July 2, 2007

New Engineering Facility Supports Environmental Learning
By Loyd Zisk


Additional information on the Embrey Building »

Learn about LEED certification »

The new J. Lindsay Embrey Engineering Building lets SMU walk the green walk. Professors and students agree: When it comes to state-of-the-art engineering facilities, the grass is now greenest in their own backyard.

For those who’ve advocated a more environmentally responsible future, the Embrey Building has proven to be the logical vehicle for converting visions of sustainability into hands-on education and innovative design.

As the first LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) gold-certified building on a university campus in the Southwest, Embrey has firmly placed SMU on the short list of schools with a demonstrated eco-conscience.

“Embrey is a key model of successful green building,” says Geoffrey Orsak, dean of the School of Engineering. “Not only does it provide academic focus for students and professors, it has impact on public and educational policy. There is a transition in higher education construction, and SMU is among the first to complete an engineering facility that meets the strictest environmental design requirements.”

The LEED-designed building houses the Department of Environmental and Civil Engineering and Department of Mechanical Engineering. “While the full impact on educational programs will take several years, the building is already serving as a laboratory for critical issues concerned with energy and the environment,” says Bijan Mohraz, Environmental and Civil Engineering chair and professor.

Embrey Engineering Building

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A Better Place to Work and Learn

Combining SMU’s collegiate Georgian architecture outside with cutting-edge technology inside, this virtual environmental laboratory demonstrates the logical connection between engineering and green construction. Offices, classrooms, laboratories and collaborative study spaces have been created using highly energy-efficient design — including substantial amounts of natural light, heat-reflecting materials, smart electronics and water-wise, low-flow bathroom fixtures. Combining these features adds up to about 30 percent less energy usage than typically found in comparably sized buildings.

“There is substantial research documenting that LEED buildings are better places to work and learn,” says Sam Latona, preconstruction manager, Turner Construction. “Three of the key components contributing to these benefits are natural light, clean inside air and building materials that don’t off-gas [release odors and gases from new products that are often harmful] or don’t have very low volatile organic compounds.”

Involved since the genesis of the Embrey project, Latona helped develop a plan that included direct window views from every room and highly efficient and sophisticated air-flow systems to bring in large amounts of outside air and reduce CO2 and particulate matter levels. Finally, there was a lockdown air flush to eradicate any lingering airborne impurities before professors and students took occupancy.

“You can receive a lower-level LEED certification without all of these things,” Latona says. “But if you want a really healthy, productive environment, you add the filters and an abundance of windows and use the right materials. SMU’s commitment to doing it right says a lot about its concern for the students, faculty and the environment.”

What Makes Embrey Green

To achieve the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) gold certification standard, the J. Lindsay Embrey Engineering Building had to meet stringent guidelines set by the U.S. Green Building Council. Standards to meet them include:

  • Innovative Wastewater — dual use of water for air conditioning, plumbing and irrigation. SMU evaporates 40 million gallons of water a year at the cooling towers; approximately 5 million gallons are sent to the sanitary sewer system. Using the water at the Embrey Building for irrigation and sewage conveyance will save about 1 million gallons a year.
  • Waterless Urinals — each saves 40,000 gallons a year by using a special cartridge that allows liquids to enter the sanitary sewage system but prevents odors from entering a restroom.
  • Low-emitting Materials — adhesives, sealants, paints, coatings, carpet and composite woods have no or very low volatile organic compounds and no formaldehydes, which reduces indoor air quality problems and provides a superior environment for users.
  • Construction Materials — most were obtained from within a 500-mile radius of the campus to reduce the use of transportation fuel.
  • Construction Waste Management — large bins separated and collected unused materials; hundreds of tons of scrap and leftover materials were recycled.
  • Drought-resistance Landscaping — shade trees and reflective plaza pavers block and reflect heat away from the building.

Inspiring Staff and Students

Faculty and student accolades have grown since the doors to Embrey opened in August. Civil and environmental engineering and mechanical engineering faculty rate the academic setting and their day-to-day work experiences far above those they encountered in previous buildings.

