Examining higher education facilities: Sustainable buildings and energy efficiency

As technology advances in every field, the college and university students being prepped for future careers in those fields need the tech they’re learning with to keep up. That presents unique challenges for the engineers working on such structures—specifying advanced systems that satisfy the unique needs of each institution. Here, professionals with experience in the area offer advice on how to tackle such facilities and receive top marks in regard to sustainable buildings and energy efficiency.


Examining higher education facilities: Sustainable buildingsand energy efficiencyRespondents

John Holbert, PE, LEED AP, Senior Principal/Client Executive, IMEG Corp., Rock Island, Ill.

Donald Horkey, PE, LEED AP, Principal, DLR Group, Minneapolis

Kent Locke, PE, NCEES, Associate Principal/Branch Manager, Bailey Edward, Fox River Grove, Ill.

Dennis P. Sczomak, PE, LEED AP, Senior Vice President, Peter Basso Associates, Troy, Mich.

Jason Sylvain, PE, Partner, National Higher Education Practice Leader, AKF Group LLC, New York City

Matthew Wiechart, PE, CxA, LEED AP, CEM Principal/Senior Mechanical Engineer, TLC Engineering for Architecture Inc., Orlando, Fla.

CSE: What unusual systems or features are owners requesting to make their facilities more efficient-for example, thermal energy storage or combined heat and power (CHP)?

Holbert: One of our university clients in a Southern state integrated chilled-water thermal storage via an agreement with an energy service company (ESCO). The ESCO installs and operates the thermal storage system, realizing revenues through optimizing time-of-use electricity rates, weather conditions, and a demand-response agreement with the local utility. This university also is integrating solar PV on its campuses. An interesting future idea could be leveraging the thermal storage tanks as a battery to store excess PV generation.

Wiechart: Cogeneration and trigeneration are constant discussion items. Understanding base loading of an absorption chiller, distribution of large-scale natural gas, and opportunities for hydronic reheat can make these systems attractive. Chilled-water storage also is used to provide for redundancy and peak energy-load shaving.

Sylvain: We have seen varied approaches as of late. Some clients have focused on carbon and low-energy/renewable systems, while others have focused on energy costs and resiliency. To respond to the latter, we have been asked to evaluate and implement CHP in a number of locations. CHP provides an attractive energy cost and demand savings while offering a campus additional resilient power capability and allowing for more uptime in the event of an extended grid outage.

CSE: What types of sustainable features or concerns might you encounter on such facilities that you wouldn't on other projects?

Sylvain: This varies depending on the client's approach, but real and measured energy usage index (EUI) and peak energy draw is a consistent theme we have been seeing. Owners in general, and universities specifically, seem to be more concerned with how much energy they will actually be using than they are with how much theoretical savings a predesign model shows against a theoretical baseline.

Holbert: It seems more projects are pursuing developer-led and financed projects for energy efficiency and renewable energy. These types of projects can be a win for owners if critical aspects of the agreements are properly aligned. The ESCO agreement risks for HVAC systems seem to be relatively well-known since they have been around for a while. Leasing owner space for renewable energy generation is new. Some aspects to consider are the terms of the agreement and turnover to the owner, optimizing the size and location of the system to gain the best value, and understanding the value of the space that is being turned over to the developer. For example, developers often prefer to place PV in open fields to reduce cost; however, the owner needs to consider the value of that land for the future. PV systems can tie up land throughout a useful life that can reach 50 years.

Wiechart: The sophistication of the building automation system and the verification of the system is provided on university and college jobs where other project types do not have that level of sophistication.

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

Sylvain: In addition to the gas-fired CHP mentioned earlier, we recently have had a number of university clients implement large-scale PV renewable energy systems, both at a campus scale, at William Patterson University, Wayne, N.J., and on a building scale, for a building in pursuit of net zero energy at Millersville University, Pa.

Wiechart: Much of our work is in Florida, where the prevailing winds can shift from day to day-if there is a prevailing wind. Therefore, wind turbines are not efficient uses of capital due to poor return. PV panels are the preference, and as technology increases in efficiency and costs are minimized, these systems will become even more prevalent.

Holbert: We have seen the most activity with solar PV systems. Primarily because prices have fallen, they provide a very visible sustainability commitment, and they are an attractive investment for specialized developers. Some universities enter into offsite power-purchase agreements for wind energy. These can provide a large carbon offset for the university that is less complex, fast to procure, and often less costly than campus energy efficiency efforts and onsite renewable energy systems.

CSE: What are some of the challenges or issues when designing for water use in such facilities?

Wiechart: Large campuses have issues with their water usage and capacities. The implementation of using reclaimed or greywater helps them with those capacity issues. Proper distribution and minimal sterilization must occur, but these issues are fairly easy to mitigate. The use of beige toilets and sinks in lieu of white helps mitigate the staining that sometimes occurs with these systems.

