Coming Face to Face with Sustainability at the University Center


by Gregory Stewart 

On October 18th, Erik Eibert, New School Buildings Associate Director for Sustainability Initiatives, lead a tour of the University Center on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 13th Street organized by the Tishman Center. The purpose of the tour was to inform the attendees about the efforts that The New School has taken towards being a sustainable university by pointing out the elements of the building which were designed to function in an environmentally conscious way. Eibert led the group of about 20 individuals from top to bottom of The University Center. Of the one million square feet that The New School occupies, the University Center represents roughly 25% of it. Our group was comprised of students, staff, and non-affiliated individuals. Molly Craft Johnson, a University Sustainability Associate, organized the group and helped to provide additional information about New School sustainability effort throughout the tour.With so many dimensions to sustainable initiatives, it was rather interesting to get a focused perspective on how a building can be engineered and managed to be environmentally friendly. The University Center was built in 2013. The building design and construction achieved  LEED Gold (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Certification from the U.S. Green Building Council..We took the elevator up to the top floor of the building, going through the Kerry Hall residence hall. On the 17th floor, we reach a mechanical room which houses one of the systems for managing energy consumption in the dorm. Generally, when energy is created, only about one third is utilized. The other two thirds end up being released as heat in one form or another, usually steam. The New School utilizes a high pressure gas microturbine, which effectively reduces the amount of heat that is wasted in producing energy for the building. We got an inside look at the room which houses this large machine. The wind was rushing through the room as if a subway was about to reach the platform. There are large wheels that spin in order to exchange heat from two sources of air: incoming and outgoing. This doesn’t mix the airstreams, but helps to cool the hot air that is being released from the generator. Therefore, it reduces the waste and helps to save energy. The heat which would normally be wasted is also used to support the hot water system.We hopped back onto the elevator and made our way to the 8th floor of the building. This is the bottom floor of the dormitories. There are about 700 beds between these eight floors, clustered into suites. Every suite has an occupancy recognition system which  controls the heating and lighting. This way, when a room is unoccupied, there is no air conditioning blowing through the room. The lights also turn off when the room is unoccupied, taking the burden of responsibility off of the student and putting it into the building’s design. Erik pointed out that the wall beside us in the hallway is made of a durable, compressed cork-like material called forbo. He noted that 25% of this building is constructed from recycled materials such as this one.We then got a glimpse into the waste processing which takes place in this building. Obviously with about 700 students, a large cafeteria kitchen, and all of the individuals who occupy the floors from one to seven  during school hours, there is going to be a lot of waste. The school’s main recycling streams separate paper and plastic from landfill trash. Compost is also collected in the residence hall and the cafeteria..We cut through the library to a mechanical room which houses quite a bit of warm air to eventually emerge on a small, cool patio on the roof of the university center. Green roofs are great for reducing the urban heat island effect, where paved, densely developed areas trap heat,  ending up hotter than the surrounding areas. The green roof also absorbs water, so that instead of rain running off the roof and into sewers it is absorbed into the soils and brought into retention tanks. The University Center  also has a black and grey water treatment plant which uses reverse osmosis filtration. The water treated on-site is technically clean enough to drinks, though it is actually repurposed for uses such as flushing toilets.Back inside the building, Molly Craft Johnson informed us that the stairs have been designed to be oversized and the elevators have been designed to be undersized in order to promote decreased electricity use when students use the stairs instead of the elevators. The open design of the stairs also supports community development and socialization, which promotes social sustainability on campus.We made a quick stop in a classroom, where Erik explained how, during warm summer months, it can be more energy efficient to block the natural light out and light the room artificially because of the energy that has to be used to control the air conditioning if you let in the natural sunlight. In contrast, during more temperate times of the year like Fall and Spring, turning off the lights and using sunlight is the more efficient option.  He also explained that light shelves have been installed in many classrooms to reflect natural light further into the room. This helps to reduce the amount of electricity we use to light the rooms.Next, we went two floors underground in order to see the inner workings of the University Center. This is the boiler room. It creates the building heat as well as generating hot water. There are two larger boilers and one smaller one. The small one exists for times when there is less pressure on the system for hot water and heat. When we have to run a larger boiler for a lesser demand on the system, energy is wasted in the process. The three-boiler setup helps to maintain a nice, even system which only produces what is necessary, and nothing more. This is a great example of the way in which buildings are living, breathing things that we must keep efficient at appropriate levels. An engineer usually sits in a small room behind a plexi-glass window just beside the boiler room, he is the brain behind this heating system.We followed the maze through the dormitory laundry and mail room. Into the ice storage we go! Fire and ice are situated side by side! Erik comedically asked, “What would we use all this ice for? Soda?”This room has several large containers which hold ice that helps cool the air throughout the building. The ice storage system is run at night in order to provide cooling without adding extra pressure to the urban electrical system throughout the day. New York City’s baseload energy demand is met by a grid that has been created with relatively efficient and low-carbon technologies; however during peak hours (like the middle of the afternoon on a hot summer day) the city has to use generators that have a higher a carbon footprint in order to meet the increased demands for electricity. By diverting our consumption times away from the peak hours, we help to reduce the overall footprint of the city.A liquid similar to antifreeze fluid runs through the ice storage containers, then out to the rest of the building where it cools the air. The antifreeze liquid is recirculated as the ice melts over the course of the day, which reduces the need for traditional air conditioning. Our last stop was the Tishman Auditorium. Erik’s final point was to highlight the materials that are used in this part of the building. “This is all bamboo.” Erik informed us, motioning to the paneling on the walls, as we stood in a hallway between the two sections of the auditorium. The building’s designers considered the entire footprint of all materials including the deterioration of materials and the way in which they are grown and utilized, as well as how long they would last, and the miles involved in the shipping.. Bamboo was the best option in this case.The buildings architects also didn’t put pipes and ducts and wires behind the walls so that there would be future flexibility. All of the engineering systems and larger auditorium elements were centralized, so that change would be easy to facilitate. This is a perfect example of creating one space that achieves multiple needs. The two parts of the auditorium can also be combined by taking down the walls. Environmental issues are often discussed among the university population, but the abstract principles that are thrown around in the discourse don’t compare to the reality of implementation in the largest building on campus . The Tishman Center and new School Buildings partner to host sustainability tours throughout the year in order to provide opportunities for the university community to better understand how sustainability informs the building’s design and operations. For those unable to attend a tour in person, Erik and Molly were recorded giving a tour last year, which can be viewed on The New School’s facebook page.

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