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The LEEDing Edge

UW's commitment to sustainable construction is changing the face of campus

By Steve Kiggins

Volume 13, Number 1 | Fall 2011


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A place to work or study in comfort. A place to enjoy natural light. A place to improve your health.
A place to practice sustainability.

And you thought the newest buildings on the University of Wyoming campus were simply another place to escape the wind or get out of the cold.

The College of Business, the Berry Biodiversity Conservation Center, and the Bim Kendall House— the three most recent additions to UW's evolving landscape—embody the university's growing commitment to green living and stand among the state's finest examples of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) construction.

"I read recently that, on average, Americans spend 90 percent of their waking time indoors," says Michael Ziemann, UW's LEED engineer. "I think that's all the proof you need that you should have buildings that accommodate your needs by being bright, pleasant, and comfortable. We're trying to make the buildings at the university as nice for people as we can."

While the Laramie campus is spotted with buildings constructed long ago—the university's first building, Old Main, opened in 1886—UW is changing the face of campus construction with buildings such as the Berry Center, which features a "green" roof landscaped with native vegetation that provides natural insulation and helps lower indoor air temperatures. At the Kendall House, 30 percent of the building's electrical needs are supplied through a photovoltaic solar system.

There seems to be just one thing missing in all this new construction.

"I've heard several of our first-time visitors say, 'But it doesn't smell like a new building,'" Greg Brown, director of the Berry Center, says with a smile. That's because the university uses low-emitting paints and adhesives to prevent potentially toxic chemicals from being released into the air—yet another LEED-inspired practice that fosters a healthier indoor environment.

The College of Business renovation and addition, completed in fall 2010, launched the university's pledge to LEED, an internationally recognized green-building certification system. LEED provides third-party verification that a building was designed and constructed using strategies to lower operating costs, conserve resources, improve indoor environmental quality, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

LEED's certification process measures criteria in five categories—sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, and indoor environmental quality. Buildings can achieve certified, silver, gold, or platinum status. "I'm thrilled that the university has embraced LEED as a way to do business. It's the right thing to do," says Brent Hathaway, dean of the College of Business. "We're stewards of resources, and I believe that in Wyoming, we're the perfect laboratory to demonstrate how we use our rich resources, both human and natural.

"When I used to describe LEED, I'd have to define it. What does the acronym mean? Why is it important? Why are we embracing it? Even since we've started, the number of people who know what LEED is has tripled or quadrupled."

The College of Business is the epitome of LEED construction. Its classrooms and laboratories are fitted with motion sensors and programmable thermometers designed to save energy, and its bathroom fixtures use 30 percent less water than conventional models. Bike storage and shower facilities encourage green commuting, and naturally lit staircases motivate people to skip the elevator.

In June 2011, the College of Business became Wyoming's first state-funded structure and first higher education building to receive LEED's gold certification. It is just the fourth business school nationally to achieve this status.

"Our former building was designed and constructed in the 1950s, and subsequently there have been so many evolutions in technology and modern construction that it was very dated," Hathaway says. "While it was a really wonderful building for its time, our student population has quadrupled, and the technology was so radically different than what we needed. Our students were in high schools that were much more technologically advanced, and that was a difficult thing as we brought prospective students and parents and prospective faculty into our former facility."

A smile stretching across his face, Hathaway adds, "Now we have a facility that reflects the quality of instruction here."

The business school's Jonah Bank Atrium, a popular gathering place with ample seating under a ceiling of skylights, may be UW's finest example of green construction. Superior ventilation freshens the air and disperses indoor pollutants, keeping this high-traffic area as healthy as it is appealing.

Returning students were astonished upon seeing the space for the first time: "It was so memorable to see them walk into the building and watch their jaws drop," Hathaway recalls.

He adds, "The new building has given our students, faculty, and staff a stronger sense of both quality and professionalism. We've noticed a difference in how people dress and in how they behave. You don't realize until you're in a different space how much the space impacts you.

"I love my job, I always have, and the facility wouldn't prevent me from enjoying my job. But I do take a higher degree of personal satisfaction working in a space that's much more comfortable and more professional."

Across campus, Brown knows the feeling. After nearly 25 years in one of the university's oldest buildings, he moved in January to the newly constructed Berry Center, which serves as UW's hub for the study and conservation of natural history and biodiversity.

What are the differences between the Berry Center and the Aven Nelson Building, which opened in 1923? "I don't know where to start," Brown says with a chuckle.

To begin with, Brown says, he enjoys better temperature control, greater comfort, and more natural light in his new office. Then there's the improved ventilation. "If there's a breeze," he says, "you can open the window and it makes a difference."

