Discovery

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Posts Tagged ‘CEREO’

Quite Simply, The World’s Most Energy Efficient Office Building

Try as you might to save energy at home—wear sweaters, hit the lights on the way out of the room—and you can still see vast amounts of energy going to waste at work. Empty rooms have lights on. Large, nearly empty spaces have the heat cranking. It turns out that buildings take up the bulk of our energy use.

The environmental sustainability goals of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, rating system have been taking a crack at this problem in recent years. WSU’s own Compton Union Building was refurbished with the guidelines in mind, earning a silver rating by saving energy and water and recycling construction waste, among other things. WSU Vancouver’s undergraduate classroom building went one better, earning a gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.

Rendering courtesy of Miller Hull.

But such efforts pale in comparison to the Cascadia Center for Sustainable Design and Construction, a six-story office building slated for East Madison Street on Seattle’s Capitol Hill. All the building’s energy demands will be handled on the site. All the building’s water will come from rainfall. Where other green buildings compete over certifications of silver, gold and platinum, this will simply be the most energy-efficient office building in the world.

Participants in the project—the Bullitt Foundation, PAE Consulting Engineers, and the Miller Hull Partnership—spoke about the effort earlier this week in a seminar put on by WSU’s Center for Environmental Research, Education and Outreach, or CEREO. A look at just some of the steps in the effort shows it is indeed possible to make such a dramatically sustainable building. It also shows how hard it can be.

A typical building uses more than 70,000 British thermal units of energy per square foot a year. This translates to an “energy use intensity” of about 70. A LEED platinum building cuts that by more than half, to 32. The Cascadia Center cuts that in half again, to 16. Craig Curtis, a Miller Hull partner and lead designer for the architecture team, said this is probably the lowest of any office building in the state.

All the building’s electrical needs will come from solar panels. To get the most surface area, and therefore the most energy from Seattle’s intermittent sunshine, the architects extended the roof outside the property line and ran panels down much of the building facade.

The roof’s rainwater will be filtered and disinfected for drinking and showers. Water from the low-flush toilets, as well as the solid stuff, will be composted and used to fertilize and water plants.

Laptops, which use less energy, will replace desktop computers. In some cases, computing will be done through common servers.

Tenants will include the building’s owner, the Bullitt Foundation, which focuses on environmental issues in the Northwest. The foundation, said Amy Solomon, a program officer, decided to develop the building to create a “replicable prototype” and inspire more environmental policies, including building codes.

Other tenants will need to agree to limit their energy use, although heavier energy users may be able to take advantage of an inter-office “cap and trade” system. Workers will need to expand their comfort zones, tolerating a few degrees warmer in summer—there will be no air conditioning—and a few degrees cooler in winter. The only on-site parking will be for a shared electric car. And with an elevator using as much as 4 percent of the building’s energy, tenants will be encouraged to use a glassed-in stairway with views of downtown Seattle and Puget Sound.

Miller Hull has several charts and images of the building here.

The firm is also featured in the spring issue of Washington State Magazine.

The Slime that Saves the Planet

Washington State University researchers have received half a million dollars to study a microscopic slime that they believe plays an outsized role in life on the planet.

The slime, also known as biofilm, forms a super-thin layer gluing the roots of plants to mineral surfaces and serves as a reactor in which a plant can break down the rock for vital nutrients. The process, says Kent Keller, was central to the start of land-based plant life as plants invaded the continents 350 million years ago. It continues to take place on modern volcanic ground and receding glaciers—anywhere a plant can’t get enough to eat.

A special root slime helps plants like this pine tree pull nutrients from bare rock. Flickr photo courtesy of eviltomthai.

“The magic of all of this is plants come in that are adapted to make the slime,” says Keller, co-director of the Center for Environmental Research, Education, and Outreach (CEREO) and professor in the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences. “Within 100 years, you’ve got soil. That’s an amazing thing. And it’s these slimes that are a key part of the mechanism.”

Wait, there’s more: The biofilm reactor also facilitates the most fundamental process on the planet for packing away carbon, as seen in the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. As the plant dissolves minerals, the plant’s natural carbonic acids, made from CO2 through photosynthesis, are transformed into bicarbonate that is carried in runoff to the oceans. There it precipitates as calcium carbonate.

In other words, the biofilm acts as an intermediary between carbon from the atmosphere and its storage in the earth’s crust. Absent that process, carbon dioxide would continue building up in the atmosphere until oxygen-dependent life forms suffocated in a “runaway greenhouse.”

“Without that we wouldn’t be here,” says Keller. “We’d be Venus, because Venus has no mechanism to sequester volcanic CO2.”

But there’s a mystery to the process, which Keller and a group of colleagues will explore with $492,000 from the National Science Foundation. Somehow plants employ biofilms to build up nutrients for plants to use while also releasing them for long-term storage, and they’ve done this in a way in which plants thrive and the chemistry of oceans and the atmosphere is kept in balance.

The researchers—a team of earth, life, and soil scientists—plan to grow trees in different nutrient conditions, including pure sand, to see which are best at inducing the formation of biofilm. One indicator of that will be microbial communities, which essentially generate the biofilms for shelter. The researchers hypothesize that plants in the worst conditions will be predisposed to hosting the most diverse microbial communities, the better to generate slime and nutrients.

One experiment will rely entirely on fertilized irrigation as a proxy for conventional agriculture, which is less reliant on large microbial communities for nutrients. Comparing this system with those generating their own nutrients could help open the door to agricultural systems that can use fewer artificial fertilizers.