O’Brien Hall: A Triumph in Environmental Design

The newest, brightest addition to the University of Rochester is O’Brien Hall, the first dormitory built since 1968. O’Brien Hall houses 148 students in an assortment of singles and doubles and joins Anderson and Wilder Halls to form a new complex known as Jackson Court. While clearly exciting to have a new space to live and explore, O’Brien is exemplary in its sheer demonstration of the commitment the University has to sustainability. Every facet of O’Brien’s design was considered with regards to the environment and student wellbeing.

How do we know these additions are worthwhile? O’Brien’s design was considered against standards decreed by the United States Green Building Council. These standards are famous and known as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). LEED consists of ranking systems for the design, construction, and maintenance of buildings, homes, and neighborhoods. There are four levels of LEED – Certified, Silver, Gold, and Platinum. To achieve higher rankings, points are awarded for high performance in implementing environmentally friendly technology and designs.

The focus of the ratings is on waste minimization and sustainable initiatives. Consideration is included in construction practices and water management both before and after construction. LEED puts emphasis on inhabitant’s health as well, leading O’Brien to have very different considerations in occupant health than other living spaces on campus.  O’Brien was built with all of these practices at the forefront of design decisions with the goal of achieving LEED Gold.

On the outside, O’Brien is very “green”. New trees were added and new plantings frame the entranceway. According to Campus Planning, Design, and Construction Management, there was an overall net decrease in hardscape (pavement or sidewalk). There are four bioretention areas to diminish the amount of water runoff typically generated by hard surfaces. By capturing and holding water, these areas recharge groundwater. The largest bioretention area is next to the new parking lot. All plantings are native to the region and once established require little to no irrigation.

Lounge on the second floor

New public spaces on the first floor should prove to be very popular among students. New dance studio and music practice rooms were met with visible excitement, and the new conference room will be a boon to student organizations. On the other end of the floor is a bicycle storage room with a maximum capacity of 36 bikes.  Bike conveniences are emphasized by LEED, and similarly the University is very considerate to bikers by providing numerous racks and free winter storage.

Shared spaces were built with occupant comfort and well-being in mind. Lounges are bordered by huge, ceiling high windows which show beautiful views of Jackson Court and allow for lots of sunlight. Paint was chosen very carefully, and each floor has a different color theme. The furniture is capable of many different configurations giving occupants freedom over their own relaxation space. Every lounge includes a flat screen TV with easy to use equipment. It is clear that much care was taken when designing these living spaces.

Near the lounges are enclosed study spaces with a large whiteboard and another flat screen. A message commonly found on the boards – “This place is awesome!”

Green roof as visible from the second floor

Above O’Brien’s entranceway is a green roof. Green roofs absorb sunlight, provide insulation, help lower urban air temperature and thus mitigate the urban heat island effect. O’Brien’s green roof consists of native plantings minimizing its need for maintenance. The green roof is visible from the far right corner of the second floor’s lounge – check it out!

Occupant health was especially measured when considering dorm room furniture and building temperature. O’Brien is the first University dormitory to be fully air-conditioned and each room has its own thermostat. The furniture is made from regional (within 500 miles) and recycled content wood.  They were also manufactured without and contain no VOCs (volatile organic compounds) or formaldehyde. All furniture and wall finishes are low VOC as well. Following with the theme, rooms have a large window. Monitors in every room gauge the amount of CO2and will automatically adjust outside air volumes. At night, lights adjust to 50% off.

Bathrooms, both public and on living floors, are equipped with low flow toilets, showers, and faucets. The toilets are dual flush activated by pressing the handle up for less water and down for more. The faucets are solar powered and motion activated. The water fountains are also motion activated for accessibility.

O’Brien has an elevator but it is not readily visible. Instead students are invited to use the welcoming sun lit stairs that that overlook the Genesee River and open into the main lounge.  The intent is to encourage social interaction, good health, and lower energy consumption. The basement of O’Brien connects to the tunnel under Wilder Tower, bringing O’Brien into contact with all the buildings of Jackson Court.

O’Brien’s main roof consists of bright white gravel and a white border. The choice in color reflects sunlight and thus reduces heat transfer into the building. This decreases the amount of energy needed to cool the building thereby reducing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. However due to these cooling qualities the building should cost more to heat, right? Fortunately, O’Brien is built with an extensive insulation system called a building envelope. The high performance special insulation foam in the walls and ceilings keeps in heat and works to reduce the overall amount of heating needed. Extra steps like these show the University’s commitment to innovation and sustainability.

