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Unity College Unveils New Ultra-Energy-Efficient Dorm
09/29/2011   Reported By: Jay Field

The unstable economy in recent years has put intense pressure on colleges and universities to cut costs and save money wherever they can. There have been layoffs, of course, and hiring freezes. There's also been a push to boost sustainability on campuses by----among other things----making residence halls more energy efficient. A dorm in Maine that's just opened offers one blueprint for how colleges and universities could greatly reduce their long-term energy costs.

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Unity College Unveils New Ultra-Energy-Efficient D Listen
 Duration:
3:22

The dorm is in Waldo County, at Unity College. But the story of how it came to be begins far away from Maine. In May of 1988, two professors had a conversation in Europe. Bo Adamson taught at Lund University in Sweden, Wolfgang Feist at Germany's Institute for Housing and the Environment. The two men came up with the idea of building structures in a way that requires very little energy to heat or cool them. Years of testing and research resulted a building standard called Passivhaus.

"It's a radical shift which has obvious financial and environmental benefits," says Alan Gibson, whose company, GO Logic LLC, based in Belfast, builds homes and other structures according to passive house standards. These houses use 10 times less energy. So a home built according to passive standards, says Gibson, would swallow just 60 gallons of fuel oil a year instead of 600.

"And it also has a comfort benefit to the inhabitants because a house that's really super-insulated and airtight is much more comfortable to be in," Gibson says.

So, it turns out, is a dormitory. Stephen Mulkey, Unity College's new president, pushes open the door to a brand new residence hall on campus. "It's like a hatch to a space ship or something," he says.

The door is that thick, kind of like one you'd see at the opening to a bank vault. It leads to one open room with a kitchen, dining room and lounge. This dorm, built by GO Logic, is believed to be the only college residence hall in the country constructed according passive house standards. The important concept here is something called passive solar gain.

"So we have big, south-facing windows to bring in as much sunlight as we possibly can," says Jesse Poiles, the college's sustainability coordinator.

Poiles says as the days grow shorter, the sun gets lower in the sky, pouring light through the thick, heavily insulated panes of glass. "We have big thermal mass in the building, concrete floors and this big concrete island and countertop to hold heat."

"We make the whole building shell very air tight. Then we add a ventilation system that brings in a constant supply of fresh air and it recovers heat from the outgoing air. So there's very little energy to pay for that," Gibson says.

Unity paid Alan Gibson and GO Logic to build the house through an unusual arrangement. The Kendeda Fund supports sustainability causes, but it doesn't traditionally back capital projects. In this case, however, Unity argued that building the dorm would create a learning opportunity for students and dove-tail with the college's environmental and sustainability focused mission.

"Any time we're talking about sustainability, I'm not willing to dodge the issue of reducing carbon emissions, because I think that is really one of the prime movers for why you do this," says Unity President Stephen Mulkey.

Mulkey estimates the building will save the college thousands of dollars a year in oil costs. He says he'd like to see more of Unity's old, fossil fuel oriented building stock disappear. "There has been, historically, an up-front cost to building sustainability that doesn't get paid back for a few years," he says.

For now, those start-up costs could make it difficult to get large universities and colleges to consider constructing buildings according to passive standards.



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