Research center to open new energy neutral building

Building will be first of its kind in the Midwest

| Staff Reporter
Artist's rendering of the Tyson Research Center

Artist's rendering of the Tyson Research Center

A new building under construction at Washington University will use zero net energy and water through photovoltaic cells, rain capture and composting toilets—meeting standards even more stringent than LEED Platinum.

The Living Learning Center at the Tyson Research Center, scheduled to be completed by May 1, will house a classroom and a high school outreach program. If certified, it will be the only “living building” in the Midwest.

“It’s going to be one of the greenest buildings on campus, if the not the greenest,” said Kevin Smith, associate director of Tyson.

The building strives to meet the “living building challenge” issued by the Cascadia Region Green Building Council to move beyond current expectations for new green buildings.

“LEED is a good start to get mass consumption of green buildings, but we can do better,” Smith said.

While other buildings planned or underway at the University fail to meet these environmental standards, Smith said he believes that constructing just one building of this quality “sends a really strong signal.”

Energy for the building will come through photovoltaic cells so efficient that they may have extra energy left over. Tyson has been considering a “net metering program” that would channel extra energy back to the grid, effectively selling surplus energy back to the electrical company.

Water will come from rainwater collected from the roof, stored in underground tanks and cleaned by microfiltration and UV sterilization. All the building’s used water, or “gray water,” will be reused for watering the grounds or absorbed by rain gardens.

“This prevents the entry of water into typical stormwater systems,” Smith said.

The building will also include water-free composting toilets to reduce water consumption. In composting toilets, waste is collected in a chamber underneath the toilet containing microorganisms that break down, detoxify and denitrify the waste. After the chamber is full, it can be removed, and the newly composted and pathogen-free waste can be used as fertilizer.

While some may have aesthetic concerns about such toilets, Smith promises, “The technology has gotten to the point where they’re entirely usable.”

The group is striving to use as many local materials as possible. All wood for construction will come from nearby fallen trees or harvested cedar trees, an invasive species that Tyson is more than happy to be rid of.

“Just this morning we had people out looking for fallen good-quality wood—cedar trees, oak trees,” Smith said.

In addition, trees cleared from the construction site will turn into firewood to offset other buildings’ fossil fuel consumption, rather than putting the trees into landfills, as is usually done.

The architect, Dan Hellmuth of Hellmuth Bickmese Architects, took pains to make the design fit in with its surroundings, according to Smith. The main classroom will include large French doors that open onto a patio, creating an “indoor/outdoor classroom” that feels less isolated from the outdoors.

Strategically-placed windows will let in sunlight to create passive solar energy, heating the building in the winter. Outside the building, overhangs above key windows will prevent the sun from overheating the building in the summer.

Efficient light fixtures and climate-controlled rooms will help lower energy use.

“Getting to the point where you can even consider something like this involves not just that energy is as low-carbon as possible, but also that it doesn’t use a lot,” Smith said.

Some of the Cascadia Region Green Building Council’s demands have proven challenging. The Council doesn’t allow PVC, a near-ubiquitous building material, for example, and it is difficult to find locks without lead cores.

“Some of the contractors are starting to feel the strain,” Smith said.

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