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Life in a Fishbowl

Dirk Denison Architects

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Xululabs, Xululabs

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Life in a Fishbowl

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Project Description

Social experiments in college usually involve late nights, the words, "I bet you'd never ...," and beer. Lots of beer. But there is a social experiment of a different kind brewing at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chicago—one that will use monitoring to show students the truth about their energy habits.

A planned pair of dormitories designed by local firm Dirk Denison Architects will bring 420 new beds to the main student housing complex on IIT's campus. Identical in form, the two buildings will be adjacent to and share some facilities with the existing dorms, and will incorporate enough sustainable design to achieve a LEED Silver rating. But the new south building will add further sustainable technology in the hopes of reaching LEED Platinum. The performance of both buildings will be tracked and compared, and the data will be used to inform future green buildings on campus.

Both the silver and platinum buildings will use solar orientation and mixed-mode ventilation systems, combined with a carefully configured building envelope. "We sat down with [founder Dirk Denison] to see what would make the envelope as efficient as possible," says Chris Taylor, an associate principal at Arup. "When the envelope is efficient, you don't need as much HVAC." In the summer, warm air will be moved out through a network of ventilation shafts and solar chimneys culminating in rooftop greenhouses. "We determined that [with this system] we can do 70 percent [of cooling] without air conditioning in the summer," says Denison. In the winter, air will be solar-heated in the greenhouses to supplement traditional heating systems. The buildings will also harvest rainwater, which will irrigate green roofs on common areas and additional landscaping.

The platinum building will take things further, with 800 square feet of integrated photovoltaic (PV) panels in the greenhouses, producing 2 percent of the building's energy. The PV panels will also power the solar water heating, which will provide some of the hot water for sinks and showers. In addition, four rooftop wind turbines will generate an additional 6 percent of the building's annual energy needs.

In order for individual residents to be aware of how their energy usage affects the greater building community, a system had to be devised to monitor each room as well as the building itself. "The idea is to create data that is real-time and very locatable," says Denison. Since the students are the ones who will be monitored, Denison used his position as a faculty member at the school of architecture to turn the problem back to them, having a class design the interface.

The resul? An electronic fish tank in the lobby of the platinum building. Each student designs an electronic fish that will swim speedily and happily around a simulated tank—if that student's energy usage is low. If the energy usage is high? The fish will be lethargic and swim lower in the tank. The building's overall performance will be indicated by water color: a vibrant blue for a healthy, low-energy ecosystem, and a murky brown for a high-energy, wasteful one. The fish tanks will be in the lobby of the platinum building (and potentially the silver building, as well), monitoring usage for all to see. "It will create this event where everyone can find their fish and compare it to everyone else's," says Denison. "I think what we're going to find is that it is not giving them information about their own use, but on other people's in comparison—that is the crux." What will be interesting is not only how the buildings are performing, but how students react to the very public record of their energy usage. Will the wasteful change their behavior? Or will the troublemaker in Room 214 leave all the lights on to throw off the results?

The other, more looming, question is: How will this level of monitoring be achieved? The actual system of sensors is still on the boards. "There are products out there now that you can wire into the power source," says Patrick Papczun, project architect, "that can tell you how much power is being used from each outlet." What Papczun and others are weighing are the merits of working with an off-the-shelf product versus using the resources of the university's engineering school to design a unique sensor system. The final decision will be based on cost and effectiveness, and will be made closer to the groundbreaking in spring 2011.

As for the public interface, it is likely that more classes will be held in spring 2009 to refine the fish tank principle. "I think students are the best people to come up with creative, off-the-wall ideas," says Taylor. And other groups are already taking notice. A local utility company is closely following the project—as an adviser, but also to see if there may be an opportunity to adopt a similar the system for private homes.

The potential is there to take this social experiment from a single university dorm through the campus level and into the larger community, with or without corporate support. Students living in these dorms will be able to apply the same principles to projects later in their careers. But in the meantime, they at least have a social experiment they can actually e-mail home about.
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