Abundant space; areas that promote collaboration among students, professors and departments; improved lighting and sleek, open architecture top the list of attributes cited by professors. Expanded labs are enhancing research efforts. Some feel their work in them already may be gaining increased attention and potential funding from new sponsors.

Environmental engineering faculty members are especially pleased by the LEED gold-accredited design.

“I teach a lot of courses related to environmental issues,” says Al Armendariz, assistant professor of civil engineering. “I use this facility as a real-world example of how construction impacts the environment. For instance, when I discuss things like managed wood [derived from forests earmarked for harvesting and delivered from a local source], waste management and how certain materials can have minimal environmental impact, I actually can point to classroom and lab components as examples.

“The students see that green concepts are not just pie-in-the-sky thinking, but are realities within their own academic experience,” Armendariz continues. “Many students go into environmental engineering because they have a certain altruistic goal of doing something positive for society. When they see their own university moving along that same path, it validates what they feel, and they realize they actually can make a difference in the quality of others’ lives.”

Among the specific LEED criteria that Armendariz mentions are construction site recycling and using materials from local sources to reduce fuel use in transporting them. During the construction of the building, hundreds of tons of scrap and leftover materials were recycled. Large bins were set up to separate and collect unused materials. Additional LEED credits were awarded for the acquisition of construction materials from within a 500-mile radius of the campus.

Further, noting that natural light has been credited with providing a superior learning environment and energy efficiency, Armendariz points to Embrey’s large central atrium skylight and the addition of about 30 percent more windows as further examples of green-minded design.

Laura Steinberg, professor and incoming chair of the Environmental and Civil Engineering Department, joined SMU last fall — in great part due to the visible commitment the campus has made to engineering. Previously at Tulane University and the Department of Homeland Security in Washington, D.C., Steinberg has strong feelings about sustainability and environmental practices.

“The construction of the Embrey building is an obvious commitment to environment issues that I care about,” Steinberg says. “The design is spectacular. You can look all the way through the center of the building and see trees through the windows on the other side.”

Beyond Green

Mechanical engineering faculty and students, also housed within the eco-sensitive building, contend that the open design adds considerable value to their own work.

“I feel enthused about coming to work every day,” says José Lage, professor of mechanical engineering. “The design has given students, professors and departments more room for collaboration, and we are developing better projects, proposals and research. It is making us stronger teachers and adding to student opportunity.”

Expanded lab space has enabled Paul Krueger, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, to use larger equipment for micro-propulsion research. Space restrictions in previous facilities had made studies of this type difficult, if not impossible. This spring, Krueger is highlighting energy efficiencies built into Embrey’s air-conditioning and heating systems in his course on thermodynamics — a significant reference tool he never had before.

Harvesting the Future

Because Embrey has been in use for only two semesters, only a fraction of its potential has been experienced. However, those who have had the opportunity to work in the labs, and appreciate LEED engineering, immediately grasp the day- to-day benefits and future possibilities.

Whitney Boger, a graduate student completing a Master’s degree in environmental engineering, works in one of the labs designing an electrostatic precipitator, a device to remove particulate matter from diesel exhaust before it is released into the air.

“The new lab provides much needed space and improved ventilation for this major project on air pollution,” Boger says. “Before, we were limited in the labs and had to fight for computer access.”

Alumnus Joseph Grinnell (’06), an environmental science major, spearheaded SMU’s recent participation in the Green Power Partnership, developed with Green Mountain Energy to reduce the use of traditionally produced energy and replace it with power derived from alternative sources. He articulates a sentiment shared by other campus environmentalists: “Universities have always been at the forefront of socially progressive ideas. Embrey is no exception — and serves as an important message to the next generation of leaders and decision makers. We have proven that we have solutions at our fingertips that can change global warming trends. It’s now up to us to implement them.”

For more information, visit engr.smu.edu/about/embrey.html.