Addition to University of Arizona architecture building is an energy hog

Students, college doing retrofits to eventually bring it to LEED standards
2013-05-05T00:00:00Z 2014-07-22T11:15:50Z Addition to University of Arizona architecture building is an energy hogTom Beal Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
May 05, 2013 12:00 am  • 

The 2007 glass-and-steel addition to the UA College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture - promoted by the university as "a laboratory for sustainable practices" - is one of the biggest energy wasters on campus.

In its first year of operation, it used four times the energy of the comparably sized brick building to which it is attached. Its glass walls and unshaded, exterior cooling ducts, combined with design changes made to save money during its construction, make it difficult to heat and cool efficiently.

A "green wall," designed to shade the building's south side, has yet to grow.

The Tucson heat, seasonal glare, reflected light and noise from traffic on East Speedway blast through its north-facing glass walls. Students say the glare can be irritating and disorienting.

The building's performance is slowly being improved with retrofits.

Architecture students who work on its two studio floors have proposed a number of fixes, and one was recently approved by the UA's Green Fund - a plan to shade the building's exterior air-return ducts with photovoltaic panels.

Currently, those ducts heat to 160 degrees Fahrenheit, taxing the ability of air-handling units that were designed to cool 80-degree air, said Alya Al-Hashim and Lena Spiric, who proposed the fix and were awarded $46,500 to purchase PV panels and design and fabricate mounts for them.

The two master's students in design and energy conservation say the building's glass walls make it difficult to cool.

"That's what happens when you build glass boxes in climates like this. They are not sustainable," said Spiric.

lowering power bill

Spiric and Al-Hashim predict their project will quickly justify its cost with a reduction in the building's cooling bill and generation of power from the photovoltaic panels.

Once proven, the concept can be used on other campus buildings with exposed ducts, said Al-Hashim.

Nader Chalfoun, the professor of architecture whose master's students have proposed many of the fixes, said the building's inefficiency is caused partly by its glass-walled design and partly by cuts made during its construction.

The $9.2 million expansion, completed in 2007, came during a worldwide construction boom, which inflated the costs of the building's major components - concrete and steel. Project planners and the builder, Lloyd Construction, began making compromises.

Peter Dourlein, UA assistant vice president for planning, design and construction, said the cost of building materials increased as much as 14 percent per year in the early 2000s. "We redesigned that building multiple times and value-engineered it to keep it on budget," he said.

Original plans called for four floors. Only three were built, but the volume of the building was not reduced, leading to that calculation made in the first year of its use that it was sucking up four times the amount of power per-square-foot of usable floor space as the adjoining Architecture Building, built in 1964.

vines struggle

Energy efficiency was not the first goal of the college's building committee, said architect Eddie Jones, of Jones Studio in Phoenix, which designed the building. The committee wanted to give equal weight to the education of architects and landscape architects, he said.

The landscape features, notably a series of ponds and gardens on its south side, benefit from the building design, which funnels all wastewater into a giant cistern.

The garden, in turn, was designed to shade the building, including those exposed air ducts, with a "green wall" of vines growing up a welded-wire grate on the south side.

"It was a great idea and it's worked in other places, and I'll be damned if I can explain why those vines struggle," said Jones.

Jones, who lectures often at the college, said he always donates his honoraria back to the college "to buy more vines."

Jan Cervelli, who became dean of the college after the addition was completed, said it works as a teaching space. "It was designed as a teaching classroom to show very easily and visibly how a building is put together," she said.

"Having the building open and articulating to the public what it does was as important as the energy efficiency of it," she said.

desert sustainability

Cervelli said the college has been retrofitting the building as it raises funds for it. The Green Fund money will help, and UA President Ann Weaver Hart has expressed her support for improving the energy efficiency of the architecture addition and buildings across campus, she said.

Ron Stoltz, a professor of landscape architecture at the college, was on the addition's building committee. He said money for landscaping was completely penciled out as costs rose.

The college raised money from private donors, notably the Underwood family of AAA Landscape, for what has become a bragging point for the building and partial antidote to its unsustainable aspects.

A series of pools and gardens on the building's south side are watered from a cistern that stores rainwater from the building's roof, condensate from its cooling units, splash from drinking fountains and backwash from campus wells.

The Underwood Family Garden, with its five distinct Sonoran Desert regions, has won numerous national awards for its design and its performance. It reduced potable water use for irrigation by 87 percent and efficiently captures water that would otherwise run off into the city storm drains.

"It's a model for sustainability in the arid Southwest, and we've got the numbers and we can prove it," said Stoltz.

Stoltz said the college is now planning a partial "green roof" laboratory, which would add insulating soil and plants and reduce the building's contribution to the urban heat-island effect on campus.

It also plans to complete that green wall. One strategy being examined is to grow additional vines from planters midway up the building.

The parking lot south of the garden is identified as part of a campus greenbelt. Recently, a team of student landscape architects from the college won an EPA award for a design that includes a ring of ponds, which would collect rainwater and air-conditioning condensate from the buildings that surround the lot.

traffic noise

In a sense, the building is living up to its description as "a working laboratory for sustainable practices."

Master's in architecture candidate David Tapia Takaki said it is providing plenty of problems for the students to fix.

Tapia and fellow students Zhou Kang and Hong Run were in the south parking lot one recent afternoon, with a model of the addition and a light meter. They were testing for improvements in light dispersal from a shade structure and optical skylights they propose.

Kang said nobody had to tell him and Tapia that a problem existed. "We sit next to the window," he said.

The metal shade structure they propose would be dimpled with openings and filled with sound-absorbing material.

One of the big problems on the north edge is traffic noise, said Tapia. "It's the cars on Speedway. If you are there one or two hours, you will not notice, but stay there all day and it can give you headaches."

The light is also disconcerting, he said. You can't see the features of someone talking to you who is backlit by the window.

The glass wall is appropriately sited on the north side where it doesn't get direct light, said Tapia, but light is reflected by the metallic and white university buildings across Speedway.

It also receives direct sun in mid-summer mornings and afternoons, something that could be mitigated by shading fins, said Cervelli.

Cervelli said the college's goal is to continue retrofitting the building and eventually bring it to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards.

building can be fixed

The building can be fixed, said Chalfoun, and his students' work could lead the way to improvements across campus.

Chalfoun and his students have run 11 energy audits on buildings across campus. Many have similar problems, he said.

Dourlein, whose team of architects leads the university's pledge to certify all its new buildings to LEED standards, does not dispute the students' contention that the building uses a lot of energy.

It is partly a function of its design and partly a function of its use, he said.

The desire to expose all of its elements stripped it of potential for insulating materials, he said. "There are not a lot of layers to it. It is open and raw." Dourlein said the design did not anticipate heat infiltrating the building from its steel beams.

Its constant use adds to its energy demands, he said. "The real energy issue in that building is that they wanted it to be open 24/7."

"Architecture students work long hours. You go by that building at 10 p.m. and the lights are on. That's not typical for a classroom building."

On StarNet: Find more science, technology and health stories at azstarnet.com/science

Contact reporter Tom Beal at tbeal@azstarnet.com or 573-4158

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