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Academic Building Trends - Where Past Meets Present

© Courtesy of Goody Clancy
By Nicole Imbergamo, PE, LEED AP BD+C
April 17, 2016

It is nearly impossible to walk down a street in Boston or Cambridge today without passing a building that is part of a university campus. These campuses are filled with historic and iconic buildings which express the character and strong history of each institution. While many of these buildings house prominent researchers and professors who push the envelope on new technology research, the systems within many of these the buildings are as historic as the buildings themselves.

In an effort to combat the growing problem of increased utility cost associated with outdated building systems and existing structures, universities are embracing the historic nature of their buildings and choosing to renovate and expand. These expansions create spaces that meld together existing architecture with new architecture. By creating unique spaces that represent the rich history of the university, as well as showcasing new building technology and architectural trends, universities are leveraging these buildings to attract new faculty, researchers and students. With the next generation of faculty and student being savvier regarding green house gas (GHG) emissions and building energy use, these metrics are excellent selling points for university recruiting.

As universities look to create new “cornerstone” buildings at campus centers through a combination of building reuse and new construction, the building occupancies are evolving to be spaces of collaboration, teaching, research, libraries, athletics, housing, dining areas and student life activities. By reusing existing building structures, universities can often save in construction costs while increasing the building efficiencies. Reuse of these buildings, along with the changes in building use, present both exciting challenges and opportunities to building designers.

With existing buildings accounting for 39% of the U.S. energy consumption and 38% of the carbon dioxide emissions, with more than half of these numbers coming for HVAC and lighting energy, new building expansion and renovations afford architects and engineers opportunities to reduce these numbers. Even though building expansions will increase the building footprint, overhaul of the existing buildings systems and envelope many times result in more usable space with very little change in the GHG emissions and overall energy use.

Improving building envelope design and lighting power density, as well as replacement of end user equipment, will improve both energy usage as well as GHG emissions. Building envelopes can be improved by adding insulation, replacing windows and air sealing the exterior wall, which affectively reduce the heat transfer from inside to outside and vice versa. Lighting improvements, including fixtures and improved controls as well as end user equipment replaced with energy star rated equipment improves both electric usage as well as heat loads to the space. All of these measures reduce the amount of heating and cooling required keeping occupants comfortable.

Along with reducing loads, new building expansions also entice universities to centralize their building heating and cooling systems to serve both the new expansion spaces as well as the existing areas. Centralizing heating and cooling plants can decrease both annual utility costs as well as maintenance costs while adding reliability and accountability through using automated building management systems. Centralized systems also allow campus officials to strategize for campus preparedness as we begin to see the affects of sea level rise and extreme weather events. By expanding existing buildings rather than build new, institutions can improve their existing facilities and mitigate risks of climate change while simultaneously giving faculty better controlled research environments.

As with most great things, the positive improvements always come with their challenges. Construction and design within existing buildings challenge designers to deal with unforeseen conditions, phasing issues, new building Codes and their affect on space renovation, particularly when the building occupancy usage classification changes. All these concerns put additional time, money and potential risk on the universities. Luckily, as technology continues to improve, through BIM modeling and laser scanning, as well as involving stakeholders early on in the process, risk can be mitigated and positives outweigh the negatives.

As universities continue to improve their building stock with new and sustainable technology, from improved internal electric loads and new heating and cooling systems to renewable energy and reduced water usage, architects and engineers are embracing the challenge. It is exciting to see how campuses will transform from existing brick and mortar structures towards a fusion of innovative and classic design in the coming years.