NZE Teleconference: Pursuing net zero energy laboratories: Part 1 (Ohlone College)

Tue, 12/13/2011 - 6:34am
Bruce McLean Haxton

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The Ohlone College Newark Center was designed with an eye to controlling long-term operating costs. Photo courtesy of Don Eichelberger

Sustainable architect Bruce McLean Haxton, BMH Architect, Rhinelander, Wis., and Russ Drinker, managing principal, Perkins+Will Architects, San Francisco, organized the "Pursuing Net Zero Energy Laboratories" teleconference, which was held this past June. This article summarizes the first of nine presentations by teams creating NZE laboratories; the remaining eight are continued in a series of articles in the Laboratory Design section (Design subsection) of the Website. (Perkins+Will has hosted five other Net Zero Energy building teleconferences.)

Some of the nine presentations were case studies of completed projects; others focused on labs still in design or construction; and a presentation by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory discussed relevant technologies and systems. Presentations were as follows:

In addition to the presenters listed above, other designers taking part in the teleconference were Lou Hartman, Harley Ellis Devereaux; Philip Macey, Haselden Construction; Ellen Sisle and Jonathan Weiss, KlingStubbins; and Philip Wirdzek, I2SL/Labs21. Each section of material includes an edited presentation transcript, followed by some Q&A among the teleconference participants.

Resources are listed at the bottom for both architectural and engineering topics for net zero energy (NZE) laboratories. See the "Lessons Learned" section at the end of this article for some general ideas about improving the design process. Click here for biographical and contact information for all conference speakers and participants.

Ohlone College, Newark Center for Health Science and Technology
Presenter: Russ Drinker, Perkins+Will
We do a lot of science and technology projects, and pursuing net zero energy is very important strategically for our clients and for the broader social good. Generally, of course, we face huge challenges achieving zero net energy with laboratories, as these facilities consume enormous amounts of energy, primarily in the interest of life safety.

There is a broad range of different laboratory programs, and these drive different levels of energy consumption. It's hard to benchmark energy performance of laboratory projects in particular. I think it's great to share what people's experiences are around the globe and to learn from each other best practices, and to really understand how we can achieve zero net energy for laboratory facilities that work. Especially for the higher density, process-intensive research facilities, achieving net zero without compromising safety is a significant challenge. This challenge will only be met through an extraordinary collaboration between clients, researchers, lab planners, architects, engineers, equipment manufacturers, regulators and the government.

I look forward to sharing and learning from each other what can be accomplished and see what the future may look like.

Today I'll present a project from the Ohlone College, Health Sciences and Technology campus in Newark, which is in the Bay Area of California. This is not a research building per se, but I've chosen it because it is a facility with teaching laboratories that typically consume lots of energy. The facility has been operational for a few years, and it’s fundamentally running at net zero energy for a majority of the year. We are successfully applying the technologies that we used here on some of the newer research laboratories that we're doing elsewhere.


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The entire roof surface was covered with photovoltaic arrays, comprising ~38,000 ft2. Photo courtesy of Robert Canfield Photography

This new college campus is 137,000 gross ft2, for 18,000 students, and was constructed all at one time. It cost $58 million and achieved LEED Platinum certification. The key story for this project, which was bond funded, is the change in the District's vision of the project from a large facility with a broad-based curriculum to a smaller, high-performance facility with a more focused curriculum. The change in direction was initiated by a new president who came on board, took a fresh look at the program and determined that one of their long-term major challenges was going to be operational costs. He recognized that the bond funding only covered capital improvements and that the long-term operational costs needed to be minimized.

This inspired the client to look at building a facility that would be much more sustainable, with much lower operational costs, due to reduced energy consumption. So we set a high bar in terms of working towards a net zero energy facility. To achieve that, we worked out a space program that was smaller than what they were originally planning, but budgeted so that we could provide high-performance systems.

The project is located on a brownfield site that is now reclaimed wetlands on the Bay. The program includes biotechnology, health sciences, emerging technologies and environmental studies as well as a learning research center and general classrooms. Teaching laboratories and about 10 fume hoods were anticipated.

We have started by looking to passive design in terms of building orientation and daylighting, and doing everything we possibly could with a high performance skin to reduce energy demands and loads. We also employed active technologies defined in terms of the potential for energy reduction, their appropriateness for the environment and for the program, and cost.

We covered all of the roof surface area with photovoltaics: about 38,000 ft2. I think at the time it was completed it was the largest PV array in Northern California. We are also using enthalpy wheels: air to air heat exchangers that recover waste energy in the building's mechanical ventilation system.

