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Construction continues on the Minor Myers jr. Welcome Center.

Geothermal System Adds to ‘Greening’ of Welcome Center

May 14, 2008

BLOOMINGTON, Ill. – While looking at the grand architecture of the early 1900s, many people see stoic red brick or sweeping lines of sculpture carved into stone. Illinois Wesleyan University Director of the Physical Plant Bud Jorgensen sees missed opportunities.

“When this building was constructed about 80 years ago, they were practically giving energy away,” said Jorgensen as he walked past Presser Hall on the edge of the University’s Eckley Quadrangle. “It was built without any insulation. And why not? It was cheaper to pay for the energy than it was to install insulation.”

Nearly a century has passed, and now the University faces a world of soaring energy prices, and a dawning global awareness of the environmental impact of decades of unchecked energy consumption. “The United States is six percent of the world’s population, which uses 30 percent of the world’s energy, and it is taking a toll,” said Jorgensen, who is one of the people helping oversee the construction of the Minor Myers jr. Welcome Center, scheduled to open this fall. “We know something has to change.”

As part of Illinois Wesleyan’s continuing efforts to create a more ecologically friendly or “sustainable” campus, the University leaders decided to install geothermal heating and cooling units in the Welcome Center. The units are just one of many sustainable features planned for the new Center, which leaders expect will be certified as a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building by the U.S. Green Building Council. It will be the first LEED-certified building on campus and in the city of Bloomington.

What is geothermal?

Geothermal technology has been around in some form since the Roman Empire, but has only recently emerged into prominence for modern builders over the last few decades. “The whole idea is taking advantage of heat stored in the ground and using it like a large solar battery,” said Jorgensen, who noted the earth absorbs about 47 percent of solar radiation, keeping the planet’s crust at a relatively constant temperature of 55 degrees.

The geothermal system will consist of a series of pipes and small pumps, which push an antifreeze solution through the pipes and circulate it throughout the building. The Welcome Center will have 18 “wells,” or series of pipes descending 250 feet into the earth. Compressors will help regulate the building’s temperature at 72 degrees.

The system will both heat and cool the building, said Jorgensen. “During the summer, the system will pull heat out of the building and put it into the ground, recharging the battery for the next winter,” said Jorgensen. “And in the winter we reverse the process.” Because the system pushes heat back into the ground, it will be much more efficient than a standard system, said Jorgensen. “Geothermal simply uses energy from the earth and returns it to the earth. What you end up with is a system that’s about 350 percent efficient,” he said, noting natural gas heating is generally 92 percent efficient at best.

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Bud Jorgensen speaks with construction workers at the Welcome Center.

A closer look

Walking past builders working atop scaffolding, Jorgensen points out metal bars that will hold the geothermal piping amid the steel beams that will soon become the offices and meeting rooms of the Welcome Center. “The geothermal system will do more than save money, it will save space,” he said.

A basement room that would normally be filled with the large equipment needed to push air and heat throughout the building on a standard system, has instead a small collection of pumps hanging above Jorgensen’s head. “This room would have been packed if we had used a more conventional system,” he said.

The geothermal system is just one of the “green” elements planned for the Welcome Center. Other features include the use of special insulated glass for the windows that reflects heat, called low-emissivity, or low-e, glass; and the installation of a traction elevator versus the usual hydraulic elevator. “The traction elevator cuts down on the amount of horsepower and energy needed,” said Jorgensen.

From the energy-efficient lighting to the shower installed to encourage more people to ride their bicycles to work, the University is gearing the Welcome Center to be an example of incorporating green ideas into construction.

LEED certification

Each eco-friendly element gives the building another point that is considered in the LEED certification process. The U.S. Green Building Council determines an official LEED “certified” building is one that meets at least 26 of the 69 possible point requirements.

“Here we are separating the construction scrap we will recycle, and that counts as a LEED point,” said Jorgensen, standing next to three large Dumpsters. “We can get points for a variety of things. We recycled parts of the building that was torn down to make way for the Welcome Center – there’s a point. We are within a quarter–mile of a bus stop, that’s another point.” To meet another LEED requirement, the building will sit empty for two weeks before it officially opens to allow vents to clean the air of any compounds from new furniture, carpets and other materials.

Builders can obtain higher levels of LEED certification by gaining more points: a certified rating is 26-32 points, a silver rating is 33-38 points, a gold rating is 39-51 points and a platinum rating is 52 or above points. “Right now it looks as though we may be a silver rating,” said Jorgensen, who added the decision will not be made until the building is complete this fall.

For more on the University’s sustainability efforts, see the Current News Stories page.

Contact: Rachel Hatch, (309) 556-3960