State of the Union

Union South's much-touted "green" redesign is teaching UW students real-world lessons on green building and design

Mar 20, 2009

Tom Landgraf teaches a real estate class with a focus on sustainable green development at UW–Madison. Recently a former student of his, Dan Cornelius, Wisconsin Union vice president for project management and also a UW law student getting his MA in environment and resources, came to speak to Landgraf’s class about the Union South redevelopment. In lieu of a conventional lesson plan, the class will complete projects to benefit Union South’s redesign.

“If the class must work on a project, why not make it project about something they live with, like a major student building on campus?” asks Landgraf.

Students will work in groups and Landgraf suspects they’ll work on ways to gather materials like Wisconsin timber, brainstorm ideas for a green roof, or develop a source manual on how to obtain materials available within five hundred miles of Madison for the university’s future building projects.

“From a learning experience [the students] figure out how much they want to deliver, which will be a lot, and how they can actually do it. For this project, and for all building projects, you measure what it is you’re going to commit to and do so in a way that you can deliver a really great job on it,” explains Landgraf. “It’s worth their final grade after all.”

UW students voted in fall 2006 to pay for the majority of the Union South reconstruction (about 60 percent) through their segregated fees. Part of that vote hinged on the idea of sustainable technologies, a promise made to the students by the design team.

“The design process has been led by students since day one—the design committee is made up of fifteen members, nine of whom are students, and will continue to be until the building is finished in spring 2011,” says Cornelius.

To fulfill that promise, the design team brought in the Rocky Mountain Institute, a leading international sustainability consulting firm, to do workshops about building priorities. They also brought in the Madison Environmental Group Sustainability Consultants, Moody Nolan Architects out of Ohio, CG Schmidt Construction and Workshop Architects to help achieve these goals. The top three priorities included:

Water: Reducing water use thirty-five to forty percent over code of what’s required, making the building fifty to sixty percent more efficient than a typical building. “One innovative idea is to capture the water that falls on the roof and redirect is back into natural water features in the building to help enhance the site and make the area more comfortable,” says Cornelius.

Energy: Using the best building practices, more insulation and building shading devices.

Living Green: Ensuring that the building’s ongoing operations after construction are complete and will be able to function as a green building.

The project is seeking LEED Certification (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). LEED is one way of quantifying sustainability because there is a checklist of categories in specific areas of the building. There are four LEED levels: platinum, gold, silver and certified. Currently, the Union South rebuild is planning to fall just on the border between the silver and gold level.

“Many times, the things you need to do to earn LEED points are things you were going to do anyway. It doesn’t always have to be more expensive. [For example] with just a little planning a developer can position houses on their lots in such a way that if solar panels were to be added, there would be no change necessary… and that’s green. Of course the second level would be to add solar panels. However, the expenditure for solar panels is very often a cost for which you can directly calculate the payback … versus the addition of a swimming pool as an amenity,” explains Landgraf.

LEED is not the only measure to quantify sustainability, says Cornelius.

“The Union South redesign team is looking to go beyond that as well,” says Cornelius.

Indeed, the design calls for the use of materials sourced from within the state, because LEED certification mandates the use of materials within a five hundred-mile radius. For example, a press release issued during an earlier phase of the project called for salvaged wood. If individuals have an old barn that’s falling apart, the design team is looking to use the timber, mill it down and repurpose it in the new building. “

The whole floor for the ballroom, which is 11,000–12,000 square feet, will be made entirely from elm reclaimed from old barns in Wisconsin,” says Cornelius. The project is open to what people have, and is currently in the process of creating a salvage registry. When they receive materials, they’ll have architects try to work it into the design, “which is innovative; so far we’re the only state or campus building to try this,” adds Cornelius.

“To sell property in the future, you might need to emphasize solar panels, geothermal heating, or a couple of wells drilled in the backyard, and it’s going to be all of those things that will add resale value to the property because you can calculate the payback worth of renewable energy for your carbon footprint, or your wallet,” explains Landgraf.

The Union South redesign team would like to implement wind turbines and solar panels. The project doesn’t currently have the budget but is actively pursuing funding.

“The ultimate measure of sustainability is how this building is able to stand the test of time; the old Union South wasn’t even forty years old,” explains Cornelius. “We’d like to make the new Union South a one hundred-year building, providing enough space to serve current and future needs of this campus and community.”

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