University of Rochester

Currents--University of Rochester newspaper

Sustainability key in building's design

Paul Tankel
Tankel at the construction site for the new BME/Optics Building.

UUniversity Architect Paul Tankel has been thinking, talking, planning, and designing with green in mind. In recent years, he has worked with students, administrators, faculty, and others to unearth new ways to promote environmentally friendly and sustainable building designs. It's a concept that he says is playing an increasingly influential role in building development on college and university campuses across the nation, including Rochester's own new Biomedical Engineering (BME) and Optics Building, currently under construction.

This forthcoming addition to the River Campus, scheduled for completion in late 2006, not only marks the innovative collaboration between two emerging sciences but also the use of innovative technologies to produce the University's most environmentally sustainable building to date.

Tankel recently discussed the efforts to make this "green" design a reality and ways he and others have addressed specific environmental issues related to the project.

We hear a lot of discussion today about sustainability. What does that term mean when talking about architectural designs, especially in a university setting?

Architects have known about sustainability or "green buildings" for decades, but it's an idea that's been gaining momentum in the last five to 10 years, specifically for architects and engineering who are working on designs for colleges and universities. There's a realization that these buildings will be a part of their campuses for a long time and that the designs are really an investment in the future.

After all, that's what sustainability is—an investment in the future and for future generations. As colleges and universities continue to consider the role of energy efficiency and renewable resources in building construction, many have concluded that sustainability just makes sense.

There's also the other component that facilities should be part of a school's educational mission. If we can do something in a building that tells a story, raises some questions, students will say, 'Oh, that's interesting.' And they'll start to ask their own questions.

As an architect, what design elements do you consider when looking to create a sustainable building?

We consider site selection, when possible, and resources such as water, energy, and materials as well as indoor environmental quality issues. The criteria for determining a building's sustainability level are set by the grading system known as LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. The program was developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), a nonprofit group that formed more than a decade ago to promote a 'whole building' approach and to encourage a collaborative design process that focuses on environmental issues.

USGBC did wonders to raise not only the awareness of architects and engineers but also others in the building industry such as developers, contractors, and manufacturers. The council went to carpet and paint suppliers, forestry and concrete companies, and other manufacturers and began lobbying for more environmentally sound products. It's had a huge impact on the marketplace.

What role has the LEED grading system played in the design of the new BME/Optics Building?

I realized more than a year ago that I needed to know even more about LEED. I'd been reading about it in journals and hearing about it from architects at other schools, so I took a training course to become a LEED-accredited professional. Actually, today, most architecture firms and contractors that we work with have LEED-accredited professionals as part of their firm.

This all tied well to BME/Optics. We actually started talking about incorporating sustainability into the building's design almost two years ago and worked hand-in-hand with the College administration and faculty, particularly former Dean of the College Faculty Tom LeBlanc, Senior Operations Officer Ovide Corriveau as well as department chairs Wayne Knox of optics and Rick Waugh of biomedical engineering, to determine what was feasible for this particular project given the placement of the building and other design parameters. We also collaborated with the student environmental group Grassroots and addressed issues such as increasing green space, ensuring access to public transportation and promoting alternative forms of transportation such as hybrid vehicles and carpooling, minimizing light pollution at night, controlling storm runoff, and other issues—all clearly defined by the LEED checklist. What's been great is that by following the checklist it's pressed us to rethink some of the things we do. There's a paradigm shift, an education of sorts, when you realize, 'Hey, that wasn't so difficult. We can do that.'

How does this emphasis on sustainability affect decisions such as hiring contractors and selecting manufacturers?

We have found that many of the outside companies we're working with are already aware of sustainability and are finding ways to incorporate the concept into their processes. The contractors on this project have agreed to recycle at least 50 percent of the waste generated from the project, including materials like concrete, brick, steel, and copper wiring. Also, many of our product manufacturers are already working to develop sustainable products and are willing to collaborate with us to develop solutions to specific problems.

A particular example is the approach we took to addressing light spill at night. One of the items on the LEED checklist is a reduction in light spill or light pollution. We faced a problem with the acorn light fixtures along the walkways. While they're a beautiful architectural feature, unfortunately, the fixtures spill a lot of light into the night sky. We discussed the issue with the manufacturer, and they came up with a add-on reflector that pushes the light back down without detracting from the visual appeal of the fixture. A simple solution, and one that was the result of consumers like the University beginning to ask these types of questions.

Describe some of the interior design elements that make the building more environmentally friendly.

We've made an effort to make sure all habitable spaces have been designed to have access to either direct or indirect natural light. It's a quality-of-life issue for the people who will work and study there and one of those elements we knew we wanted to do right from the start.

We're adding carbon dioxide monitors that will automatically increase ventilation to improve air quality in some of the larger lecture rooms. We also are incorporating occupancy sensors in the labs to reduce the number of air changes and thereby reduce energy use. A few other features include the use of sustainable products throughout the building such as bamboo paneling in the atrium, environmentally friendly paints and carpets to avoid off-gassing, and waterless urinals to help conserve water.

Do these enhancements come with a big price tag?

When you initially look at a project like this, it's easy to assume that an emphasis on sustainability means a big cost increase. For the BME/Optics Building, many of the enhancements have simply required us to think through the issues a little more, adding minimal cost. This is a $30 million project. The cost to emphasize sustainability has added up to less than one-half percent of the total budget. In fact, some solutions have been cost neutral, and a few have even helped us save money.

I think it balances out in the end when you think about the benefits, some of which can be difficult to measure. The building should feel like a different building when people are in it—the air and light quality will be noticeably better. Research has shown that such improvements can reduce absenteeism and increase productivity.

In the end we can be proud that we've kept waste out of the landfill, increased green space, conserved resources, and at the same time designed a safe, high-performance facility where faculty, staff, and students can engage in scientific discovery and perhaps develop the new technologies needed to ensure a sustainable world.

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