A frequent commentary chronicling the creative and intellectual
excitement of discovery at Washington State University.

Brought to you by Washington State Magazine

Posts Tagged ‘sustainability’

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 Invention of Sliced Bread Has Nothing on This

Let’s just indulge in a brief moment of bluster and say that Washington State University researchers are on the cusp of what could be one of the greatest inventions since not only sliced bread, but the dawn of agriculture.

Writing in the latest issue of the journal Science, nearly 30 scientists led by Jerry Glover (WSU Ph.D., 2001, soil science) and Regents Professor John Reganold say perennial grains could be here in the next two decades. Such crops reestablish themselves without the aid of plowing or planting. As a result, they can be raised with less fertilizer, herbicide, fuel, and erosion than grains planted annually. The Science authors say that makes them particularly promising for farmers who work marginal land at risk of being degraded by annual grain production. Those farmers, by the way, account for half the world’s growing population.

Back in the day, as in way back at the dawn of ag, grains were perennial. But their ability to regenerate from the plant crown waned as farmers selected seeds for other traits, like yield. Perennial grains would be an elegant, ecologically sustainable way of taking farming back to the future.

You can read more here.

Meanwhile, Reganold shares this electronic conversation with Duane Schrag of the Land Institute, the renowned sustainable agriculture research group in Salina, Kansas.

Schrag: The article mentions earlier efforts at developing perennial grains. What has changed now?

Reganold: Recent advances in plant breeding have made the difference. For example, a plant breeder can characterize and exploit plant genetic variation more easily and effectively through the use of molecular marker-assisted selection. Other molecular advances and technologies, coupled with traditional breeding techniques, make the development of perennial grain crops possible in the next 20 years. This has led to the recent initiation of perennial grain programs in China, India, the United States, Australia, Argentina, and Sweden. All this said, for the great potential of perennial grain crops to be realized, more resources are needed to accelerate plant breeding programs with more personnel, land, and technological capacity.

Schrag: The article notes that while annual crop production does not pose a great risk for the best croplands, it does for marginal lands, which comprise nearly three times the area of the best croplands. What are the key reasons annual production puts marginal lands at risk, and how do perennial grains provide a solution?

Reganold: Marginal lands have poorer quality soils; that is, soils with little to no topsoil, shallow depth, poor structure, low fertility, and/or high acidity or salinity. Many marginal lands occur on steep slopes and are not suitable for annual crop cultivation year after year. They are more susceptible to soil erosion, nutrient depletion, compaction, organic matter loss, and other forms of soil degradation. Marginal lands usually require permanent soil cover to protect them from further degradation. Most annual cropping systems, with the exception for example of continuous no-till systems, don’t provide this. Compared to perennials, annuals typically grow for shorter lengths of time each year and have shallower rooting depths and lower root densities, with most of their roots restricted to the surface foot of soil or less. These traits limit their access to nutrients and water, increase their need for nutrients, and leave croplands more vulnerable to degradation.

The increased use of perennials could also slow, reverse, or prevent the increased planting of annuals on marginal lands, which now support more than half the world’s population. Developing perennial versions of our major grain crops would address many of the environmental limitations of annuals while helping to feed an increasingly hungry planet. For example, with their longer growing seasons and deeper roots, perennials can dramatically reduce water and nitrate losses. Greater soil carbon storage and reduced input requirements mean that perennials have the potential to mitigate global warming, whereas annual crops tend to exacerbate the problem. We know that perennials such as alfalfa and switchgrass are much more effective than annuals in maintaining topsoil. With perennial grains, soils are built and conserved, water is filtered, and more area is available for wildlife.

Schrag: “Farmers need more options to produce grains under different, generally less favorable circumstances …” What less favorable circumstances are anticipated?

Reganold: Less favorable circumstances include marginal lands with much less productive soils and more extreme weather conditions, such as drier or cooler climates. Perennial grains have advantages under these conditions because their longer growing seasons and more extensive root systems make them more competitive against weeds and more effective at capturing nutrients and water. Less favorable circumstances also include farmers, especially in developing countries, having less money to put towards fertilizers, pesticides, water, and fuel. In growing perennial grains, farmers won’t have to replant the crop each year, won’t have to add as much fertilizer and pesticide, and won’t have to burn as much diesel in their tractors.