitations. What is the overall configuration of the system – radial/star or loop? In a loop, the campus distribution system is looped where power can be routed and isolated at different points. In a radial or star design, power moves out from a central location from building to building where shutdowns can knock out more than one building and with loads having a greater potential cascading impact. Information on exactly where the distribution is sometimes limited, but more challenging for a designer is what are the existing building loads and the age of the many cables. The solution is to often request campus maintenance records and, if not available, help specify early testing of the distribution systems and metering of actual loads. These simple steps help address unforeseen challenges as the project progresses.

Tom Syvertsen: Often, these projects fit into a campus distribution system. These systems need to be flexible, reliable and expandable. The challenge is typically how to design these new projects in such a way to minimize interruptions to the campus and also think toward the future for additional projects down the line.

Kristie Tiller: I wouldn’t expect to find high-voltage on a campus outside of the utility substation. The challenge there is the real estate required and making sure the substation is right-sized for the campus and its predicted growth. The challenge with medium-voltage campus distribution is whether or not the campus is set up for it. Can the campus put in the tunnels or conduits or other means of conveyance to get the power distributed from the central plant to the various buildings? We’ve been on several campuses where they started that way but didn’t allow for enough expansion so they end up with a hybrid system where some buildings are on the campus loop and others have stand-alone utility service. This type of decision is often financially driven. Another campus we are involved in doesn’t like medium-voltage because it requires special training and subsequently higher wages, for maintenance personnel. Outsourcing this effort alleviated the issue and we were able to install MV distribution at a substantial cost savings.

James Michael Parrish: We see a lot of aging infrastructure. When we encounter issues, our general recommendation is to establish a plan to sequentially work through the campus to generally update and modernize the infrastructure. Maintaining power to buildings while replacing infrastructure comes with its own challenges and costs.

What types of unusual standby, emergency or backup power systems have you specified for such facilities? Describe the project.         

Kristie Tiller: For highly available systems, fossil-fuel engines are still the most reliable form of power generation equipment. For smaller (less than a few MW) installations, diesel prime movers are hard to beat on cost and reliability. Microturbines are in the running but have unique considerations with respect to floor space, capacity, staging and maintenance. For larger installations, gas turbines are extremely reliable. We have worked with one institution that uses gas-fired turbines to generate electricity for its chilled water plant, while using distributed diesel generators for emergency power. We have worked with another institution that looked at solar photovoltaic and fuel cell solutions. Neither was economically feasible in that instance.

What kind of maintenance guidelines are involved to ensure the project is running efficiently after the project is finished?           

James Michael Parrish: We recommend a commissioning agent be involved in the projects and wring out the systems. We have seen ongoing issues with something as arcane as a piece of Teflon tape caught up on a metering wheel or a valve installed backward or a faulty sensor(s). A commissioning agent will often find deficiencies before they become issues.

Tom Syvertsen: Ease of use is critical and the first step in providing a maintainable system. Controls need to be intuitive – when they are not, the ability to continue ongoing upkeep or step in and troubleshoot problems have already broken down. It is important to understand what users want from a lighting control system at the early stages of design.

What are some key differences in electrical, lighting and power systems you might incorporate in this kind of facility, compared to other projects?           

Tom Syvertsen: Consider the campus environment and do not be myopic about just the new project at hand. Much of what we do ties into a central campus system and even if it does not it will be used and maintained by a community of facilities personnel, faculty and students.

James Michael Parrish: Universities are very competitive to attract the best and brightest so the buildings, in part, need to attract students. There is a lot of effort put into the architecture and lighting design to create a relaxing, welcoming and inviting atmosphere, which does seem to be the focus.

When designing lighting systems for these types of structures, what design factors are being requested? Are there any particular technical advantages that are or need to be considered?         

James Michael Parrish: We discuss options from a standard list, ease of use, automation and costs and let the client make the decision with what is best for their needs.

How does your team work with the architect, owner’s rep and other project team members so the electrical/power systems are flexible and sustainable?   

Kristie Tiller: We work with the owners to understand any future growth that may require additional electrical capacity and then work with the architects and space planners to ensure we have the floor space to expand the electrical gear when needed. In some cases, the cost of downtime to the owner outweighs the cost of having unused switchgear standing by for future expansion without disrupting the current operations. This is often the case in research laboratories and data centers. In these cases, we help the owners determine the most long-term cost-effective solutions and then work with the architects to make sure they are implemented.

Tom Syvertsen: This can start with an initial vetting process that puts the owner, engineer and product representatives all in the same room to discuss system and product selections and ensure they align with owner requirements and vision. This occurs early in the design phase.

What kind of lighting designs have you incorporated into college or university project, either for energy efficiency or to increase the occupant’s experience? Discuss the use of human-centric lighting or other lighting techniques.          

Tom Syvertsen: On most projects, lighting designs almost exclusively involve the use of LEDs. LEDs are the most energy-efficient lighting source available. They also provide the longest service life, reducing yearly maintenance costs. LEDs can be incorporated into lighting fixtures with a variety of form factors. This allows unlimited creativity when integrating lighting into architecture, whether it is through decorative lighting fixtures or hiding lighting within the architectural fabric of the building.

Casimir Zalewski: Most of all college and university projects utilize LED lighting with multilevel lighting control. The focus on most spaces is balancing light levels for tasks with energy efficiency. In as many spaces as feasible, daylighting control integrates to the artificial lights to allow natural light to meet the needs of the occupants. The control system provides multiple light levels to adjust the experience to the current task. In areas without natural light where occupants do not have access to the exterior, the lighting systems are being designed to match circadian rhythm with more blue light during day hours and more red light during night hours.