Solutions Journal: Spring 2011—Caltech’s Linde + Robinson Laboratory to be First LEED Platinum Lab

When Caltech officials decided to renovate a 1932 astronomy building that will house a new center for environmental sciences, they thought life should mimic ideals—and thereby created what will be one of the greenest science facilities on the planet. Several RMI supporters and staff members worked with the design team on the Linde + Robinson Laboratory, which is expected to become the nation’s first LEED Platinum laboratory in a historic building after it opens in July.

“The project demonstrated the power of collaboration among many highly talented people brought together by a vision to create something truly unique,” says Foster Stanback, a green building enthusiast whose support made RMI’s involvement possible.

Three years ago, Ronald and Maxine Linde established an $18-million endowment for the California Institute of Technology to create the Ronald and Maxine Linde Center for Global Environmental Science. They aimed to unite faculty from a variety of disciplines related to climate change, including chemistry, engineering, geology and environmental science. Caltech officials had long thought the Robinson Laboratory on Caltech’s Pasadena campus could be retrofitted in some way, and by 2008 they decided it would be a great home for the environmental science center.

Caltech, which had decided to pursue a LEED Platinum rating for the building during an earlier feasibility study, put together a design team that included several members of what industry folks jokingly refer to as RMI’s “green mafia”—RMI staff members and collaborators—as well as future occupants of the building (the scientists themselves).

RMI Senior Fellow Peter Rumsey PE, a noted building/mechanical engineer, was part of the team that visited the old lab to see what they had to work with. “It was a very interesting building,” he says. “There were a lot of astronomy symbols on the building, there was a sun built into the plaster on the outside, there were stars and zodiac signs painted elaborately on the interior ceiling. It had a lot of astronomy history—it was where they developed the Palomar telescope—but it was also a really interesting building in and of itself.”

Science of Sunlight

The most significant characteristic of the building is an enormous shaft that pierces it from roof to basement. The shaft, roughly 1.5 meters in diameter, houses a massive solar telescope that stretches through all five stories of the building (two of which are below ground level).

The roof is home to a coelostat (“seel-o-stat”)—essentially two mirrors that track the sun and create a singular beam of sunlight that’s bounced down into the building and bounced up again from the bottom of the building. Rumsey recalls going up on the roof to see it with George Loisos of Loisos + Ubbelohde and other daylighting experts: “They knew exactly what this thing was,” he says. “They suggested we take this thing, recondition it, and beam the sun down into the basement floors, which they were converting into laboratories. And we figured we could also run the beam of light horizontally using fiber optics and partly light the labs.”

And so they did, essentially turning a big portion of the old astronomy building into a massive Solatube. On the lower floors, the design called for reflectors and refractive optics, a “solar tower” and light-diffusing lenses, as well as a convex-mirror cluster at the bottom of the building.
To take further advantage of the sun, the roofs of both the Linde + Robinson center and the nearby South Mudd building will get new concentrating photovoltaic systems (~6-kilowatt and ~61-kilowatt, respectively).

Chilling Out on Energy Use

While labs use a lot of energy for heating and cooling, the Robinson Laboratory offered limited room for ductwork since it was designed for astronomy rather than as a lab per se. So the team turned to the most compact way to cool a space: water.

The vertical shaft from the old telescope drops through the building to about 50 feet below the lowest basement floor, and the design team knew that lowest portion wouldn’t be needed for the daylighting strategy. So they decided to use the bottom of the shaft for cold water storage. The cooling system also includes a cooling tower and a rooftop chiller.

Water will be cooled on the roof at night, then pumped into the bottom of the shaft, below the occupied lab space. When the building needs heating or cooling, a pump will move the water through radiant ceiling panels in the occupied spaces. Pumping water, when done right, can be much more energy-efficient than blowing air, and is also silent.

The design team also showed water innovation by rethinking the chiller’s water temperature needs. Typically, a chilled-water cooling system uses water between 35 and 45 degrees, requiring considerable cooling energy. The team instead designed the system to use water in the 55–60-degree range, which means natural (outside) temperatures can cool the water for more hours per day than a typical system does—in short, a lot of “free” cooling.

Office Equipment

When the design team started doing the energy analysis on the building, they realized that plug loads (i.e., equipment) were one of the biggest uses. Building designers don’t typically get a chance to consider the equipment that will be used in a building, the process was more collaborative than usual, and the Caltech scientists were supportive.

“Normally you don’t touch that,” says Brad Smith, Caltech’s senior project manager, whose job it was to push the sustainable aspects of the design. “But the users said, ‘Fine, if you can get us more energy-efficient process equipment, we’ll take it.’ So [the design team] called the manufacturers of mass spectrometers, who’d never been approached about energy efficiency.”

Design team members quickly reckoned that the mass spectrometers’ mini-chillers could be replaced with heat exchangers that use chilled water from the low-energy chilled-water system. “That saved a couple of residential homes’ worth of energy,” Rumsey says.

Likewise, the spectrometers’ vacuum pumps were replaced with models that use about half the energy. The design team also noticed that the software running the spectrometers could be adjusted so the machines automatically power down (not switch off entirely) when not in use.

Working with the future occupants of the space, the design team was ultimately able to recommend changes to office and lab equipment that will reduce energy use by 60-plus percent over typical equipment in a facility like the Robinson + Linde Laboratory.

Fuel Cells and Chemical-Sniffing Fume Hoods

Caltech negotiated a deal with Bloom Energy so that Bloom’s fuel cells will be used to partly power the building. One, a 100-kilowatt unit, will run on natural gas and provide continuous power (Smith hopes it can one day be converted to use methane from sources like landfills). The second, a 30-kilowatt hydrogen-powered Altenergy unit, will be used for backup during outages.

The lab’s fume hoods (often responsible for a big chunk of energy use in labs) will come with a chemical-detection system: If the system can’t smell bad stuff, it will throttle back the fans and reduce airflow, chopping energy use while ensuring safety. A standard lab hood uses as much energy as about five houses, so such controls are a big deal.

Collaboration Is King

The key to the new building’s energy- and resource-efficient design, say design team members, was collaboration. Smith also emphasized how Stanback’s support made RMI’s involvement possible. RMI’s Victor Olgyay, AIA, and Amory Lovins, Hon. AIA, participated in a design charrette and offered ideas during the early design phases, and RMI’s input helped tease out unique, sometimes extreme-sounding ideas.

The “firsts” the Linde + Robinson Laboratory is expected to achieve when it opens in July include:

Lowest-energy physical science research lab in the United States;

  • First lab with radiant cooling and compressor-free cooling 50 percent of the year;
  • First LEED Platinum rating for a renovation of a historical research lab;
  • First lab to achieve 50–60 percent lab equipment energy use reduction; and
  • First lab to get 20 percent or more of its power from on-site photovoltaics.

And, of course, it will be the first building with coelostat daylighting.

All told, the building is expected to save 77 percent of the energy (6,134 MBtu/year) that a baseline design would have used and 73.6 percent ($190,212) of the cost of that energy each year.

“Many newer buildings incorporate many green features and advanced technologies,” said Stanback. “The real challenge, though, is to retrofit many of the existing structures that can’t simply be torn down. The final design plan that emerged from discussions between Amory Lovins, RMI Senior Vice President Greg Franta, the Caltech representatives, and the architectural firm resulted in a building that will truly inspire others about the possibilities for the green retrofitting of older buildings.”