O’Brien is the latest project to join the University’s collection of LEED buildings and is the first building on the River Campus to target LEED Gold. Saunders Clinical and Translational Science Research Building is certified Gold. The Robert B. Goergen Biomedical Engineering Building and the new Warner School of Education building are built to LEED standards. This fleet of new buildings, all with considerable design accomplishments, shows the University to be a leader in sustainable design and commitment.

Click here for more photographs taken by University Photographer Adam Fenster.

By Alanna Scheinerman, Class of 2013

14 Replies to “O’Brien Hall: A Triumph in Environmental Design”

  1. Really cool post. I read your posts pretty regularly and you always do a good
    job articulating the whatever topic you’re blogging about.
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    the great work!

  2. What’s up, all is going fine here and ofcourse every one is sharing information, that’s
    actually excellent, keep up writing.

  3. It’s all just a matter of opinion. Of course.

    Here is the latest summary from the USA Today (links on this site are often sequesterd, so go to the October 24th News Story at the USA Today that is Entitled “In U.S. Building, Is it Too Easy to Be Green?”)

    “More than 200 states, cities and federal agencies now require LEED certification for new public buildings, even though they have done little independent and meaningful research into LEED’s effectiveness. LEED can add millions to construction costs while promising to cut utility bills and other expenses.”

    “They cite some of the limited research that has been done – The most popular LEED option — earned in 99.7% of the buildings — has no direct environmental benefit but generates millions of dollars for the building council by giving one point if a design team has a LEED expert. People become experts by passing a LEED course and paying $550 to $800 to a non-profit that the building council created in 2007.”

    “In 2009, responding to criticism, the building council revised LEED to put more emphasis on energy conservation.

    But the revision increased the uncertainty about LEED and highlights a central problem: LEED certification is awarded before occupancy. Points for minimizing energy and water use are based on projections, not on actual energy and water use.

    “That’s like the ranking of football teams before the season starts,” said Oberlin College energy expert John Scofield, who testified before Congress in May.”

    “”Buildings have a poor track record for performing as predicted during design,” the council itself reported in 2007. “Most buildings do not perform as well as design metrics indicate.”

    The Environmental Protection Agency says “it is a common misconception that new buildings, even so-called ‘green’ buildings are energy-efficient.” The EPA’s voluntary EnergyStar program certifies only buildings that prove energy efficiency over a year of occupancy, and rates buildings every year.

    A little-noticed study of Navy buildings in January showed that four of 11 LEED-certified buildings used more energy than a non-LEED counterpart. Of the seven others, four were better than their counterparts by 9%, a level of improvement that is insufficient to earn any LEED points.

    “Energy savings are not closely related to the number of points received,” concluded the study by University of Wisconsin researchers.

    LEED tries to address the problem by offering one point for buildings that measure actual energy use. Only 23% of the LEED-certified buildings have taken that option, USA TODAY found.

    Building council Senior Vice President Scot Horst has long pushed to require LEED-certified buildings to report their energy use, but faces resistance. “A lot of people don’t want to disclose that information — they feel like somehow their energy data is like dirty laundry and shows they haven’t connected their ability to use energy wisely,” he said.”

    “But officials have embraced LEED and similar standards “often without fully understanding their benefits, trade-offs and costs,” says a 2009 study by the National Institute of Building Sciences, a research group that interviewed building officials, regulators and advocates.”

    “Public LEED buildings typically cost taxpayers extra. In Ohio, LEED certification for new state-funded schools has added $131 million in construction costs since 2007. “Soft costs,” such as fees to the building council and to LEED consultants, add about $150,000 to the price of a new federal building, the GSA estimates.

    Governments seeking to justify LEED often rely on reports funded by the council or written by council leaders asserting long-term cost savings.”

    “Another oft-cited report, which says LEED buildings use less energy than typical buildings, was funded by the council and written in 2008 by Mark Frankel when he was a board member of the council’s Pacific Northwest chapter. The report, the largest to date, studied 121 LEED commercial buildings and said they used on average 24% less energy than conventional office buildings.

    The report also found that roughly a third of the buildings used more energy than conventional counterparts. For an individual building, LEED is “a poor predictor of project-specific performance,” the report said.

    Researchers questioned the findings because they encompassed only buildings that volunteered to reveal energy use. Scofield, the Oberlin professor, said the report overestimated energy savings, which were nil by one calculation he made. The Canadian government’s National Research Council said the findings were encouraging because they showed overall energy savings but “should be considered as preliminary.”

