LEED BD+C: Homes v2008
SUNY Oswego Townhouses
Oswego, NY 13126
LEED Gold 2010
The below stakeholder perspectives address the following LEED credits:
SSc6, IDc2.1, EAc2, SSc2, AEc1, EAc6, EDc2, LLc6
* This profile has been peer-reviewed by a USGBC-selected team of technical experts.
Goals and motivations
What were the top overarching goals and objectives?
The layout of the complex on the site was one of the main design strategies. The campus/owner came to the table with a vision for a European village "feel." This was the earliest driver and the architectural character, steep roofs, and way the buildings were broken up were all part of this design choice. The goal was to make the complex pedestrian-focused and to provide a certain density that was anti-suburban. This approach included the designation of pedestrian-only streets. This choice of pedestrian access made the site more viable in that we were better able to work around and avoid the wetlands.
View of Villages from common "street".
What were the motivations to pursue LEED certification and how did they influence the project?
- Cost/utility savings
- Design innovation
- Integrated design process
- Organizational policy
- Organizational priority
- Policy/code requirement
Certainly the New York State Executive Order #111 has been driving energy usage down in state-owned buildings since 2001. This policy has set state projects on a path, and this project worked hard to rein in the energy costs even further. The biggest drivers were student satisfaction, durability, and long-term effectiveness in management of costs, all achieved through triple bottom line thinking and strong sustainability goals.
The Village is part of the college's massive campus renewal program, which - in addition to the primary goal of improving the learning and social environment for our students - aims to meet the rigorous up-to-date standards of environmentally-responsible construction. Oswego's students have been leaders on campus and in the larger Oswego community in encouraging green practices that preserve and protect the environment for future generations, and so it was natural that a new home for students would feature sustainable materials and nurture environmental awareness.
Oswego's green approach to all new construction on campus is consistent with the American College and University Presidents' Climate Commitment, which SUNY Oswego President Deborah F. Stanley signed in 2007. The commitment and the college's Climate Action Plan that followed establish benchmarks and milestones for reducing the college's carbon footprint. Under those guidelines, the campus must reduce carbon emissions 40% by 2020 and reach carbon neutrality by 2050.
What were the most notable strategies used to earn LEED credits?
The campus was very interested in creating a community with the project that was very pedestrian-friendly and village-like. We organized around pedestrian streets as opposed to roads with cars, and tried to achieve a higher density with the arrangement of the buildings. We created a compact site for the sake of walkability and community, but also to have minimal impact on the site itself, particularly as we were working around existing wetlands. This ultimately helped with LEED points in terms of density and site impact credits.
This project also offered an opportunity to take a typical residential building type, the townhouse, and apply techniques and thinking to it from the institutional and commercial design sectors. It is much more typical in institutional design to look at issues of durability, considering 100-plus years on college campuses and energy efficiency. To this end, we selected concrete plank floors, which offer durability. For the exterior envelope, we chose structural insulated panels (SIPs) for air tightness and insulation value, but also to reduce construction waste on-site and theoretically, speed construction.
In terms of durability, we also incorporated a rainscreen system on the façade, using Canada code requirements as a model. In contrast to the traditional way of installing siding in the United States using Tyvec and nailing insulation right to it, we opted for a rainscreen composed of cement siding and cultured stone. This system enables moisture to drain away or dry out, helping the system last longer and reducing mold, mildew, and rot.
We used structural insulated panels (SIPs) for the walls. Compared to a standard stud and insulation system, SIPs are known for improved insulation, as well as minimal thermal bridging and air barrier continuity between the roof and walls, down to the foundations. In addition, SIPs are a good substrate for a lot of different façade systems. This allowed for the rainscreen system to be attached on the outside without any significant thermal bridging that would lose heat.
We also implemented frost-protected shallow foundations (FPSF), which were sustainable because we reduced the amount of Portland cement used and, correspondingly, the footprint carbon footprint of the building. Also, unlike many foundation systems, FPSFs inherently have insulation properties.
This photo shows the grade line at the base of the SIPS and the connection to shallow frost footings and drainage material.
The system involved wrapping insulation around the exterior of the foundations, which prevented building energy loss through the edge of the slabs on grade. Although this is not always done, it is required by the Energy Conservation Construction Code of New York State (ECCCNYS), and it improved the energy efficiency of the buildings.
We've gained experience and confidence on other projects that this approach can be cheaper than traditional foundation systems because you excavate shallower, use less concrete, and integrate insulation as part of the foundation system. This project showed that FPSFs are usable in cold climates and that using such a system is an improvement to material use and energy efficiency.
