The Eugene D. Schermer building takes the name of a fellow science fanatic and a retired chemistry professor and dean at Grays Harbor College. His students still rave about his passion for knowledge and science; the world could use more teachers like Gene.

When people ask me what I do for a living, I usually pull out my phone and show them a hundred pictures of the awesome technology and architecture I have the pleasure of inspecting and documenting. Every week, I am on the road across America to see if buildings qualify for the Energy-Efficient Commercial Building Deduction, aka, section 179D tax deduction.

I could go on for hours about daylighting retrofits and green roofs or the benefits of relamping, and sometimes I do. In fact, I was having one of those marathon conversations recently about energy and engineering when a new friend suggested that I take my stories about my travels, cool buildings and new technology to the web where I could share my passion for sustainable construction with the world.

So, here it goes … the first of an ongoing series we’re calling Site Visits With Erin: Adventures in Sustainable Engineering and Design.

Grays Harbor College

I want to shine a light on the most interesting building I visited recently. Up in the Pacific Northwest, at Grays Harbor College, there is a new science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) building: the Gene Schermer Instructional Building. The unique design incorporates a sizable collection of energy-efficient elements to provide a comfortable and effective learning environment.

The building is comprised of a four-story tower attached to a single-story area with a green roof. That’s where the first image is taken from. You are seeing the skylights for the classrooms in the foreground. Another somewhat unique element of the building envelope is the insulated metal panel exterior.

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The $33 million LEED Gold-certified and 179D-eligible facility measures more than 70,000 square feet. The building is designed specifically for STEM studies, and features laboratories, art studios, classrooms, meeting spaces and computer labs.

Some of the more unusual components are not visible but they pack an efficiency punch and include:

  • A field of 100 groundwater wells reaching 365 feet belowground underlies the parking lot adjacent to the building. A mixture of glycol and water returning from the wells is a constant 44 degrees.
  • Energy from the groundwater is used to supply cooling to the building directly through chilled beams. They provide passive cooling without the noise of conventional forced air systems.
  • Heat energy in the groundwater is also captured in winter. A supplemental boiler helps send hot water to the radiant flooring in the building’s offices.
  • Finally, ceiling fans distribute the conditioned air and operable windows allow the occupant to introduce fresh air as they wish.

The site visit makes it clear that lighting within the building was given significant consideration. The skylights are unique in that the glass in the skylights will darken on command for presentations. There are also a number of spaces that make great use of interior windows. Light coming in from outside the building has the ability to reach through classrooms to the interior halls. Privacy is still maintained by frosting the glass between desk and eye level. I also located sensors for occupancy as well as daylight. Finally, permanent shades are found on the one side of the building and low-energy glass is used throughout the building.

Fun fact: This building is home to science classrooms, which have a special place in the building code. They require a supply of fresh air to replace the significant amount lost through fume hoods. Typically, this requirement increases energy use because the returning air must be conditioned. This building tackles that with an entropy wheel in the rooftop air handling unit. It also reduces the need for outside air to non-science classrooms by placing the ventilation of those spaces on carbon dioxide sensors located in the classroom itself. Variable frequency drives (VFD) are attached to most of the pump and fan systems, including the air handling unit’s supply and return fans.

It was fun to be back on a college campus, and I’m always happy to see energy efficiency high on the priority list of any school. I really feel that environmental consciousness should be a standard part of education programs, and buildings like the Gene Schermer Instructional Building create an inspiring environment in which to study math and science.

Find me on Twitter or LinkedIn if you want talk more about green design and construction and 179D, the Energy-Efficient Commercial Building Deduction.

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