Located on the University of Colorado’s East Campus in Boulder, the university’s new Sustainability, Energy and Environment Complex (SEEC) brings together more than a dozen programs and industry partners under one roof.

The Denver office of JE Dunn Construction broke ground on the $73-million project in January 2014. Programs have been moving into the complex since last fall, as project phasing allows.

“The university’s facilities department and design review board structured a rigorous design-review process, as the SEEC building’s planning and architecture are critically important in how the East Campus will develop,” says Maria Cole, principal at Denver’s gkkworks, the project’s design firm.

The university is looking at long-term planning issues, such as land preservation, building placement and density, while determining how to develop the East Campus, Cole says. Ultimately, all of its major research programs will be relocated to the new research hub.

The research complex consists of two adjacent buildings. The three-story, 289,000-sq-ft MacAllister Building—originally a non-university building constructed in 1994 and vacated in 2013—has been renovated to include classrooms, offices, and dry and wet labs. It is connected to the new four-story, 142,000-sq-ft SEEC, built as a multidisciplinary energy and environment research facility.

The project was designed with an eye toward the best use of resources: The dry labs are located in the MacAllister Building, since they are not mechanically intensive, and the wet labs are located in the new building, where a high-performance energy-recovery system is key to the design.

Designers also kept campus aesthetics in mind. Precast stone and a concrete tile roof on the new building match the existing facility, along with the same blend of masonry as in the nearby Jennie Smoly Caruthers biotech building. Architectural features complement the original campus, with the stone laid out on a vertical plane for a more rugged look. A two-story, 40-ft bridge, enclosed in glass and reaching from the ground floor to the second level, connects the two buildings.

Although the existing MacAllister Building had not been well maintained over the years, the university wanted the project to meet the institution’s stringent design standards. When the budget didn’t allow for that, some requirements were relaxed when it made sense to do so, says Matt Meyer, senior project manager at JE Dunn.

Throughout the 24-month project, Dunn’s team encountered surprises, such as when the old chillers and boilers didn’t work. “Every time we went into a new phase, we would find a system not working or pumps not operating or electrical not properly tagged,” Meyer says.

Sustainable Design

CU’s historically progressive goals for sustainability were heightened on the SEEC project, especially since the building’s programs include the Renewable & Sustainable Energy Institute, the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, environmental studies and the Dept. of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences.

Designed and constructed to LEED-Gold-plus specifications—the “plus” is a university requirement to focus on water and energy savings—the building is on the cusp of LEED-Platinum. Designers minimized thermal bridging by paying special attention to daylighting, wind loads and envelope detailing, Cole says.

“The question was how to drive natural light deep into those lab spaces while managing how shade and lighting come into the space,” she says. Motivated by a goal of creating seven watts of light per sq ft, designers used task lighting for tech-support areas in the labs.

Lighting levels in the corridors are as low as possible for egress and visibility, and non-use occupancy sensors were incorporated throughout the building. The design team also considered shading devices and other ways to buffer the light entering the building. Careful orientation of the labs was particularly key in achieving those goals, Cole says.

“One of the challenges [working for] the university is that they design their facilities to be 100-year buildings,” Meyer adds. Not only does that require all buildings to meet at least LEED-Gold specifications, but, on this project, it also necessitated an intricate envelope system, especially in the lab building, to ensure that spaces would hold negative pressure.

“It was critical to stay on top of the quality of the exterior skin to avoid air and water leaks,” he says.

Designers focused on the building’s thermal envelope, with detailed modeling of the connections between the steel plate and the slab, Cole says. “This level of detail was very much on the edge,” she adds. “As a second layer of due diligence, we thermally modeled all the various connections. Working hand in hand with JE Dunn, we designed two large-scale mock-ups on site. This allowed us to understand flashing details with roof mock-ups and to represent the full scale of the building.”

The team also did water leakage and thermal performance tests on the mock-ups. “We often build mock-ups, but to do this level of testing on a mock-up and testing of details to mitigate leakage or thermal testing is unique and indicative of the university’s commitment to sustainability and energy savings,” Cole says.

The SEEC’s customized Konvekta system allows its boilers and chillers to be downsized for space savings and energy efficiency, including a reduction of more than one inch of static pressure for the supply air and one inch of static pressure for the exhaust air, explains Nicole Link, project engineer for Cator Ruma & Associates, Lakewood, Colo., the mechanical design firm. Konvekta also controls the system, and the company guarantees its efficiency. The SEEC is only the second building in Colorado to incorporate a Konvekta system.

Incorporated in the exhaust stream, a high-pressured mist system by MeeFog will pre-cool the exhaust air, which increases the effectiveness of the Konvekta system in the summer and on warmer days throughout the winter, Link says.

While a traditional “run-around system” on campus typically offers 20% to 25% annual net effectiveness, SEEC’s Konvekta system promises results of 53% annual net effectiveness—62% thermal effectiveness in the winter and 50% thermal effectiveness in the summer, explains Mark E. Labac of Edge Mechanical, Golden, Colo., the manufacturer’s representative.

While the payoff can be attractive, the coils in the Konvekta system are expensive. Further, the fact that the air-handling system is controlled by the manufacturer—not the building automation system—presents a level of risk for many clients, Link says.

“The main risk is that there is only one coil to do heat recovery, heating and cooling, as compared to a traditional system with three coils,” she adds. “Another concern is that the coil is from Europe, so getting coils on site if something were to fail means the system could be down for a longer period than normal. However, there are strategies to mitigate this risk because of the inherent redundancies within the coil bank. But CU is a forward thinker in terms of energy savings and was open to hearing suggestions. They were as interested as we were in saving energy on this building, since it’s a research lab. One hundred percent outside air typically makes labs one of the least energy-efficient buildings.”

The university did take precautions: For example, it left extended mechanical space to enable, if need be, a return to a traditional system. If university officials are happy with the performance of the Konvekta, they will take full advantage of the energy and space savings it has to offer in future buildings, Link adds.

Another element unique to this building, as well as other labs on the CU campus, is a reduction in the number of air changers. When labs are unoccupied, the space is allowed to  drop to four air changers per hour—the standard is six per hour—to reduce overall building usage.

The SEEC building also was designed with variable speed drives on all air-handling units and water-handling equipment and includes premium efficiency motors throughout. The air-handling units have evaporative cooling to capture energy savings, and the duct system was designed using a low-static-pressure approach to help reduce overall fan energy.

The variable-air-volume laboratories allow for overall airflow reduction. Older laboratory buildings were designed to work at a constant volume, which is a big energy drain, Link says.

“CU is on the forward-moving front for energy conservation. All of these factors are what make the building as efficient as it is,” Link observes.