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Transforming Building Performance Using Zero-Plus Principles

Zero-Plus Principles

Campuses across the country are changing their approach to energy use reduction. There is a growing shift away from the traditional paradigm that only focuses on using less energy, to a strategy that emphasizes on-site renewable energy generation. This movement shapes a new direction using Zero-Plus principles that connects the learning experience with energy planning through research, innovation, and new technology. Zero-Plus essentially focuses on creating more energy than you use, connecting human behavior with energy planning, and giving back to the environment. Renewable energy generated on-site can add to a campus’s revenue stream by reducing consumption from the grid and, in some cases, allowing excess energy to be sold back to the utility company.

A successful Zero-Plus energy plan considers the human experience and how people are using energy in a building. As we connect human behavior with energy use, energy efficiency is enhanced, especially if energy consumption is displayed for users to see the impact of their building use. And as we change and improve how education is delivered by reshaping learning, then students and faculty will be more satisfied, learning outcomes will improve, and less energy will be used in the process.

Zero-Plus is a matter of balancing scale between multiple stakeholders. Consideration needs to be given to the community group and individual. The built environment considers campus, building, common spaces, and individual areas. Energy conservation, for instance, is best affected at the individual scale. The culmination of all the individual choices adds up to better energy conservation, especially if the education delivery supports it through opportunities to learn in a variety of settings. Onsite energy production happens at the building scale and often includes campus central systems.

Central to this approach is setting desired performance targets before the design starts and guiding the design and budget using the targets as priorities throughout the project. Zero-Plus identifies several performance metrics:

  • Human Experience identifies how people use a space.
  • Energy targets energy efficiency and conservation by looking at how energy can be reduced while researching potential energy production through clean technology, such as photovoltaic panels or wind turbines.
  • Carbon tracks carbon emissions, reduces energy consumption, and improves on-site energy production sources to achieve a carbon neutral design.
  • Water identifies on-site water capture and water-recycling systems with campus-wide cultural changes in water use.
  • Waste uses nature’s efficient closed loop bio-recycling system to convert waste into a resource and minimizing landfill waste.
  • Materials mimic organic forms through architectural bio-mimicry to reduce energy consumption and produce energy.

Integrating Energy Strategies into the Classroom
A successful Zero-Plus plan is a collaborative process between campus leadership and building operators, the design team, student/faculty groups, and the community at large. Every campus building project should begin with four basic questions: How do we improve the learning experience? How can we generate energy? How can we use less energy? How can we use energy as an educational tool? The answer to these questions will inform the design and planning process and transform new projects from ordinary to those that shape the future.

Several recent academic buildings have addressed these questions by demonstrating how energy is integral to campus life and student learning.

The new Los Angeles Harbor College Science Complex housing the Physical Science and Life Science departments, for instance, puts science on display, where natural ventilation, abundant daylight, connection to the outdoors, and innovative technology help lessen the energy loads. Submitted for LEED® Platinum (v2.2), the architecture was shaped partly by the building-integrated photovoltaic (BIPV) panels. About 30 percent of the building’s estimated energy consumption is potentially supplied by the BIPV. The remaining electricity is supplied by a campus central PV system creating the potential for net-zero energy performance.

Zero-Plus Principles

Additionally, the building itself responds to changing weather conditions through integrated building systems. When outside air is ideal for natural ventilation, green lights indicate that users can open the windows. The ventilation system knows the windows are open and responds accordingly to reduce energy use. Similarly, an advanced daylighting control system monitors indoor lighting use. Active daylighting controls lighting levels at individual lamps to make the best use of natural light. Combined, these building systems offer the potential to achieve Zero-Plus energy by using approximately 50 percent less energy cost than baseline models. In the process, these combined strategies – energy conservation measures, visible energy monitoring, BIPV and central PV system offering the potential for a net-zero energy – transform the learning process into a more interactive experience.

Similarly, a planned project in the west envisions a self-sustaining campus that produces more energy than it consumes through solar energy production along with conservation. The master plan addresses the sun, wind and shade with façades that minimize heat gain, energy-efficient mechanical systems, solar photovoltaic panels, storm-water reservoirs for evaporative cooling, shading and daylighting techniques, and wind protection. In all, the plan identifies a way to generate renewable energy through its on-site photovoltaic panels for electricity production while using significantly less energy than existing buildings in the area. As with the science building at L.A. Harbor, this new campus plan puts science and energy production on display, serving as an organic classroom that supports the college’s core purposes.

Sustainable Learning Outside the Traditional Classroom
Stepping outside the traditional classroom, the Biomass Research and Demonstration Facility at the University of Minnesota-Morris capitalizes on the surrounding agrarian economy to process local bio-waste (stover) for fuel consumption. As an addition to an existing energy plant, the biomass plant includes a fuel handling, processing and gasification reactor, and a more conventional boiler plant that feeds into the existing campus system. The plant converts corn stalks and other residual materials into a syngas (similar to natural gas), which is burned to produce clean energy to generate campus heat and cooling. The energy plant improves the campus’s overall reliability in both the steam and chilled-water systems. Much of the mechanical infrastructure is visible through metal screening and wood slats, allowing the biomass plant to serve as a student demonstration facility in renewable-energy resources.

Further afield, the Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center in northern Minnesota is in the process of renovating an existing dormitory to support year-round environmental and outdoor learning programs for grades 3 to 12 students, teacher, families, seniors, plus a program for college students. Planned for approximately 180 overnight guests and 24 staff, the renovated dormitory is intended as a teaching tool on sustainability as it incorporates strategies of the Living Building Challenge, a certification program promoting net-zero energy along with other aspirational goals relating to site, water, health, materials, equity, and beauty. Though in the early planning stages, the new environmental living-learning space will be an integral part of the Wolf Ridge mission of “developing a citizenry of environmental learners and leaders” with visible, interactive sustainability features that demonstrates aspirational sustainability, interactive learning modalities, and use nature as the backdrop for education. Energy monitors, for instance, will allow building occupants to track their energy and water use.

The building will have improved energy efficiency from better envelope, efficient lighting, reduced water use, and low-impact materials. The project will feature flexible learning environments and group spaces to accommodate a variety of activities. The live-learn space will provide a “home away from home” atmosphere along Lake Superior’s north shore. As a prototype of live-learn spaces for other campuses, the dormitory will take a holistic approach to sustainable learning and energy consumption, blurring the line between indoor/outdoor, learning/living.

From Wolf Ridge in northern Minnesota to L.A. Harbor College in southern California, campus buildings are becoming models of sustainability by developing Zero-Plus plans integrated with the learning experience. By engaging students in the process, campuses have the opportunities to create hands-on learning experiences, connecting aspirational goals with new technology and renewable resources that help shape the future.

James Matson, AIA, is vice president and principal with HGA Architects and Engineers in Los Angeles, CA, where he specializes in higher educational master planning and design. Patrick Thibaudeau, CSI, CCS, LEED AP BD&C, ILFI, is vice president of sustainable design for HGA Architects and Engineers in Minneapolis, MN.