New UI building taking energy efficiency to whole new level

URBANA — The miles of cable strung through this building would rival any on campus.

As its name implies, the $95 million Electrical and Computer Engineering Building going up on Wright Street, just south of the Beckman Institute, will require some serious power.

But it's also designed to be a net-zero energy user, with solar panels and efficient features throughout. Many visitors are surprised the college could pull it off in this kind of building.

"That is exactly the point," said engineering Professor Phil Krein, who was tapped to oversee the project for the college. "We're trying to show that in some sense, anybody can do this."

Bill Sanders, the interim department head, said it's important not only to save energy but to send a message about the innovation of this highly rated department — which claims LED inventor Nick Holonyak among others.

"Not only is it a really beautiful building, but it's a building that's sort of allowed us to live what we really believe," Sanders said.

In the planning for 40 years, the project is funded half with state money and half with private gifts. The college is "very close" to its goal of raising $47.5 million for its half, Sanders said. Construction started in January 2012, and it's scheduled to open next summer and be ready for classes in August.

We took a tour with Krein this week to see the energy-efficient features and other highlights:

First thing you notice: The 5-foot-wide terra cotta panels lining the exterior — not the standard university brick favored by campus design standards. They're part of a super-insulated wall system designed to make the building energy-efficient and prevent moisture problems, Krein said. The walls have two layers of insulation (R-30, well above the R-13 required).

The design decision had to go all the way up to the president and trustees, Krein said.

"It did take some convincing," said Laura Holman of SmithGroupJJR, the project architect.

Krein notes that a similar discussion played out over the terra cotta used in another UI building — Lincoln Hall, 100 years ago.

"It's not a new material to campus," he said.

Twice as nice: At 230,000 square feet, the building is almost double the size of the department's old headquarters, Everitt Lab at Wright and Green streets. The new building will be "the intellectual home and gathering place" for the department, which has 120 faculty and almost 2,500 students spread over many buildings.

The state-of-the-art labs and project spaces will also give the department an appropriate work environment for the 21st century, he said. The department is known nationally for being very "hands-on" as well as science-based, he said.

Platinum standard: Officials are "quite sure" the building will be certified "LEED Platinum," under the U.S. Green Building Council's energy-efficiency ratings system. The only other building on campus with that designation is the Business Instructional Facility. It may also end up being the largest net-zero building in the United States, or possibly second after the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, Colo., Krein said.

Solar power: The roof will be covered with 1,200 solar panels providing 300 kilowatts of energy. The remaining power will be supplied by solar panels on top of the parking garage east of the building, which will carry about 1,200 kilowatts.

Both will count toward the project, as they're part of the same meter on the UI grid, Krein said. Upon completion it could be the largest "building-integrated" solar array in Illinois, Krein said.

Two wings: The building is divided into a three-story south section (to match its neighbor to the south, the Micro and Nanotechnology Lab) and a five-story north section (to match the taller Beckman Institute). The south is almost all classrooms, the north for labs, offices and projects spaces.

No one has a corner office: Was that by design? "Oh, yes," Krein said with a smile. For the sake of harmony in the department. Some upper-level classrooms and conference spaces do offer scenic views to the south, however.

Low-energy lights: About 70 percent of the occupied areas will use high-efficiency LED lighting as their primary lighting source, Krein said.

Chilly waters: A unique "chilled beam" system pumps water throughout the building to cool the air in individual zones. Other UI buildings use chilled-water to cool air that then circulates through the building, but it's much more efficient to pump water, Holman said. It's the first system of this type on campus, she said.

Room to spare: With a capacity of 400, the building's main auditorium will be the largest purely instructional lab on campus and the third-largest overall, behind Foellinger Auditorium and Lincoln Hall Theater. With glass on three sides, it will have a window-shading system and an air vent for each seat to more efficiently circulate air through the room.

Atrium showcase: The soaring atrium also has glass on three sides — one looking into the auditorium, one to the freshman lab, and one into the new two-story "clean room," where students learn how to make semiconductors. The idea is to showcase those spaces and the future of computing and electronics to students, faculty, visitors and donors, Sanders said.

"This is a department with an incredible legacy, inventing in the last century some of the most fundamental things we take for granted today," he said.

Traffic flow: The building was designed with extra-wide hallways and staircases, and classrooms positioned near entrances, to avoid bottlenecks. The goal was to be able to turn over 2,500 students in 10 minutes (the class-changing period).

Naming rights: Holonyak has lobbied for years to get the college to name the building after his mentor, two-time Nobel Prize winner John Bardeen (inventor of the transistor and the theory of superconductivity). Sanders said it will be known for now as the Electrical and Computer Engineering Building, and "it's not been determined" if it will be named after anyone in the future.

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