Researching Net Zero at Syracuse University
Can Sustainable Design Create A Better Learning Environment?
Can a renovated post-World War II academic building achieve net-zero fossil fuel energy? That was the question that Ashley McGraw set out to answer on the campus of Syracuse University. Not only is net-zero possible, they found, but there is a synergy between climate-specific design and a state-of-the-art learning environment.
The Huntington Beard Crouse Hall (HBC) emerged as the ideal test candidate – a representative mid-20th century building with southern solar orientation located in the heart of the main academic quad. Faculty offices ring the perimeter of the building, while interior classrooms lack access to natural light. Beyond its need for a more sustainable design, HBC did not reflect the more collaborative paradigm of modern education.
“Learning has changed,” explained Matthew Broderick, an Ashley McGraw principal and head of the College and University Studio, which collaborated on the research project with Ashley McGraw's Advanced Building Studio. “We wanted to change the academic environment and make it the most receptive to today’s learning styles.”
An Invested Partner
Syracuse University, a charter member of the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment, proved an invested partner for Ashley McGraw. While they had no immediate plans to renovate the building, the university provided 10 years’ worth of utility bills, drawings of the existing construction, and a wish list for a better learning environment.
For its part, Ashley McGraw was intent on demonstrating how a new design, that featured a floor plan reconfiguration, passive design, and use of renewable resources, could impact energy enough to achieve their goal of a net zero energy use design.
By applying Ashley McGraw’s 3 Cs hierarchy model (1. Conserve, 2. Capture, 3. Create), the firm worked to get the most impact for the building at the least cost. The first and most cost-effective strategy, conserve, concentrates on the thermal efficiency of the building skin and the energy efficiency of mechanical and electrical systems. As an older building, HBC was a prime candidate for basic strategies that included draft-tightening the building skin, increasing the quantity and quality of insulation, and replacing the original lighting and HVAC systems.
Introducing Passive Design and Renewable Energy
The second C, capture, involves using energy that naturally falls on the site in the form that it falls – sunlight for light and heat, wind for fresh air and cooling, earth temperature for heating and cooling. Three strategies were incorporated into Ashley McGraw's design for Huntington Beard Crouse Hall: a solar pre-heat wall, a trombe wall and a natural ventilation system. A solar pre-heat wall, also called a transpired wall, exploits the southern face of a building. A perforated metal panel is installed over the existing exterior wall creating an air cavity between the two. The dark bronze metal is heated by the sun and solar heated air is drawn through the panel perforations and into the ventilation system to preheat the building's ventilation air.
Trombe walls were also designed for the south side of the building. These masonry mass walls absorb heat from the sun during the day and release it into the building at night to reduce mechanical heating needs. Daylighting approaches were carefully designed to bring the right amount and quality of light into the building to reduce the need for electric lighting.
The team also recommended a natural ventilation strategy, drawing air into the building through louvers in the exterior wall of each room, and using draft to move this air up and out of the building through ventilation chimneys. This system provides natural air conditioning that would reduce mechanical cooling and ventilation needs by about 50%. Between conserve and capture, the team was able to get to 20% of current fossil fuel energy use.
The final C, create, incorporates renewable energy and is the least cost effective of the strategies. Maximizing the conserve and capture strategies reduces the amount of renewable energy needed to achieve a net-zero design. For HBC, reducing the building's energy usage to 20% of existing fossil fuel use meant that, given the existing space on the building, a sufficient quantity of photovoltaic panels could be installed to get the building to net zero.
“Beyond creating a net-zero academic building, Ashley McGraw and Syracuse were both keenly aware of the high visibility the HBC building has on the main academic quad on campus. “We wanted the design to express why certain decisions were made,” explained Eric Beattie, Director of Campus Planning, Design, and Construction at Syracuse University. “It can serve as a learning tool for sustainability and as a very visual demonstration of our university’s commitment to the environment.”
Instead of concealing sustainable design, students and faculty alike would be able to see the solar pre-heat wall, feel the natural ventilation, and experience the different sized learning spaces and shared faculty offices that were created both to conserve energy and to drive collaboration between students and faculty.
“This project allowed us to think in possibility, to think outside the walls, and hopefully, to contribute to the field of sustainability in higher education,” said Matthew Broderick. “It provided insights into energy conservation applicable to the existing building stock of many of our existing and future clients.”