On Campus, a Real-Time Experiment in Green Design

by Bret Nolan Collazzi, MBA’ 13 (11/1/12)

Bret Nolan Collazzi, MBA’ 13

During a recent tour of Cornell’s LEED Platinum Human Ecology Building, members of the Sustainable Global Enterprise (SGE) Club and Associate Real Estate Council explored the cutting edge of sustainable design and construction.

Calling it the Human Ecology Building (HEB) may be a slight understatement.

The $72 million structure - Cornell's first building to earn LEED Platinum status - is just as much a green design laboratory, as it is a testing bed for innovations that can scale across campus. It’s also a live experiment laboratory that investigates  the effects of real-time data on the behavior of tenants – in this case, the students, apparel designers, and lab technicians who make up the College of Human Ecology.

During an October 4 tour organized by the Sustainable Global Enterprise (SGE) Club's Hospitality and Green Building Affinity Group which also included  members of the Associate Real Estate Council, facility manager James F. Hatch Jr. explained the cutting-edge design practices that helped HEB earn the U.S. Green Building Council's highest rating for sustainability:

  • Real-time energy tracking: A custom-designed lobby display will track the building's energy use and allow for building-wide competitions for best conservation efforts, with the goal of modifying occupant behavior (for example, winning floors could get a $50 gift card to the in-house cafe, Martha's.)
  • Green roof: An intensive planted surface atop the parking deck boasts thousands of native plants, diverts thousands of gallons of storm water, and doubles as a courtyard link to the neighboring Martha Van Rensselaer (MVR) Hall.
  • Low-impact furnishings: Many interior elements were designed and fashioned by Cornell students from construction waste, including a collection of rustic benches carved from maple trees uprooted during site clearing.

There's just as much you can't see: Many of the project's 53 LEED credits (out of a possible 69) came from sourcing building materials within 500 miles, using recycled content, and opting for furnishings with low emissions of volatile organic materials.

One of Hatch’s proudest features is a slender cinderblock chamber that sits outside the utility room. The space serves as a gateway for outdoor air, moderating its temperature before it reaches the climate control system and reducing the energy required for heating and cooling.

"The only cost for us was separating the space," or about $5 per sheet of drywall plus labor, he said.

Planning a LEED Platinum project is time- and labor-intensive (HEB was 10 years in the making), so facility staff are hoping lessons learned at the HEB also inform the planned rollout of green building improvements across campus. Already, Hatch said, two aspects of project management are notably more important than in traditional projects:

First, green building systems (AC, electrical, water, etc.) are more complex, expensive, and inter-related, so getting placement and coordination right the first time is critical. "You can totally kill your project savings with bad ductwork," Hatch said.

Second, to ensure a building achieves its anticipated savings, you need to painstakingly test and calibrate all equipment early on. Said Hatch, "There's no bigger payback than hiring a qualified commissioning agent with a partnership approach.”

Lessons in green design and project management are already at work in a related floor-by-floor rehab of the adjacent MVR Hall. Phase 1 of the MVR rehab was the first Commercial Interiors project at Cornell to achieve a LEED Gold rating. Phase 2, currently underway, is also set to achieve LEED Gold when it is completed next spring.

Bret Nolan Collazzi is co-president of the Sustainable Global Enterprise Club at Johnson. This summer, he served as an Environmental Defense Fund Climate Corps fellow at Grubb Properties in Raleigh, N.C., designing an energy efficiency program with the potential to save $65,000 in annual operating costs and increase asset value by over $900,000.