Durability overall is part of the LEED for Homes system and suits college environments very well. These townhouses are highly durable, using materials such as stone watertable, slab on grade construction, and 50-year recycled shingles. In addition, the landscaping and site planning are low-maintenance, even using no-mow grass that grows to a reasonably short height and needs no trimming. This has reduced the burden on campus maintenance and reduced energy use in operations. It also maintains a trim, clean appearance with just some weeding and general care seasonally.
Construction photo showing the highly durable construction that makes the Villages such a good long-term investment for the campus community.
Each townhouse features single bedrooms, shared bathrooms, and full kitchens, offering students an off-campus feel while allowing them to enjoy the benefits of an on-campus environment - walking to class, the option of eating in campus cafes and dining halls, a dedicated police force, and a supportive community of fellow residents and staff.
In addition, continuing integration into the lives of the students and use of the buildings is important. Barnes and Noble donated copies of "The Green Book: The Everyday Guide to Saving the Planet One Simple Step at a Time" to put in every apartment in the Village for students to use to help make decisions in their daily lives that are healthy for their community and the environment. Recycling is mandatory, and the college offers education and awareness programs in the commons on such topics as cooking with food grown on Oswego County farms and shopping for ecologically-safe soaps and cleaning products. Students take campus shuttles when they don't walk or, in snowless weather, ride their bikes. For winter, the complex has two rooms set aside to store residents' bicycles. The Craftsman feel of the fireplace lounge in the commons is enhanced by tiles, handcrafted by artisans at Shenfeld Studio Tile in Syracuse, that tell the story of the Village's shoreline site and its ecology.
One issue in the LEED for Homes system is how to address common areas such as this in the controls package and in the HERS on-site testing process. Note the handcrafted tile surrounding the fireplace.
What cutting-edge strategies or processes were implemented?
We used a radiant valence system for heating and cooling, which I think will be a market changer in residence halls. The site was remote from the center spine of campus (which is served by a recently updated central steam distribution system), which from a cost perspective, drove us toward independent systems that are higher performing.
We opted for two central plants comprised of boiler/chiller plants, which are not interconnected and independently serve two sets of streets. The boilers are high-efficiency, gas-fired, condensing AirCo boilers that use hot water as the heating medium with a seasonal switch-over to chilled water that feeds valence radiant heating and cooling. Each living unit and each room is controlled by the valence system, which sits above the windows and has a continuous drain pan from wall to wall. In the winter, it provides heat with hot water distributed via a variable pumping system; in the summer, the same system provides cooling with circulated, chilled water. An energy recovery ventilator brings fresh air in and exhausts air out of the bathrooms and kitchens.
DASNY has adopted this radiant valence system on many of its renovations, as well as new construction. It's very cost-effective because of its simplicity, quick installation, and easier maintenance; additionally, because its mechanical components are hung high on the wall, it leaves more floor-to-floor space for furniture. We've found it provides very good thermal comfort with a good balance of energy performance and first cost. In addition, there's no noise from this system because there are no fans or motor murmurs, making it terrific for a living space like a dormitory.
In deciding on the energy system, we looked at the economics of extending steam lines to the site. A concept with a basement or walkable tunnel would have worked, but there wasn't money for this. We considered geothermal technology as a possibility, but didn't have room for it mechanically; this also may have been more of a challenge for construction staging and wetland disturbance than the central boiler plants.
How was the integrative process applied and what was the greatest benefit gained?
There were numerous schematic-level meetings of the entire team, including the structural engineer, which resulted in the use of structural insulated panels (SIPs) and frost-protected shallow foundations (FPSFs). Structural engineers are often not included in charrettes and other planning meeting to develop green goals, and they should be, especially as the structure is such a huge piece of MR credits and energy efficiency systems. I was delighted to be part of that process, as it allowed us to discuss systems that were eventually integrated into the design that don't normally see the light of day. As a team, we came upon certain systems as viable solutions. Jim Moshier, DASNY's Regional Project Manager, was also part of these meetings and was very "pro" sustainability.
The team did a nice job in integration. Even though the low-bid process often results in an adversarial relationship, the initial charrettes, the support of the campus, and the clear and maintained sustainability goals all brought us to a better team relationship. There were conflicts and issues that arise, as in any construction project - some delays and some disagreements - but there wasn't a constant undercurrent of animosity. What makes me really proud is our relationship with the contractor community.
