By Alicia Wrigley-Gailey, Office of Sustainability
Green goings-on at the University of Utah didn’t pause for the summer break; between May and August of this year, three newly constructed university buildings and one remodel were awarded Gold-level certification from the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) program.
The certifications—awarded to the Donna Garff Marriott Residential Scholars Community, the new Natural History Museum of Utah, the James Levoy Sorenson Molecular Biotechnology Building, and a new off-campus University Data Center—doubled the number of LEED buildings operated by the University of Utah. Previously, the campus featured four certified projects.
The new awards are particularly notable because they exceed the high standards of building sustainability set by both the State of Utah and the University of Utah. All new construction funded by the Utah Division of Facilities Management is required to meet LEED Silver criteria. At the University of Utah, new buildings must reach that standard and, in addition, be 40 percent better than state code on energy performance.
As the nationally recognized industry standard for third-party verification of sustainable building, design, and operation practices, LEED has rigorous requirements that must be met by those seeking certification throughout the entire process of creating a building. That process begins in the very early stages of design, when designers select a LEED rating system. All of the new University of Utah buildings received awards in the New Construction or Commercial Interiors categories, but LEED offers rating systems applicable to other project types, from updating old building operational systems, to building hospitals, schools or homes, to designing entire sustainable neighborhoods.
The LEED rating systems are comprised of categories, including: sustainable sites and cities, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, and indoor environmental quality. Designers and builders earn points in each category by implementing specific features or design practices outlined by LEED. Bonus points are available for those who come up with particularly innovative solutions in design or operations. Final tallies of points earned determine the ultimate level of LEED certification that a building achieves.
The architects involved in designing the four LEED Gold buildings all said that their firms make sustainable design a matter of practice. However, working within the exacting LEED framework gives them an opportunity to out-do themselves.
“Whenever there are challenges, obstacles, or complexities in building, I think that’s when the best design can come out,” says Joe Jacoby of Jacoby Architects, lead designer for the Marriott Residential Scholars Community. “We like those constraints because it means more opportunity to come up with something unique.”
In addition, the thoroughness of LEED allows architects to better communicate with their clients and convince them to include sustainable features they might otherwise pass over.
“LEED gives us a good framework to have an intelligent discussion about what the impacts could be if we continued down some of these best practices roads,” says Joshua Gassman of Lord, Aeck & Sargent Architecture, the design team project manager of the Sorenson Molecular Biotechnology Building.
Now, a year or more after each of the buildings were completed, the architects are pleased to see those best practices recognized with LEED’s official stamp of approval.
Marriott Residential Scholars Community
The Marriott Residential Scholars Community was completed in 2011 and received its Gold certification this past May.
The building is located in a tight spot of campus near the Huntsman Center. Jacoby says it was a challenge to fit the project in such a small space, but the location also afforded some unique opportunities, like close proximity to the Fort Douglas TRAX station and bus routes, which won the project a considerable amount of points toward its certification.
The building earned several innovation bonus points for including the ability to monitor energy use by floor and have that data displayed on a dashboard in one of the common areas of the building. The dashboard allows for increased community engagement in energy savings through competitions between floors. Some of the funding for the dashboard came from the Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund (SCIF).
Natural History Museum of Utah
The Natural History Museum was the next building to be Gold-certified, which received its Gold award in July.
Because the Museum features highly-visible photovoltaic solar panels on its roof—which account for an 8.42-percent energy cost savings—and beautiful landscaping featuring water efficient plants, it might be the easiest of the four buildings to visibly recognize as sustainable. But John Brandson, principal at GSBS Architects and project manager for the NHMU, says that it’s the little details, ones that visitors don’t really think about or see, that are his favorite.
These features include recycled concrete and steel that were used in constructing the building, as well as the pervious pavement installed in the parking lot, which allows storm water to pass through it and into the ground underneath, rather than carrying pollutants from the lot into nearby streams.
In addition, good design of the basic envelope of the building—the exterior walls, foundations, roof, and windows—allows for reduced energy use by minimizing heating and cooling waste from air-leakage. Brandson says this was complicated, since problems often arise where different materials come together and the geometrically complex design of the building creates many of these spots. But careful attention to these areas served as a kind of insurance for making other sustainable decisions.
“If you don’t have confidence that your building is tight, then you’ll put in a safety factor in there [by using larger equipment for heating or cooling],” Brandson said. “If you can tighten up your envelope, you can downsize your equipment… which then takes less electricity or natural gas.”
Sorenson Molecular Biotechnology Building
In early August, the Sorenson Molecular Biotechnology Building, home of the Utah Science Technology and Research initiative (USTAR), was awarded LEED Gold.
Because the building is a research facility, there were a lot of mechanical aspects, like temperature control and vibration mitigation, which made its design technically demanding. In addition, Gassman says that that a place where scientific discoveries will be made should go beyond the technical requirements and be inspirational.
To do that, the design team paid close attention to the aesthetic elements of the building, in additional to the technical requirements.
“One of the things that was important to us as a design element and that is prominent in the building is the use of warm materials: materials that are natural and that you want to touch,” Gassman said. “It’s a very high tech building…but we wanted to ground that in the site and the human scale.”
Local stone from Brown’s Canyon was used extensively on the façade of the building to create the warmth Gassman describes. In addition, wood certified as sustainably cut by the Forest Stewardship Council was used to hold the glass window system in place throughout the laboratories and public spaces.
University Data Center
The final building, the new University Data Center, received its Gold LEED award in late August. Like the SMBB, the technical nature of data centers presented its designers with unique challenges.
Unlike the other three LEED Gold buildings, the Data Center wasn’t built from scratch. The building it’s housed in was previously an old Coca-Cola bottling facility and was remodeled to meet the needs of a high-tech data center that runs 24 hours per day.
The new Data Center features the most energy-efficient server equipment possible, given that it’s constantly running electrical equpiment. Because of this, data centers aren’t usually good candidates for LEED certification. However, by making the building extremely efficient and making sure that almost all the power used went directly into the equipment, the design team was able to meet the LEED standard.
A 57-percent reduction in power use and 83-percent reduction in water use comes largely from the way temperature is controlled in the building. The equipment generates plenty of heat, so cooling and redirecting the heat away from the building is the main focus. Instead of traditional air conditioners, which use huge amounts of water and energy, there is a large, long room between the outside walls and where the equipment runs. In this room, the warm inside air is mixed with cool outside air and recirculated throughout the building. For 85 percent of the hours during which the data centers runs, this is the only method needed to cool the building.
Whitney Ward, an architect who oversaw the documentation process for the data center as sustainability manager at VCBO Architecture, says that the kinds of innovations included in the Data Center and the other LEED Gold buildings are important ones for those in her profession to undertake.
“The buildings we put on this planet have a huge footprint and make a big impact,” Ward says. “Everybody who has a hand in creating these spaces has a huge responsibility to make sure they’re the best places they can be and have the smallest footprint. It’s imperative that we get to the point where our communities are positive to our environments.”
All of the other architects agreed: LEED is a good first step, but it’s only the beginning in a new wave of building sustainability.
“I think net zero buildings are now the goal,” Brandson says. “I think we’ll get better and better with our lighting, mechanical systems, and with our materials…Everyone will get on the bandwagon. We’ll never be perfect, but maybe LEED will go away because it’s just what everybody does.”
Alicia Wrigley-Gailey is a senior in Communication and Jazz Performance. She is a Sustainability Ambassador with the Office of Sustainability.