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Case study: UNCA strives for sustainability

By on 02/01/2008

The facilities complex that once housed UNCA’s maintenance workers, groundskeepers, plumbers, electricians and other operations staff members was cramped, outdated and generally inefficient. But the new campus facilities hub now standing in its place has an emphasis on efficiency that places it on par with the most environmentally sensitive buildings in the region. Completed in September of 2007, the 27,660-square-foot Sam Millar Facilities Management Complex is an outstanding local example of green design, as well as a tribute to the memory of a longtime employee.

Tony Kapustka, HVAC mechanic at UNCA, says the building’s solar and geothermal heating-and-cooling system is really quite simple. photo by Jonathan Welch

Named for Sam Millar, an Ireland native who served as University Engineer for 15 years, this new operations building was designed with people’s health and the environment in mind. With cutting-edge green technology such as a geothermal heat-pump system, a solar-thermal array and a sophisticated storm-water filtration system in place, UNCA is pursuing a Silver certification for the building from Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), a national and prestigious certification program.

While most buildings have a “boiler room” to house the heating-and-cooling system, the Sam Millar Complex equivalent doesn’t have a boiler as its centerpiece. Instead of electricity or gas, it relies upon a combination geothermal and solar system for heating and cooling needs. The geothermal system continuously circulates water through a system of 12 pipes bored 450 feet into the ground, taking advantage of the earth’s constant 55-degree temperature to provide warmth in the winter and relief from the heat in the summer. Meanwhile, a rooftop array of solar panels provides solar-heated water for the buildings’ sinks, while supplementing the indoor heat during the winter through a heat exchanger.

“This is our power plant, let’s say,” says HVAC mechanic Tony Kapustka as he gestures upward to a towering, 1,000-gallon hot water tank and a complicated network of pipes winding through the ceiling of the basement-level “heat pump room.” A digital reader mounted on the tank shows that the solar panels have heated the water to 120 degrees Fahrenheit on a sunny afternoon in January. A series of boxes mounted on the floor signal the geothermal system. “If we want, it has hot water, if we want, it has chilled water,” notes Kapustka, pointing out levers on the pipes.

The system, which even features a state-of-the-art wall-mounted control system ("the brain,” Kapustka calls it), is impressive for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its ability to heat and cool an entire complex year round without relying on fossil fuels.

Among the network of pipes is a line that has “raw water” stamped upon it. When asked about it, Kapustka explains that it’s carrying rain water, which is collected in an underground tank, filtered and then sanitized through a UV system. From there, it is transferred to garden hoses, sprinklers, and used to flush the toilets — a highly effective method for conservation.

Outside the building, an extensive storm-water filtration system protects waterways from polluted runoff. Loose gravel, instead of pavement, covering the parking lot creates a pervious surface so that water doesn’t just pick up sediment and spill into the stream during a storm. A network of holding ponds descending downhill from the complex offer an aesthetically pleasing, natural filtration system for storm water.

The office spaces are all designed to allow daylight to gently illuminate the rooms. The effect not only reduces the need to keep the lights on all day, but creates a more comfortable atmosphere for the employees. During a walk-through tour of the building, employees noted that they found their eyes were under less strain in a room that is naturally lit than in one with a glaring fluorescent light overhead. The light fixtures that were installed, meanwhile, are among the most efficient on the market.

Recycled products were used wherever possible during construction. Recycled batt insulation was utilized between office walls as a sound-proofing measure, and other recycled materials, such as fly ash — a byproduct from a power-plant scrubber — was used in the concrete mix.

A few of the UNCA maintenance vehicles that are parked at the Sam Millar Complex are also green, including a biodiesel-powered pickup truck and an electric car.

In September of 2007, the $6.5 million dollar project was completed, and a ceremony was held to dedicate the building to the late Sam Millar. “Dad would especially be happy that this is a green building,” his daughter, Georgena Millar, told the crowd gathered there. “That would have really sparked his love for it.”