Five cross-campus task groups were part of the SUNY Oswego Residential Life planning process. These included focus groups on safety and security, furniture, staffing, maintenance, and policies. Students were invited to participate in each group while the Villages were being envisioned and designed. These students were typically Resident Assistant and Hall Government students, along with other students who these invested students identified.
The students gave the project much input, the most valuable being about amenities. Yes, they wanted dishwashers and yes, an individual washer/dryer in each unit, not a Laundromat. They also wanted double beds and a bathroom that would allow privacy even when several residents all were rushing to get out the door. This was excellent design input. The toilet and shower areas are each a separate room, and the sink and cabinet area are a third part of the bathroom. Students also wanted garbage disposals, but this was beyond the comfort level for maintenance staff. Knowing this was a wish allowed the team to discuss the reasons for and against with the students and better convey the issues of maintenance and jamming that most GDs encounter, and to offer alternate suggestions.
Ideally, there would have been more student input, but it is very hard to schedule students from a variety of programs and respect their class time and the timing for the professionals, such as architects, on the job. Those involved were committed and valuable to the process. It was important to engage the students, as many campus sustainability goals will live or die by the actions of the student living in the residences.
Learn more about SUNY Oswego's ongoing connection with students at the Villages.
Aside from LEED certification, what do you consider key project successes?
One success is that we tried several new things that we hadn't tried before. This included newer technologies and new construction methods, some not yet applied in this region. In addition to structural insulated panels (SIPs) and shallow foundations, one newer approach was installing fiber-cement siding and cultured stone siding in a rainscreen configuration. This increased the durability of the façade. While this is a more standard installation now in Canada, which has stricter property insurance requirements, its application in the United States is more limited.
It is a great success that, as a low-bid public work, this project achieved LEED Gold. This supports the fact that the team worked well together to overcome natural difficulties in the low-bid process. Typically, the system of low bid can encourage animosity during construction to "make up" any low-balling that may have occurred in the bid process to win the project work, but in this case, the contractor was a solid team player and all worked together on resolving issues that arose.
Another success involved the campus planning for transportation and bus access. The full support of the campus on this initiative was important in the LEED application work and in the success of reducing personal vehicle parking spaces for the students.
One of the keynotes for students residing in the Village is moving toward self-sufficient living. So our Facilities Maintenance and Operations department issued a shovel and a five-gallon bucket of sand to students in each townhome so that they could clear their own entrance, steps (if any), and entry sidewalk. The college's Campus Update e-newsletter quoted Charlie Haws, who has been plowing, pushing, and throwing snow on this campus for 33 years: "Some of them, though by no means would I say all, take great pride in clearing their entrances."
This project was a model for students of how big, complex organizations like SUNY Oswego and the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York can succeed in getting the details right and end up producing a high-quality result that is socially and environmentally responsible. They will take this experience with them when they graduate and understand that it is not overly idealistic to hold themselves and their communities to these kinds of standards in the future.
The use of structural insulated panel (SIP) exterior walls and insulated, frost-protected shallow foundations both support excellent energy efficiency. Ten years from now, I hope the word of the energy efficiency of these residence halls gets out and that they are seen as significantly better than other buildings.
What were the most important long- and short-term value-add strategies and what returns on investment (ROI) have been experienced or anticipated?
This is an easy conversation as this is one of only a few independent heating systems on campus. We found an evaporative cooled chiller that had a terrific Energy Efficiency Ratio (EER) and low acoustic signature.
The reasons we selected the evaporative cooled chiller as our basis of design chiller were:
- Energy Performance; excellent Non-standard Part Load Value Energy Efficiency Ratio (NPLV EER)
- Quiet operation (51 dBA average maximum at 100 feet)
- Longevity; excellent service life (durable construction and finishes)
- Security (single unit, packaged construction, and lockable doors)
- Maintainability (readily available parts, indoor, and walkable equipment bay)
- Integral storage tank and expansion tank to minimize mechanical room size
- Freeze protection
To further evaluate the economics, we re-ran our energy model in eQuest to determine the annual energy and cost savings of the evaporative cooled chiller over the air cooled chillers. Air cooled chillers are cheaper upfront than evaporative cooled chillers. The results showed an annual savings of 9,000 kWh, 23 kW demand, and $3,800. Based on the $30,000 net cost difference above, the simple payback is eight years. The chosen system and make/model were also a bit pricier than similar systems that were bid, however, the acoustic performance of the designed and specified chiller were much better than submitted models. Acoustic signature and EER were upheld on the specification and this aspect is what made this particular system viable. We, as the ME, reminded the campus about the importance of the acoustic performance and they held the line.
