Looking past the trellis: An insider’s view of Oberlin College’s Green Academic Building

November 1, 2007 - 12:00pm
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In 1996 Oberlin College hired architect William McDonough to design its new Environmental Studies Center.  Over the next several years the design and construction process went forward resulting in the January 2000 completion of the Adam Joseph Lewis Environmental Center, a 13,600 sf structure with a price tag then exceeding $7,200,000.  The building employs a long list of "green technologies" including geothermal heat pumps, advanced glazing, energy recovery ventilators, day lighting, occupancy sensors, CO2 sensors and demand-mode ventilation, integrated building controls, an ecological waste-processing system, and a roof-mounted 58kW photovoltaic array.  The Lewis Center has been heralded as the greenest academic building in the world and its architect, William McDonough, whose firm was paid more than $1,500,000 for services, has repeatedly claimed that the building was "designed to generate more energy than it uses." Yet despite such claims, its enormous price tag, and its pedigree of green technologies, even after $250,000 of HVAC upgrades, the building's source energy consumption remains a mere 10-20% below that of other Oberlin College academic buildings and its $420,000 PV Array provides only 40% of its energy.  In 2006, further improvements to the building were abandoned in favor of installing a second, 100 kW, PV Array over the building parking lot at a cost of $1,000,000, finally proving that, absent constraints on cost and footprint, zero-energy buildings are indeed possible. In his talk John Scofield, Oberlin College Professor of Physics, will describe aspects of this building, its HVAC design, and the design and construction process that led to this outcome.  Scofield will discuss lessons learned, what works and what doesn't, the design deficiencies, and irreconcilable gap between the building's reality and its publicity.  Finally he will comment upon DOE and NREL's High Performance Building Program and the role they played in marketing this model green building.

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