Case Studies: Getting the Green Treatment

Two projects in San Francisco and Chicago exemplify sustainability at its best.
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Institute of Environmental Sustainability (IES) at Loyola University in Chicago

Solomon Cordwell Buenz (SCB), an award-winning architecture, interior design and planning firm with offices in Chicago and San Francisco, has a great deal of focus on incorporating eco-friendly features into its projects.

“When we look at sustainability, we look at cities being more livable in a broader sense, not just energy,” says John Lahey, principal at SCB.

Two recent projects by the firm highlight its commitment to issues of broader social, cultural and environmental importance.

The firm is currently working on TransBay Block 6, a 409-unit apartment community that broke ground in San Francisco this summer. The building will provide 70 units of affordable housing and include numerous state-of-the-art sustainable features.

“As a market-rate housing project, Block 6 is required to meet LEED Gold by the local building code. However, even without this, the development team was committed to a high level of social and environmental sustainability,” says Chris Pemberton, managing principal for Solomon Cordwell Buenz. “In addition, these goals were to be fulfilled through ideas that were cost-neutral or even at a savings to the base building construction cost.

There are a variety of systems incorporated into the design that contribute to the LEED Gold rating, including energy saving measures, water conservation, and its location in a downtown urban context.

“The first thing was we wanted to do a high-rise building without air conditioning,” Lahey says. “The exterior walls were developed with a large number of green features, including sun shading on the southeast and southwest facades.”

Given San Francisco’s relatively benign climate, the design team was able to focus its attention on creating comfortable living spaces while omitting a conventional air conditioning system. This was done through the use of exterior shading, high-performance glass, large casement windows and a simple system that assists each unit in inducing cross ventilation as needed on warmer days.

“We were looking for a way to make each of the residences really comfortable places to live, which in San Francisco’s climate can be achieved, even in a high-rise building with floor-to-ceiling glass, through an efficient building envelope and large operable windows,” Pemberton says. “While the sun is intense during peak hours, we modeled the areas of the building that were subject to the highest levels of solar gain and provided exterior shading fins to block the sun at critical hours of the day, allowing us to use more neutral (instead of heavy tinted or reflective) glass.”

The project includes a resident-controlled cross ventilation system that incorporates MERV 13-rated filtration, using outside air for healthy indoor air quality, with all the associated interconnection pipe running with individually controlled cross-ventilation fans integrated into the unit ceilings. This allows residents to control the natural ventilation system in their unit, saving on first cost and energy usage over the life of the building.

“This system will be unique to the market, but I think we will see more of it as it is so well suited to the local climate conditions and gives each resident control over the amount of cooling they need,” he says. “I think it will set a new standard for inventive, cost effective ways to provide year-round comfort in a high-rise residential community that will be very attractive to the local community.”

The building also has large outdoor terraces at every third floor of the tower—called Sky Parks—that allow for natural ventilation and light in the residential elevator lobbies ascending throughout the tower.

“They came about as a combination of exploring what and where balconies would work best in the context of the available views and wind conditions, and a desire to let natural light and air into each of the elevator lobbies,” Pemberton says. “They are placed on the leeward side of the building, thus sheltered from the wind, and they look out towards the Bay Bridge and Treasure Island.”

Lahey says that originally SCB considered having individual balconies for the residents, but that having a series of small balconies was nixed for the more eco-friendly solution.

“We rethought the idea, looked at the neighborhoods around San Francisco and saw there were a lot of three-story buildings with roof decks,” he says. “We took that idea as part of a little neighborhood and created these decks for people to use. By doing that, we had less penetrations in the exterior walls, and it opened up the elevator lobbies with natural light and let us get natural ventilation into the corridor.”

A solar radiation assessment was done to provide recommendations on façade and glazing choices. Additionally, a relatively conventional installation of solar panels will be on the roof to offset the energy needed for the building’s heating.

“All of the available roof spaces are designed as accessible sky gardens, reducing heat island effect whilst presenting elegant roof designs to the surrounding buildings and enhancing the opportunities for residents to sit outdoors in a variety of orientations and viewing positions,” Pemberton says. “All of these things make the building a comfortable place to live and help to connect the building population to the city’s street life and surrounding context.”

Vern Lohman, associate principal at SCB, says Transbay Block 6 also has a full compliment of water-reducing fixtures.

“Water is so important these days in San Francisco that the more you can reduce water, the better. It’s a very big deal out here,” he says.

According to Lahey, by using a series of urban parks, the design encourages residents to meet one another, whether at ground level, in the various shared roof top gardens or in the sky parks created at every third level of the tower.

Inside Institute of Environmental Sustainability (IES) at Loyola University

Another noteworthy SCB project is the recently completed Institute of Environmental Sustainability (IES) at Loyola University in Chicago, which opened last fall and features many green features.

The 215,000-square-foot, multi-disciplinary, research-based facility consists of 400-beds of student housing, classrooms, research and teaching labs, and a café. The IES building also includes a 3,100-square-foot ecodome greenhouse, which contains an urban garden and provides natural ventilation for one-third of the building, as the first three floors are ventilated without the need of mechanical systems. The project is on target for a LEED Gold rating.

“It was intended to be a showpiece of sustainability because it’s the goal of the institute to teach a conservation ethic on the campus,” says Devon Patterson, design principal for the project. “The most interesting component was the integration of the residential with the classrooms/office into one facility. From an energy standpoint, it synced together nicely since classrooms and offices were used mostly during the day, and residential mostly at night, so we were able to transfer energy with a geothermal system.”

The installation of Chicago’s largest geothermal system—and contact with 90 geothermal wells, 500 feet deep, that provide over 700 tons of cooling energy—allows the facilities to store and transfer energy.

A three-story atrium connects the classrooms with the student housing and harvests energy through a photovoltaic power system. Its glass roof was designed on a slope so water that falls upon it can be collected in a huge cistern underneath the facility and reused for irrigation in the facility’s greenhouse.

According to Patterson, there’s also a clean energy lab that will allow the biodiesel program to increase fuel production by up to 100,000 gallons per year, and a transparent winter garden and plant-life system in place.

Additionally, natural light permeates through the nearly 400 large, high-performance windows, and a lot of attention
was also spent on the facades of the building, each designed for its orientation to
the atmosphere.