These were more expensive buildings than typical townhouses because the campus took a long-term view regarding durability and energy efficiency. Durability is a big factor in all college projects. SIPs (structural insulated panels) were primarily about improving insulating value and air tightness, which also contributes to durability. It's nice if everything you do on a project accomplishes more than one thing. The ROI on durability and insulating value are significant, making it a good investment.
What project challenges became important lessons learned?
A desire to connect to nature through education was established early on, but precise courses and approaches were not defined early enough. The campus wanted to link nearby wetlands to this project site to maximize the benefit to residents, but in the end, this was not directly integrated into the project. As a result, linkages were not as strong as they could have been. Had the desire to develop walking trails and interactive connection to the wetlands been defined earlier, and if gains had been clearly defined for the students and the project, this may have been better integrated. Whenever a goal is established and then maintained strongly through the process of pre-design, budgeting, design, bidding, and construction, there is greater chance of success.
View of the Villages across the wetlands. Taken at the dedication ceremony.
The big picture lesson was that change comes with a price. Implementing FPSFs and SIPs on this job resulted in our company incurring a significant financial loss, part of which was due to a change to stick framing for the roofing system after the design was completed using SIPs. If we had stuck with traditional construction methods, the project would have likely been profitable for us. However, we learned a lot about the use of these new systems; the campus considers the facility a success; and we hope to be able to implement what we learned on more financially successful projects in the future.
Regarding new technology, once a system is agreed to, the decision has to be stuck with. There was a very late redesign of the entire roof structure of all of the buildings because the SIP roof was pricing out too high, and this was very difficult so late in the process, resulting in some change orders. Our lesson learned was that not all roof systems require ventilation. With conventional roofs, shingle surface is kept cooler (protecting shingles from wear, warping, and aging) by designing a cold space, most often an attic, below. But with SIPs, thick insulation keeps the shingle surface cool, making air space unnecessary. For this project, the costing of the SIP roof included a series of battens and an additional layer of plywood to provide an air space under the shingles, which, in hindsight, was an unnecessary redundancy and added cost.
Construction Photo showing transition to framed roof system. The change to framed system at roofing occurred after the design was complete. It added complexity, but reduced cost of materials.
Fast-tracking the foundations (due to funding issues that affected project schedule) meant that foundation design preceded plumbing layout. This resulted in the structural engineer having to estimate the pipe invert elevations and later, some retrofit excavation; some footing elevations had to be lowered by Change Order to get below the pipes. This would not have occurred if the foundations were the typical four or five feet below grade because there would have been more wiggle room. In hindsight, we should have better located inverts of all pipes and carefully coordinated the footing elevations with piping and other conditions before installing foundations. There were also challenges because two separate general contractors were used to lay the foundation and then to complete the rest of the building. It would have been ideal to have the same contractor do everything.
Also, the structural insulated panels (SIPs) were a struggle for several reasons. The extensive articulation of the building (there were 54 corners per building), made using SIPs a challenge. Frequently, SIP wall panels had to be adjusted after their initial setting, which disrupted the perimeter sealant and resulted in air gaps between panels that had to be re-sealed later. A lesson learned here was to specify SIP tape on all joints. Additionally, the contractor had never used SIPs at this scale before, so the initial learning curve was deeper than usual. In hindsight, SIPs may not have been most economical choice, but it gave us the opportunity to try it on a large scale.
We started with LEED for New Construction, then learned that we needed to use LEED for Homes for this building type. This didn't cause issues with the bidding or cause delays, but it did require some tweaks to the design. Most of the decisions made meant that we were complying with LEED for Homes, but one or two prerequisites needed to be addressed. One example was the walk-off mats in the vestibules. LEED for Homes defined these as carpeting, and you could not have carpeting in entryways. Many discussions were had and we ended up needing to change the approach for the entryways.
Another lesson learned was that, in hindsight, there may have been benefits to keeping SIPs on the roof. Because of the steep-pitched roofs, different elevations, hundreds of unique details, and the intense complexity, it may have been less confusing detail-wise to maintain SIPs and have the subcontractor and SIP supplier generate the detailing. If we had used SIPs on the roofs, as well, we would have eliminated some coordination issues in construction because the manufacturer would have worked out the connection details between roof and walls. There also would have been essentially no waste on-site, while with framing there is waste.