Holbert: Water has always taken a back seat to energy. This is often due to cost; for some facilities, water is even free. We do not anticipate this being the case in the future, as water availability is decreasing in many geographies. One of the issues that arises is that water and energy consumption often can compete; evaporation of water often is used to make HVAC equipment more efficient. In other cases, they can work together. Water from dehumidification is clean and can be returned to water-consuming systems. Water storage seems to be a driving factor-it is expensive, large, and heavy to store. It also needs to be cleaned for use in the facility. This is more expensive to do onsite than at a public water-treatment plant. New technologies that are efficient, have a small footprint, and can be used in real time (without large storage needs) have the potential to make a big impact on this topic.

Sylvain: The water challenges we have focused on recently are energy-related or focused on reuse for mechanical systems. The energy focus has been in the form of domestic hot-water generation, using renewable (solar), condensing boilers, and combined building heating/domestic plants. The reuse focus has been on building-collected or a sitewide collection of stormwater, which can be treated and used as cooling tower make-up water for a district plant.

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

Sczomak: I would say that the demand for energy efficiency has influenced the design for college/university projects, which in turn has driven the demand for energy recovery. Increased use of energy recovery from exhaust air is being driven by energy codes, which in recent years have greatly increased the requirements. At the building and campus plant level, on certain college/university projects we have been implementing heat recovery in the form of heat pump chillers to very efficiently address the times when both heating and cooling are required in a building. Unlike a typical water-source heat pump system, in which separate heat pumps operate simultaneously to address simultaneous heating and cooling requirements in a building, a single heat pump chiller draws heat from the building's chilled-water system and transfers it to the heating hot-water system, which is a much more efficient way of addressing simultaneous heating and cooling needs when loads are balanced.

Wiechart: Energy recovery has increased dramatically as energy codes have become more stringent. The use of enthalpy wheels from recovery has become a common design practice. Educating owners regarding the maintenance of this equipment is the key to long-term success and continued energy conservation.

Locke: The energy recovery products have evolved rapidly and are making an impact on energy use. The educational facilities require large quantities of ventilation that must be exhausted. Through the use of these devices, the ventilation air can be preheated or precooled to provide normal entering-air conditions while reducing the heating and cooling plant equipment sizes.

Sylvain: This has had the biggest impact on existing buildings that are retrofitting/upgrading mechanical systems. Specifically, it is often a challenge to efficiently and effectively fit energy recovery systems and supply and return distribution into the constraints inherent in an existing building. We have had to get creative with how and where we recover energy, what medium is used, and how we prioritize the exhaust/relief airstreams to recover from.

Holbert: Energy recovery is common practice in many climate zones-and required by codes and standards in certain climate zones. For airside energy recovery, this pushes the design toward dedicated outdoor-air systems. These systems also save a lot of reheat energy for the project. For projects with high air-change requirements (thus high reheat loads) like labs and health care projects, we see waterside energy recovery as an effective option to save energy.

CSE: High-performance design strategies have been shown to have an impact on the performance of the building and its occupants. What value-add items are you adding to these kinds of facilities to make the buildings perform at a higher and more efficient level?

Horkey: High-performance strategies are usually a combination of load reduction, energy efficiency, and load matching. We have a dedicated team of performance analysts who are engaged in the design process to quantify the impact of design features on ongoing performance and gain insights into the return on investment and lifecycle cost of each measure, with the aim of providing predicted performance data for actionable intelligence. They analyze various strategies' impacts on the overall design including:

  • Load reduction-Programming, high-performance envelope, and rightsized glazing.
  • Energy efficiency-LED lighting, condensing boilers, dedicated outdoor-air systems, energy recovery, and heat pumps.
  • Load matching-Automatic lighting and receptacle controls, demand-control ventilation, efficient control strategies, ongoing fault detection and diagnostics.

Holbert: It seems the past 10 years have focused on HVAC system technologies as primary drivers to enable low energy use. More recently, we are increasing focus on passive strategies first and then supplementing these with active HVAC systems. New analysis approaches have enabled thermal and daylight autonomy studies to greatly inform the architecture. These approaches first optimize how well the building performs using its own orientation and mass without the use of HVAC and lighting. This results in a great improvement in the thermal and visual comfort of the occupant from the beginning. HVAC and lighting systems are then leveraged to supplement and create a highly desirable indoor environment. With HVAC systems, we still focus on keeping them simple by centralizing maintenance to specific building areas or systems. This allows specialized owner staff or a single maintenance contract to handle the more complex components of the building while allowing generalized maintenance to remain familiar and simple for in-house maintenance staff. A few examples include variable refrigerant flow (VRF) systems, highly efficient VAV, or centralized water-to-water heat pumps with distributed terminal units and a dedicated outdoor-air system.

Sylvain: The list can be broad, but one of the first things that comes to mind is building data for the occupants, specifically thermal-comfort, air-quality, and energy-usage information presented in a way that makes them see the quality of the space they inhabit and shows the energy impact of the decisions they make.

Wiechart: Absorptive air-filtration devices that minimize volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and carbon dioxide allow the building to be properly "cleaned" while minimizing ventilation. These designs provide comfort and are energy-efficient, which are goals of high-performance buildings. High-performing buildings also use controls to automatically set back systems, which include temperature, lighting, and even power to save energy while not affecting typical human behaviors.

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