    The GSA released its largest report on its green buildings in August 2011, which studied only 16 of the agency’s roughly 40 buildings that were LEED-certified by the end of 2009. Seven LEED buildings were “not cooperative” in disclosing energy use, the report said. The report found 13 of the 16 LEED buildings used less energy than typical office buildings but acknowledged studying only “a small number of buildings.”

  4. Hello again, Kyle. Moving the recycling containers into the recycling rooms is only a temporary fix. New containers are being ordered for the rooms at which point the trios will be put back in the lounges. Thanx! 🙂

  5. Thanks for the kindly worded response (though my previous comment wasn’t so kind- my apologies). I appreciate the fix to this issue. I checked out the rooms. If I am understanding this correctly the trash and recycling receptacles from the lounge were simply moved into the room and the larger receptacle labeled “trash only”. I appreciate the new improved organization but if I could make a suggestion I would suggest a larger recycling receptacle (from my experience I have more recycling “waste” than trash.) Of course, I appreciate the speedy response.

  6. Kyle- Thanks for this comment. I have looked into the situation and this problem has now been resolved.

    For background, the “recycling rooms” are actually intended to collect both trash and recyclables. Perhaps a better name for these rooms is “Recycling/Trash Rooms”. The name probably was a result of emphasizing the fact that appropriate space for recycling was designated in the design of the building. Oftentimes in buildings, adequate space is designated for “waste” but then once the building is operational it is discovered that there is not enough space to collect recyclables as well. This is not the case in O’Brien.

    The recycling rooms on each floor now have containers to collect trash and recyclables. Thanks for pointing this out!

  7. I have a clear example of how O’Brien Hall is not entirely a triumph in environmental design, an argument that doesn’t require any deep thought at all.

    Each floor in the hall has a room designated for recycling. I’m sure that this sounds like a great thing to have! But none of these floors have a room dedicated to regular waste. The result of this simple oversight is that trash and materials that ought to be recycled are mixed in the one recycling room. With these materials mixed (maybe I’m assuming wrong) it appears nothing gets recycled- everything is trash.

  8. Dear Student,
    I am glad to see more students visiting this blog. Facilities administration does indeed intend to be transparent. Professor Rizzo has been instructed to send his inquiries on specific projects or other questions regarding sustainability and Facilities to Richard Pifer, the Associate Vice President of University Facilities and Service. At the time of this posting Richard Pifer has not received any requests for information. Questions regarding University projects can also be directed to Jose Fernandez, Executive Director of Campus Planning, Design and Construction Management.

  9. Ms. Kadri,
    If the facilities administration intend to be “transparent about the sustainable choices that are made in the design of buildings…” I find it an interesting choice that they have instructed their employees to answer no inquiries from professor Rizzo on the specifics of this project or any others, so as to provide evidence to support or refute your claims of sustainability. This has the markings of more of a PR battle than a sustainability battle.

  10. I do understand that O’Brien was built to accomodate a larger student body, but could the extra expenses put into LEED certification not have been put to better uses? Classrooms, other dorms, etc.? I also look forward to seeing evidence (if any) from O’Brien regarding the reductions and savings in energy consumption and/or any other performance-based evaluations in the near future.

  11. Concerned Student –

    I can’t speak for the school, but I believe there is a fact you are missing. Rochester has increasing freshman classes for the past four years. The latest class is the largest ever. A new dorm was needed. The school decided that this new dorm would meet certain design standards (the ones heralded in the article, clearly).

    Retrofitting Anderson and Wilder, while beneficial, would not increase student housing capacity on campus. As it turns out, Towers is scheduled to be overhauled soon*.

    I hope this answers your query.

    *Eventually. There are plans in the works though, I guarantee.

  12. So is LEED Certification merely used for the purposes of symbolism?

    I’m curious to learn why the money was not put into buildings like Anderson/Wilder towards retrofitting it with better insulation or heating systems that I suspect would invariably improve energy consumption… marginally, I suspect it would be more environmentally beneficial to do projects like these (at the very least, did anyone research this beforehand?). The individual suites themselves and the heaters in the building are incredibly outdated and I know from experience that during the winter months, it gets so hot inside that students have to open their windows to balance the temperature in their rooms and suites. It seems that marginally (both cost wise and “green” wise), the gains in “sustainability” could have been greater with upgrades like that. Was any research on this before engaging in O’Brien?

    If student well-being is matter of opinion, then saying that “Every facet of O’Brien’s design was considered with regards to the environment and student wellbeing” cannot be used a justification for O’Brien’s “Triumph in Environmental Design.”

    What about the student well-being of those in older buildings like Anderson/Wilder?