Construction photo showing SIP panels in place. These are craned in and provide thermally tight wall construction, with no heat "bleed" to speak of as there are no studs interrupting the continuity of the insulation.
Switching this project from LEED for New Construction to LEED for Homes caused some EA-related challenges. We used energy modeling tools, but HERS is a prescriptive and simple energy tool that was incapable of handling centralized systems. We could demonstrate the calculated kWh reduction and feed that back to the HERS system, but as professional engineers, we weren't allowed to use HERS, as a third-party-certified HERS rater is required. Our lesson learned was to know the LEED rating system and make sure it is compatible with the building project you have in mind. We are proud of the fact that we got through it. I think it is the most attractive and high-performance project on any campus in the state.
Cold-climate building techniques are less common in the U.S. than in Canada and Scandinavia, and contractors in the area have a learning curve. Shallow frost foundation was new to this region, for instance, and putting together the SIPs required some training from the manufacturers. There was another learning curve with recycling construction debris. All of these materials and techniques that are not yet common practice in this area take more attention, and in many cases they are a little more costly because they are not the norm. In New York City, construction waste management has been normal for many years due to shipping costs and landfill constraints. But in Oswego and across upstate New York, there is more space and therefore less incentive to divert waste or be creative about avoiding the landfill. Also, there is not yet a dense fabric of businesses in the diversion market.
- Get a talented consulting team and invest in people with leadership at the cutting edge of green technologies.
- Create a campus culture of not being afraid to get out front and try new approaches.
- When making decisions about efficiencies, look at problems from the environmental and social, as well as financial, angles.
- Understand that it will take a lot of attention to detail to get the most benefit out of new green technologies and practices.
The decision was made, during the value-engineering phase of the project, to change the originally detailed SIPS roof panel system to conventional framing and plywood. In retrospect, the coordination between SIPS wall panel fabrication and roof framing would have been simplified by using a single, cohesive system, rather than a hybrid. In theory, this would have saved a great deal of labor for installation of SIPS. It would have also reduced waste of plywood greatly, as due to the steep pitch and many valleys, there were proportionally very few full sheets of plywood used.
What was a pivotal moment that impacted the project's direction?
We bid the job and then it expanded by a factor of two during design. We proceeded with the design and it bid over budget. When this happens, the MEP systems often suffer in the process of value engineering (VE). We originally had a full building management system for every space in every living unit. One of the VE changes was to reduce individual controllability to a living unit control with simple thermostats, but we realized about halfway through construction that this approach didn't work in practice. It did not provide the seasonal switchover capabilities needed to maintain the two-pipe heating/cooling system. Because the campus wanted to be able to switch heating to cooling very simply on a particular date without a lot of manpower, and because of the campus' need to isolate living units into a setback heating/cooling mode around the academic schedule, we ultimately needed a more central station control. In the end, through change orders, we went pretty close back to the original basis of design with a high degree of individual control into spaces and living units.
Also, in needing to shift from LEED for New Construction to LEED for Homes, we had to adjust the vents. LEED for Homes requires that kitchen vents go directly outside, but the units were designed with recirculation hoods, so we had to duct these to the outside. Coordination of these penetrations with clearance and all was tough to do after the fact.
We deleted SIPs from the roof, replacing with standard wood construction and fiberglass batt insulation on the ceilings and between the roof purlins. This was due in part to the cost of the SIP system being higher, since the decision was made that the SIP option must include a second raised sub-roofing layer to provide ventilation under the shingles. A second driver for this decision was that there was very little change in the energy model due to this system change. This system change took place in the changeover from LEED for New Construction to LEED for Homes. My lesson learned: Carefully evaluate envelope options, using an energy modeling methodology that takes into account the varying insulation and air barrier effectiveness of different systems and allows information from that modeling process to inform design choices. Also, make sure the model is done in a consistent manner throughout the various "runs."
Air conditioning was added at the end of the design for better marketing to students seeking housing, which will significantly add to the buildings' energy use over the life of the facility. The thought initially was that the buildings were so tight that we didn't need air conditioning, and the mass of precast plank and slab on grade provided sufficient thermal mass to retain stored cooling. It looked like there would be a very low kBTU per square foot per year, which was very exciting. But in the end, air conditioning was added to stay competitive, which seemed to go against the initial goals.
The project as originally designed came in over budget. DASNY made the decision to separate the foundation package from the balance of the project, allowing the foundation work to commence early. This single decision made the project completion date attainable.
So, what do you think? Help us improve our new LEED project library by completing this short survey.