Green College Building A Case Book Study

Back in 2008, Washington University in Saint Louis, Missouri, committed to the construction of a new building at the Tyson Research Center that would attempt to meet the rigorous standards of the Living Building Challenge. As it turns out, the building didn’t achieve its projected net zero status, but its designers learned some key lessons and came back to improve performance, winning the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education’s “Best Lessons Learned Case Study Award.”

In order to meet the standards of the Living Building Challenge (now also the standards behind the newly launched Net Zero Energy Building certification) a building must produce as much energy as it consumes. Washington University’s building, situated on a 2,000-acre environmental research station located 20 miles west of the university’s Danforth campus, was designed to do just that — but when the building was audited, it was shown to consume more energy than its solar panels produced, particularly during the winter months.

Washington University Living Learning Center

image via Washington University

So the construction team reassembled to find out where they went wrong. One culprit, as it turned out, was a cost-saving measure they’d instituted in light of the economic downturn: the substitution of wood frame and batt insulation for SIP panels. Rather than tear the walls out and start over, the team did what most homeowners would do, which was to make the building tighter by sealing, insulating and installing storm panels.

Another problem: the heat pump they’d installed wasn’t tested under the local climate conditions, and so failed to perform as projected. By tweaking with various parameters — and adding a bit more solar power to cover its needs — the team brought it up to speed. Upon re-testing, the building reached net zero consumption, and in 2010 was certified by the International Living Building Institute as one of the first Living Buildings.

The biggest lesson learned? Energy conservation is more cost-effective than renewable energy production. “”We’re tempted to think of renewable energy as a panacea,” said Kevin G. Smith, associate director of the Tyson Research Center, in a statement. “But when you get right down to it renewable energy is still energy, it’s still expensive, it’s not something you should waste.”

Susan DeFreitas has covered all manner of green technology for EarthTechling since 2009. She is a graduate of Prescott College for the Liberal Arts and the Environment, and has a background in marketing green businesses. Her work on green living has been featured in Yes! Magazine, the Utne Reader and Natural Home.