February 22, 2012

SOM’s Plan for Sustainability

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A new architectural adage is just now emerging: not “start from zero,” but end with zero.

Contracted by the University, architecture firm Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill’s (SOM) designed the winning tech campus proposal featuring a “net-zero energy” academic building, which generates as much energy annually as it consumes. To achieve the sustainability goals of the academic building and the rest of the tech campus, the proposal looked at implementing effective and efficient methods of energy production.

The proposal featured a 150,000 square foot photovoltaic (PV) array, an assemblage of connected solar cells, on its academic building, three times larger than the biggest solar array currently in New York City. The solar panels will face south at a tilt of about 40 degrees to harvest daylight at NYC’s latitude said Colin Koop, an associate director at SOM, who also worked on the proposal. The PV is planned to generate 1.8 megawatts at its daily peak by converting sunlight into electrical energy.

To use more natural light, SOM designed the buildings in the proposal with large windows that reduce energy and provide a healthier environment for the occupants, Koop said. The proposal features the “right” proportion of glass to opaque materials for the building to remain well insulated, Koop said.

Sunlight will account for most of the campus’ energy production, but to power the buildings’ heating and cooling systems the proposed campus uses geothermal energy—the heat inside the Earth’s crust. To harness the earth’s thermal energy, the proposal includes a 4-acre geothermal field composed of 400 wells that pump heat to and from the ground, according to Jeff Weiss ’79, managing director of Distributed Sun, a solar energy development company that helped SOM plan the net-zero academic building for the proposal. In addition to using solar and geothermal energy, the proposed campus features a fuel cell that produces electricity by converting hydrogen and oxygen into water, according to Weiss.

Other sustainable features planned by SOM include green-roofs and storm and irrigation systems that “will help manage storm-water runoff and mimic natural ecosystems in terms of the way the water flows through the site,” Koop said. The proposal looked into graywater and blackwater recycling systems to reclaim on-site wastewater to be reused in the building.

The central academic building is designed to earn LEED Platinum-certification. Other campus buildings, which will be home to staff, students and faculty, are planned to meet LEED Silver energy certification.

“Plug loads,” which are energy usages that the inhabitants control are also factored into the sustainability equation. “Every time they bring a cell phone charger in or coffeemakers or whatever, these things ultimately have big impacts on the energy consumption of the building,” Duffy said. “As good as we are at this kind of design, and as good as our consultants are, we can only go so far and then the occupants of the building have to participate in the ultimate solution.”

The tech campus proposal pioneers a new aesthetic level in net-zero building design, said Duffy. It features landscape design proposal by James Corner Field Operations that called for 500,000 square-feet of proposed green space, which would make it one of New York City’s largest public green spaces will offer breathtaking views of Manhattan and Queens waterfronts from the campus.

“It’s something more than just green quads and trees: It’s this energetic place where the landscape can be its own innovator, its own sort of identity that reinforces Cornell’s core values of community and innovation,” Koop said.

Although the proposal was successful in winning Cornell the tech campus, it is an ambitious undertaking “it’s currently very early in the process of designing this campus,” said Bert Bland, senior director of Cornell’s Energy and Sustainability Department. “What was envisioned during the proposal stage is now going to be reality checked, designed, considered and fully developed. We’re just now starting the real work.”

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Original Author: Maria Minsker