In addition, we used ground coil heat exchange in a horizontal field. The horizontal fields were chosen because we did not want to penetrate the groundwater aquifers. The area for the field is about 80% of the gross building area; a large area is needed to accommodate ground coils. We did run into some unexpected problems with ground squirrels chewing the coils. There are trade-offs with these technologies, affecting the decision of whether to use vertical bores or horizontal ground coils. These have both generally proven to be very good technologies even in this more mild climate.


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With the aid of an enthalpy wheel, photovoltaics and a geothermal system, the Ohlone/Newark facility is operating at near net-zero-energy; additional PVs should close the gap. Plan: Perkins+Will

The ground coils and the enthalpy wheels were the two major innovative technologies that we relied on to reduce energy use and, of course, the photovoltaics are the primary source of the renewable energy on-site. We were able to reduce our cumulative kilowatt hours per month from 126,000 down to 80,000. On-site we're generating about 65,000 kWh per month with the PVs. The remaining 18% gap will be closed with additional wind turbines and PVs that will be added.

In summary, we reduced the overall energy demand substantially. Of the remaining energy demand, 82% is made up by on-site PVs currently in operation, and the remaining on-site renewable energy to achieve NZE will eventually be installed. The design has proved successful from the campus operations point of view. They’ve reduced their energy cost almost to nothing, and the facility really works quite well.

None of this would’ve happened without a strong vision from the leadership in the community college district, willing to embrace new technologies and to rethink the program to achieve longer-term sustainable goals.

Bill O'Dell, HOK: What would you do differently, if you were starting over again?
Drinker: We are still investigating issues with the ground coils and the potential impact of the ground squirrels. I do think we would potentially use different materials and case the coils differently to protect them. But otherwise everything is working very well. The construction cost, schedule, it all worked out very well. There weren't any delays, and everybody seems extraordinarily happy using the facility. Really there has just been the one technical issue with the ground coils, which is solvable. I think it is the right idea to have implemented though.

Ellen Sisle, KlingStubbins: You mentioned that the program reduction was linked to the desire for a sustainable project. Was the driver for reducing the size of the building to make it more sustainable, in that by challenging the overall size of the facility you are building less and therefore using fewer resources? Or was reducing the size in response to the fact that they needed to free up available funding to implement other technologies? Or was it some combination of the two?
Drinker: It's a mixture of things. We did the initial master plan with a different president; the new president wanted to be sure to have a campus that they could not only afford to build, but afford to operate. So they really took a harder look at the program drivers. What was really motivating the size of the campus? They revisited their assumptions for enrollment and the programs they needed to teach, based on their demographics. Through doing that, they got a closer look at what type of facility would really best serve the community, based on the number of students they needed to draw and what programs they needed to offer. It did reduce the cost of this facility, but they also were able to reserve more of the investment for higher quality high-performance buildings. Really it was just taking a much harder strategic look at the whole picture.

Phil Wirdzek, I2SL/Labs21: You are talking specifically with regard to the technology facility laboratory, is that right? Did you achieve the net zero for that facility or for the campus? If you did achieve the net zero for the facility specifically, is it maintained? How do the users and the operators interact with the various systems, especially the PV as it is a new system? Power may not always be available, so how does that work into the net zero concept?
Drinker: Well, this is a whole campus; it's a teaching facility that has research and teaching labs in it. We have been monitoring actual operations for some years now and have been able to measure the energy consumption, the power as well as the gas consumption. We haven't isolated out the teaching labs for energy use.


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Horizontal ground coil heat exchange was selected to avoid penetrating groundwater aquifers. Image courtesy of Robert Canfield Photography

We do have energy performance monitoring systems in the building. The whole building is operating at net zero energy the majority of the year, but there are months when it's not, and that's why additional PVs and wind turbines are planned. That is based on actual operations and plug loads, etcetera, which have changed over time. The monitoring has been key to really understanding what is needed to close the gap.

Wirdzek: Is it possible to share that assessment to help identify where the gap occurred and why, and how the gap is being filled? I think that's an interesting evaluation and assessment to share. By going through the building's needs, you have places of special needs that might have been monitored for some time and now you are able to assess the best fit technology for the purpose.
Drinker: Sure, we are happy to do that. I think the campus has been very much a champion of this. The program there is very focused on science and the environment and so they have taken that upon themselves to provide that kind of leadership. So, yes I think we can share that.

