Energy Efficiency in Renovations and in New Construction


by Lisa Gibbs

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) is a green building rating system first developed in 1993 by the newly formed United States Green Building Council. The mission of the Council is “to transform the way buildings and communities are designed, built, and operated, enabling an environmentally and socially responsible, healthy, and prosperous environment that i proves the quality of life.” Such quality of life is enhanced by construction that allows for natural lighting, better acoustic design, and improved air quality.

The Council developed a rating system with four levels: Certified, Silver, Gold, and Platinum. These levels indicate the number of points achieved by incorporating green building strategies. Motion sensors for lighting a room, and water control for faucets, double-paned windows, green roofs, and solar panels are a few of the strategies suggested by the Council. Private colleges and universities are using the LEED certification system to create a positive impact on the climate and a more natural environment on campus.

In late January 2020, Cornell University’s Mui Ho Fine Arts Library in Rand Hall was awarded the Gold level of LEED certification. According to a February 2020 news release, “the building earned 63 points, including all 19 available points for optimizing energy performance, and all six available points for proximity to public transportation.” The ground floor houses digital, wood, and metal fabrication shops, a maker’s space, and a research lab. A massive suspended library spans all three upper levels, with meeting rooms, classrooms, and offices surrounding the rows and stacks of books. The shell of the original building was kept intact, and today the library operates in a sustainable, nationally- accredited and ADA compliant way.

Renovations on the historic building were a massive undertaking in order to achieve this high standard. Rand Hall was built in 1911 as part of the Sibley College of Mechanical Engineering and the Mechanic Arts. It housed the electrical laboratory, the machine shop, and the pattern shop in addition to classrooms and work spaces. The industrial Neoclassical style building had three floors with one staircase located at the center of the building. As the use of the building changed over time, some renovations took place and in 1968 a second exterior stairwell was added to comply with updated fire codes. By 2013, major renovation plans were being discussed and construction finally began in late 2017.

As can be well imagined, converting a structure built more than 100 years ago without demolishing it posed a challenge for architects, engineers, and designers. The group worked together to solve the challenges of updating nearly every square inch of the space. Exterior work included rebuilding portions of the parapet, refilling mortar in some of the brickwork, and removing the 1968 staircase addition. The large, rectangular windows on the lower floors and the curved windows on the top floor were replaced with double-glazed panes. Thermal insulation was added to the walls, and the roof was replaced “with a well-insulated and reflective surface that improves the building’s thermal performance year-round.” All mechanical systems were replaced for improved ventilation and protection for the vast collection of books on fine arts. These renovations will result in  an estimated 70% reduction of energy and confirm Cornell University’s commitment to be carbon neutral by 2035.

Smaller private colleges and universities are also improving campus energy consumption by using sustainable methods. In 2014, the Jane Ayers Academic Center on the campus of Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, became the first Platinum LEED-certified building on a college or university campus in the state. According to the campus website reporting on sustainable buildings, this academic center was specifically “designed and constructed using sustainable practices to help reduce its environmental impact.” Because this project was new construction, designers did not face the challenges of those working on the Cornell University Rand Hall renovations.

The Ayers project incorporated some similar and some different methods to achieve energy efficiency. Thermal insulation, state-of-the-art mechanical systems, along with fire code and ADA code compliance are part of new construction as well as renovations. Cornell and Belmont use light emitting diode (LED) bulbs instead of incandescent light bulbs across their campuses. Motion-sensor light switches, faucets, and towel dispensers are commonplace. Green roofs can be seen on both campuses, as well as recycling areas and student-led organizations promoting and applying sustainable practices.

An underground parking garage was built for the Ayers Academic Center and other new construction on Belmont’s campus. Underground parking eliminates the heating effect of surface lots and preserves green space. The garages range from two to five levels of parking space, and include charging stations for electric vehicles and specific parking for low emission vehicles. Irrigation systems at several campus buildings collect water in underground tanks, which is then re-used for sprinkler systems and water features. Additionally, the Ayers Center uses an active chilled beam HVAC system that reduces heating and cooling energy usage. Over 900 tons of waste generated during construction of the Ayers Center was recycled instead of being taken to a local landfill.

Belmont plans for its newest fine arts building to be LEED certified. The Performing Arts Center will house a 1,700-seat multi-purpose theatre, along with a grand lobby that can host more than 900 guests when opened to the two contiguous event spaces. Belmont’s construction project reporting web page states that the new construction, slated to open in the fall of 2021, will also have “a green roof to assist with water quality filtration, among other sustainable components as the project will pursue LEED certification.” This project continues Belmont’s commitment to preservation, sustainability, and respect for people and the planet.

Construction and design standards look quite different in 2021 than they did in 1911 when Rand Hall was built on the campus of Cornell University. Energy efficiency, sustainability and recycling have become integral parts of campus construction, renovation, and long-range goals. New technologies and materials, from sensor driven faucets to double-paned windows, are widely available. Green buildings show increased efficiency in energy and water usage and reduced impact on human health and the environment. As private colleges and universities move through renovations and new construction, following the LEED certification process will reduce energy consumption and lead to a healthier campus in every way imaginable.

About the Author
PUPN staff writer Lisa Gibbs earned her Ed.D. in Higher Education Administration in 2018. She is an advocate for arts, particularly dance, in education and for increasing the financial well-being of artists through financial education.