Students, tech, COVID drive higher ed efficiency design

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

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer October 27, 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.

What level of performance are you being asked to achieve, such as WELL Building Standards, U.S. Green Building Council LEED certification, net zero energy, Passive House or other guidelines? Describe a project and its goals, identifying the geographic location of the building.     

Tom Syvertsen: Typically, we have been designing toward LEED certification but we’re starting to see more WELL Building and Fitwel Standards being designed or considered. Several jurisdictions, such as the District of Columbia, require buildings to be LEED Silver or higher. Projects in Virginia and Maryland typically aim to achieve LEED Silver but more often seek LEED Gold or even Platinum. We’ve also experienced higher education owners who desire to meet NetZero and while they may not have the funding they request engineering solutions be available to meet this objective in the future. Regardless, the use of less water and power and overall reduction of energy costs, are drivers of sustainability for any university owner.

Casimir Zalewski: Sustainable project requirements vary by region and location. In Michigan, state funded projects are required to show that they could be LEED certifiable, but are not required to go through the documentation process. Many of our university clients in Michigan require LEED Silver as a typical standard. In our Canadian practice, passive house appears to be more prevalent. Our southern US practice has many projects requiring LEED certification status with striving to be net zero. We have seen an increase in WELL building standards more in corporate office environments than university buildings. So as mentioned, requirements are very region and client specific, but in general LEED guidelines still appears to remain the most common rating system.

What unusual systems or features are being requested to make college and university projects more energy efficient?    

Casimir Zalewski: Working in multiple regions, we see each region asking us to incorporate different features to become more sustainable. So, what may be normal in one region may not be normal for another. For example, in Texas, we have been requested to provide 18° or 20°F chilled water systems that require series cooling coils to improve central plant efficiency. These southern buildings also require specialized cooldown modes or continuous cooling operations to minimize central plant demand by having many buildings entering occupied mode simultaneously. In a cool climate, running a central system continuously through the night would be counter intuitive to save energy. By the same token, in colder climates, the use of condensing boilers with perimeter heat is common to minimize running central air handling systems during unoccupied cold night hours keeping energy usage down to a minimum, but such a practice would be rare in a hot southern climate. Similar issues appear with economizer types and functions, natural ventilation and building construction in general. Practicing in many regions and climate zones makes the designer question “what is unusual?” unusual.

What types of sustainable features or concerns might you encounter for these buildings that you wouldn’t on other projects?     

Tom Syvertsen: Green roofs can provide pleasant, safe outdoor spaces on campuses. One sustainable concern unique to higher education buildings is occupant education on sustainable building features. For example, energy-efficient lighting controls can be installed in a higher education building, but with so many different users of the spaces, it is difficult to educate each user on the correct operations of the controls.

What types of renewable or alternative energy systems have you recently specified to provide power? This may include photovoltaics, wind turbines, etc. Describe the challenges and solutions.

Casimir Zalewski: Many of our sustainable projects have included photovoltaics. The systems are known by owners, engineers and contractors. The typical challenges associated with photovoltaics are knowing when they became part of the project, was a location determined and designed to accommodate them and what are the costs and infrastructure to house, regulate, store and distribute the power. Many projects had photovoltaics enter late or after the project was completed. Where does the array site along with the inverters, controllers, batteries and other components go? Is the structure designed for the weight? How are heat gain and ventilation needs handled? Most times, the roof area and design become the limiting factors in late arrive photovoltaics. The region and wind, snow and other criteria define how big the system can be. The interface cost and available space in mechanical/electrical rooms next plays a role in photovoltaic system sizing. Local utilities will also provide guidance on system requirements. Earlier incorporation of photovoltaics provides more flexibility for roof applications, but may also expand opportunities to covered parking or remote ground arrays.

What are some of the challenges or issues when designing for water use in such facilities, particularly campus buildings with high water needs?            

Casimir Zalewski: Many existing buildings are designed for greater flow rates with larger water and sanitary piping. While this may seem all right, the reduced flows do not provide high enough velocities to scour piping to remove any biofilms while moderate sanitary slopes do not carry away effluent efficiently. Additionally, low flow rates can cause challenges in hot water circulation systems leading to degradation in hot water temperatures reducing delivery temperature and causing greater temperature fluctuations throughout the system. Also, many existing domestic water systems had adequate pressure for older flush valves and newer systems typically require higher pressures requiring the addition of pressure booster systems with their additional cost and maintenance requirements.

How has the demand for energy recovery technology influenced the design for these kinds of projects?   

Casimir Zalewski: Energy recovery technology typically requires more space and has additional cost associated with it. The design team needs to understand the potential redistribution or project dollars and program area to account for energy recovery. Additional analysis and study have been required to understand the balance point for payback and, if energy recovery is required, how might the rest of the system be design and constructed to absorb the demand.

What value-add items are you adding these kinds of facilities to make the buildings perform at a higher and more efficient level?

Casimir Zalewski: Understanding how the building operates throughout the year and providing comparative information for the user is one common value-add. Connecting facilities staff with other clients directly or indirectly who are experienced in the day-to-day operations of high efficiency systems and equipment is another method to provide additional value.

How have energy recovery products evolved to better assist in designing these projects? 

Tom Syvertsen: Product quality has improved over the years, especially for enthalpy wheels and we’re seeing more widespread acceptance of the technology from facilities personnel, even if they had a bad experience with them many years ago. The acceptance of using wheels in Dedicated Outdoor Air Systems (DOAS) helps achieve our energy-efficiency goals.

Casimir Zalewski: Many projects require competitive bidding. At the advent of a specific energy recovery technology, there are typically limited manufacturers who can provide a similar function. Patents and other protections can also make specification of energy recovery technology difficult as each manufacturer has to go about the process differently. These differences can affect the cost, size or the compatibility with the rest of the system. As energy recovery technology evolves, typically more and more manufacturers can provide a similar solution. Also, many trade professionals and programmers become more familiar with the technology and installation costs reduce and programming can be more similar between like installations.