Bruce Haxton, BMH Architect: The bookstore, cafeteria, information services and contract education are in one building, and it looks like it's in east-west orientation and the other is in the north-south. Is there any reason for the orientation, what about east and west heat gain?
Drinker: We really are creating a center of space between the buildings there. They are relatively new to daylight, and the heat gain is managed through the skin design. We have basically a high-performance low-E glass. The heat gain has been is not a significant issue in terms of the key load.

Key lessons learned from the teleconference

  • Site analysis is very important to establish energy, sustainable and other design parameters (Haxton).
  • During site selection (especially for a nationwide site search), investigate geography and climate types that promote a NZE approach, and investigate the heating degree days and cooling degree days (Haxton).
  • Investigate not only NZE parameters but also the net water, net waste, carbon neutral, low embedded-energy, and low-energy-lifestyle parameters that contribute to energy savings, enhance quality of life, and enhance a sustainable environment (Haxton).
  • As applicable, fully understand all grant conditions to make sure all strategies and choices are feasible and allow for the need to make changes to support project goals (Bullock).
  • PV technology is advancing rapidly over time; the greater outputs available have helped us track to the net zero goal even though the program needs have increased since the start of our project (Bullock).
  • By including the ability to measure all energy use, it will be possible to monitor the building so the built version of the design can be evaluated over time (Bullock).
  • Measurement and verification at labs is not only critical during design and operation but through the life of the building for further improvements, as technology evolves (Khanna).
  • Collaborative engagement of the users and owner through the design process significantly aids in developing a progressive, integrated and maintainable design (Khanna).

Bruce McLean Haxton is principal at BMH Architect, Rhinelander, Wis. The author acknowledges the tremendous help of Keith Baker (Odell International) and Vanessa Taylor and Matessa Mariano (Perkins+Will, San Francisco). Article © July 2011 Bruce Haxton. Reproduction in whole or in part without the author’s written permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.

Limit of liability/disclaimer of warranty: The discussion of the net Zero energy panel on Net Zero Energy Laboratories is meant to be a starting point for a greater dialogue and investigation about sustainable and net zero energy building design parameters. While the architects, engineers, consultants, publisher, and author have used professional efforts in preparing this article and transcript they make no representations or warranties with respect to the accuracy or completeness of the contents of this information and specifically disclaim any implied warranties of merchantability or fitness for a particular purpose. The designs included are specific buildings on specific sites and are not necessarily relevant to other sites or constraints. Neither the architects, engineers, consultants, publisher nor author shall be liable for any loss of profit or any other commercial damages, including but not limited to special, incidental, consequential or other damages.


  • American Institute of Architets. Integrated Project Delivery Guide. SiteObjects/files/IPD_Guide_2007.pdf
  • The ATHENA Institute's EcoCalculator. Life Cycle Assessment tool. tools/ecoCalculator/
  • The ATHENA Institute's Impact Estimator. Designed to evaluate whole buildings and assemblies based on internationally recognized life cycle assessment methodology. www.
  • Busby, Perkins + Will and Stantec. Roadmap for the Integrated Design Process Green Building Roundtable; c/o CHMC, 200-1111 West Georgia St., Vancouver, BC V6E 4S4, Canada. 604-731-5733.
  • Labs21 Tool Kit. Series of educational papers on various aspects of sustainable lab design.
  • Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Energy IQ ( This site uses CEUS (California Energy Use Survey) data, which is similar to CBECS but more robust.
  • National Institute of Building Sciences. Whole Building Design – Guide to A Sustainable Building Design Process. (
  • National Institute of Building Sciences. Whole Building Design Guide, Planning and Conducting Integrated Design (ID) Charrettes.
  • National Institute of Standards and Technology, Building & Fire Research Laboratory. Building for Environmental and Economic Sustainability (BEES) software.
  • National Renewable Energy Laboratry. A Handbook for Planning and Conducting Charrettes for High Performance Projects.
  • National Renewable Energy Laboratory, MapSearch website (currently in beta form). Provides hundreds of maps, identifying what renewable energy resources are available for a given location across the globe.
  • Perkins+Will 2030e2 Energy Calculator. A public online 2030 calculator. http://2030e2.
  • Rocky Mountain Institute, Factor Ten Engineering Design Principles.
  • Univ. of California-Los Angeles. Climate Consultant website, developed by the UCLA Energy Design Tools Group with the support of other entities. Uses weather files to provide graphical representations of a location’s climate using wind roses, sun path diagrams, psychometric charts, and many others.

Author's note: Resources are noted only as a starting point for independent research. The validity of any information provided is each user's responsibility to verify.


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