  13. Professor Rizzo- While I do not have all of the answers to your questions and do not know if your estimate of $1 million is in the right ball park, I can most certainly assure you this; cost is ALWAYS considered if not the leading factor in the University’s construction projects. Luckily for us here who value sustainability, our campus planning group also places a high priority on making our new buildings sustainable. This done not just because it is “the right thing to do” from the perspective of people like myself, but in most cases the return on investment for making energy efficient buildings far outweighs the upfront costs.
    You allude to a very good point about being careful to budget the money wisely for LEED projects. There is a cost to simply obtaining the plaque itself and for this reason, some of our buildings (including LeChase Hall) will be “built to LEED standards”, while they will not receive the official LEED certification. There are pros and cons to doing it this way. Obviously, we save money by not seeking certification. However, someone once used the analogy to me that not getting certified like taking a test but not getting graded on it. Would you administer tests to your students this way? The process of obtaining the certification allows oversight that the building is deemed “sustainable” to the standards of LEED. True, who is to say that LEED standards truly are what is indefinitely the most “sustainable” options? Still it is the most widely accepted standard in today’s green building practices. If we are transparent about the sustainable choices that are made in the design of buildings when the LEED plaque is not received (and why), hopefully we can overcome the doubts people might have of whether or not the building is really sustainable.
    But when it is deemed as worth it to use project money on the LEED plaque, our planning unit is also careful not to chase LEED points, but rather to make decisions that are cost effective and most sustainable for our buildings. A great example I recently heard of for this was white roofs. We have chosen white roofs as a “sustainable” option and received LEED points in our projects, but recently there were some reports that these roofs actually make buildings less energy efficient in our northern climate. For this reason, we are looking into the research and weighing out our options carefully.
    The only way to really “know these additions are worthwhile” is to conduct a complete life cycle cradle-to-grave approach on each choice. Such studies are very time consuming, involve many factors, and odds are factors could easily be left out in complex systems. The question of “would the money spent on these projects be put to better use elsewhere for student well-being” is really a matter of opinion. But, the University does the best it can on construction projects with the information we have before us and strives to make the best decisions for the environment and our budget whenever possible. If you have more questions, you may want to contact the University’s Campus Planning, Design and Construction Management team.

  14. “EVERY facet of O’Brien’s design was done with regard to the environment and student well-being.”

    … “How do we know these additions are worthwhile?”

    I would really appreciate seeing this. Was the cost considered? My estimates based on what it costs other places to build to LEED standards, is that the planning and construction according to LEED added over $1 million to the cost of the building. Would this $1 million had been put to better use elsewhere for student well-being? Does the expenditure of this additional $1 million actually lead to lower electricity bills (in reality, not according to models)? Does the expenditure of an extra $1 million actually improve the environment? Is less CO2 emitted? Will there be less pollution of local waterways and is this a less expensive way to “mitigate” that problem as compared to other methods?

    By just saying the design meets particular standards does not mean that the outcomes of the building actually achieve it. For example, the article says:

    “. Lounges are bordered by huge, ceiling high windows which show beautiful views of Jackson Court and allow for lots of sunlight.”

    While I love the high windows, does this not negate some of the energy efficiency benefits of the building? Isn’t there some tradeoff between the “sustainability” goals of the LEED design with the student well-being?

    Other examples of questions: does regionally sourced wood actually mean the same thing as sustainable? There are very different accreditation standards for sustainably harvested wood – with some standards placing less value on damage to watersheds from harvesting than others (often unintentionally), for example. What was the accreditation used on the locally sourced wood?

    “Bathrooms, both public and on living floors, are equipped with low flow toilets, showers, and faucets.”

    Does this cause potential backup of sludge in the city water system? Famously this was a major problem in San Francisco. This should be a particular concern for the environment of the Great Lakes and Finger Lakes since the biggest threat to our water ways (outside of fertilizer runoff) comes from water treatment issues.

    ” This decreases the amount of energy needed to cool the building thereby reducing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. However due to these cooling qualities the building should cost more to heat, right? Fortunately, O’Brien is built with an extensive insulation system called a building envelope. The high performance special insulation foam in the walls and ceilings keeps in heat and works to reduce the overall amount of heating needed.”

    Is the insulation free? And is a building that is too warm in the summer when no one is living on campus more of a concern than ensuring a warm building in winter? Were these calculations done?

    “This fleet of new buildings, all with considerable design accomplishments, shows the University to be a leader in sustainable design and commitment.”

    Studies done on other campuses (I have Utah State in mind) show this to be a tenuous claim – particularly when compared with what can be done with already existing infrastructure.

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