The Leopold Center: Reflecting on a Green Building’s Efficiencies

No matter what sector you work in or how large or how small your office may be, it is likely you have heard someone utter the term “reflection.” Self-reflection, team-based reflection— there are courses and blog posts littered all over the web imploring leaders of organizations to develop a culture of reflection. While reflection is a trending leadership skill, some may not realize that it was also a trait demonstrated by some of our greatest thinkers, including Aldo Leopold. Aldo’s reflective habits were projected publicly during his life through his lectures, articles, books, and his now famous A Sand County Almanac, through which he continues to inspire others to practice reflection even to this day.

So, it is in the spirit of reflection (easily aided by the brutally cold winds of a Wisconsin February) that I share this update on the Leopold Center’s operation and performance. It has been ten years since the final hammered nail was put into place and our staff began working out of this facility, so now seemed like an appropriate time to review the design decisions and historical data we’ve collected over the years to help inform the present and future operations.

In 2003, the foundation decided to embark on a six million dollar construction project that commenced with two stated goals, “promote an ethical approach to land use” and “achieve net zero energy.” (Net zero is a term for buildings that produce more energy than they consume on an annual basis.) By mid-2007, the foundation had successfully built the world’s greenest building, achieving the highest LEED rating ever given to date, complete with a 3,200 square foot photovoltaic solar array, five heat pumps extracting energy from underground wells, 600 linear feet of geothermal air tubes connected to a state of the art air handler, a variety of passive solar techniques, and insulation values that were twice the code requirements to help regulate temperature. An amazing achievement!

Leopold Center 2007 just after construction

The just-completed Leopold Center in 2007 was awarded the highest-ever LEED score at the time.

Energy Utilization Intensity, or EUI, is a measurement of the kilowatt hours used per square meter of a building over the course of a year (expressed as kWh/m2/year). The design goal for the Leopold Center’s EUI was set at 54.0 kWh/m2/year in collaboration with Michael Utzinger, the building’s energy consultant. That’s over 70% less than the median office building, which has an average EUI of 192 kWh/m2/year. Estimating the size of the Leopold Center space at 1,000 square meters, the photovoltaic system placed on the south-facing roof of the Leopold Center needed to produce almost 54,000 kWh of energy to operate over the course of a year, and even slightly more than that if our dream of achieving net zero production was to be realized. Prior to construction, models had been researched and simulated that left the engineers and the foundation hopeful the building’s system could reach that goal.

As early as 2008, however, it was clear the system was not producing nearly the amount of electricity that was originally projected. Fast forward to 2018, ten years into the life of the system, and it is unfortunately still not meeting the building’s energy needs. From October 2016 to October 2017, the Leopold Center consumed 54,160 kilowatt hours of electricity but only produced 16,660 kilowatt hours on average each year. So while the building’s energy use projections were quite accurate, the projections on energy production were not, largely due to how the building handles winter.

During the peak of the summer, production nears 2,500 kWh per month, but as the days shorten and the snow piles on in winter, production dwindles to a mere 70 kWh per month. However, progress can’t be made without failure, and this reflection, if you will, invites the foundation to explore new technology to narrow the gap between energy produced and consumed.

Outlook Meeting Hall

The Outlook Meeting Hall can now comfortably host groups year-round. More information on reserving the space can be found here.

Albert Einstein once said, “We cannot solve our problems using the same thinking we used when we created them.” In designing the mechanical system for the Leopold Center, conventional thinking was put aside in favor of exploration and innovation. The building’s main meeting space, the Outlook Meeting Wing, was a testing ground for one of these exploratory decisions, and also the site of one of the building’s biggest energy use dilemmas. During construction, the building team decided to use wall mounted radiators connected to a ground source heat pump to heat the medium-sized meeting space (330m2). From 2007 to 2017, outdoor temperatures during peak seasons consistently showed us extremes: really hot in the summer or frigid in the winter. This forced the system to work overtime while still not meeting the needs of the meeting room occupants. During the winter, especially, the room was deemed virtually unusable because the system could not be heated to comfortable temperatures. Keeping the space empty during winters, we resigned to only heating the room to a modest temperature above freezing and using the wood stove for additional heat if the room was needed. However, the extra pressure to perform during extreme temperatures outside took its toll on the unit in 2016, and the ground source heat pump failed mid-winter.

In 2017, after very deliberate evaluation and reflection, we determined that a new mechanical system, the main contributor to energy use in buildings, had to control temperature, last longer than 10 years, and cost no more than the heat pump replacement. Engineers and local contractors labored over the decision. Any change to the system needed to at minimum maintain energy efficiency, or better, increase it. The differences between the two systems can be seen in the figure below with the original system and components on the left and the new system on the right.

Chart comparison of HVAC systems

I was pleased to see that our initial evaluation after the first year of use shows that the new system is indeed using less energy. While the savings is not enough to launch us to net zero, this is still a major improvement. During the cold months in previous years, the foundation was barely heating the space and could not have groups use it without sending a packing list that included long underwear, multiple layers, and hats and gloves. With the new system, we are now able to heat the space, maintain a comfortable temperature, and regain access to the room with only a little more energy expenditure during an even colder winter! Our initial goal of net zero was not achieved, but a few goals that Leopold himself would appreciate were: to be comfortable making mistakes, to learn from them, and to share those lessons with others.

Al Hochbaum was a student of Aldo Leopold. He once wrote in a letter to his teacher that he thought one of his greatest characteristics was that “his thinking wasn’t that of a genius, but that of an ordinary man just putting two and two together.” It seems that reflection may be an ordinary man’s opportunity to put two and two together. Just as Aldo may have spent his time sitting beside a flickering February fire on his snow-laden sand farm in 1945, reflecting on the life bound in each log’s tree rings, the Aldo Leopold Foundation spends its Februarys pondering its impacts. Delving into innovation and exploration may not have yielded the results we expected, but it has provided opportunities to share lessons and reflect on how environmentally intelligent buildings help shape a sustainable planet into the future.