There weren't windows at Aven Nelson?

"We had windows we could open, but they weren't designed for ventilation," Brown says. "We couldn't feel the breeze."

LEED engineer Ziemann is well informed about the health benefits of indoor air quality. "The more fresh air we have, the better our body works. It's just a simple matter of oxygen content," he says. "It's hard to put a dollar value on worker productivity. But with increased oxygen levels, people are more energetic. They focus better, and their long-term health is better."

Brown has seen the difference, not just in his own attitude but in the morale of his colleagues. "Everybody who occupies this building came from spaces that I would consider to be suboptimal, and they've all noticed a big difference in the design, the comfort, and the lighting," he says. "It's a pleasant space."

The grounds of the Berry Center are equally pleasant. A plaza with benches is nearing completion at the main entryway, and work is under way on a penstemon flower garden. The highlight of the outdoor space, however, is a 3,600-square-foot green roof where dozens of native species—all proven to survive in Wyoming's subarid climate—have been planted. The ultimate goal, Brown says, is that the roof will someday resemble any prairie near Laramie.

The roof, which has a walkway to motivate people to get outside for fresh air, will soon be used as an outdoor classroom where students will monitor the sustainability of the plants.

"President Tom Buchanan deserves a lot of credit for the Berry Center," says Brown. "He wisely said, 'Let's use this as a catalyst for urban renewal on this side of campus.' It really was the back alley, but the Berry Center now stands as a beautiful new entryway to campus."

A few blocks away, the Kendall House welcomes visitors to campus. This 1954 prairie-style building was recently retrofitted with environmentally friendly cork floors and energy-efficiency upgrades during the construction of a five-office addition.

With a photovoltaic solar system providing nearly a third of its electrical power and water-saving fixtures installed in its bathrooms, the Kendall House is a credit to its occupants, the administration, faculty, and students of UW's Environment and Natural Resources (ENR) program.

"Since moving here last summer, my work environment has greatly improved," says Chamois Andersen, ENR's communications director. "I now have an office with numerous windows for natural light and airflow. I also have a new desk and cabinetry that I had arranged so that I could look out two large vertical windows as I conduct my work on my computer. My view also includes the Bergman Gardens, adorned with a number of native plants, and beautiful Solstice Plaza, with paired stones through which the summer and winter solstice sun rises and sets."

But the intimate and inviting Kendall House does more than provide a wonderful working environment, says Andersen. It sets an example. "The building location, in close proximity to campus and within walking distance to downtown, is an important aspect of creating a sustainable building model for the community," she says. "I think it is important that the University of Wyoming, with environment and natural resources as one of its areas of distinction, be a model for the Wyoming community in such practices as sustainable design and the conservation of our vital natural resources."

More examples are on the way. The Visual Arts Center, now under construction east of the Centennial Complex that houses the American Heritage Center and the UW Art Museum, will feature a solar array to heat the building's water. This highly efficient system will reduce demands on the university's Central Energy Plant. The 79,000 square foot center is scheduled to open in October 2011.

UW's newest capital construction project is the Energy Resources Center (ERC), a state-of-the-art research and collaboration facility that will help the School of Energy Resources and its various centers of excellence—including the Enhanced Oil Recovery Institute—to realize their full potential.

The 30,000-square foot facility, which is slated to open in summer 2012, will feature an extensive heat recovery system designed to provide abundant fresh air and improve climate control and a student gathering area illuminated by natural daylight.

Both the Visual Arts Center and ERC are expected to gain the highest LEED status of platinum, thanks in part to efforts to recycle and reuse construction materials such as aluminum, wood, paper, and steel.

Likewise, the Berry Center, which is likely to receive LEED gold status, might have topped out at silver certification if not for contractors' ability to divert more than 90 percent of construction waste from the local landfill.

"That," says Ziemann, "is an incredible number." During construction, he says, wood was salvaged from the existing structure and resold or reused, and the existing concrete foundation was crushed and used as compact fill.

The College of Business' gold rating was also achieved in part by recycling 95 percent of its construction waste. The building's new addition, in fact, is made of 10 percent recycled content.

"What we're trying to do is make the university as green as possible," says Roger Baalman, UW's director of facilities planning.

Baalman says the positive feedback he's receiving about the LEED-certified buildings is refreshing. "This office usually hears the problems and not so much the compliments about the improvement of quality of life," he says with a chuckle. "And a big part of LEED is improving the quality of life. There's natural light, windows, views ... People like that. People like the buildings."

 

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