Mind & Spirit

Rock Valley’s New Science Center: Sustainable Classrooms for the Next Generation

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Green, sustainable technology abounds in this brand-new building at Rockford’s community college. Discover the innovative technologies that make this a unique treasure for our region.

An outside view of Rock Valley's new Karl J. Jacobs Center for Science and Math, with a rain garden landscaping in front. (Dustin Waller photo)

Rock Valley College (RVC) is thinking green – and saving green, too.

When its new center for science and math opens this fall, students will enter the first certified-sustainable classrooms in town: geothermal heating, fritted windows, recycled materials – the whole shebang. The community college has gone all-out in conforming its newest stand-alone building to some of the highest standards for green construction and design.

With a wounded economy and Rockford’s high unemployment rate, now might seem like a lousy time for any construction, much less the kind with higher up-front costs for sustainable building. But at RVC, business is booming. Young people looking for a cost-effective education, and adults looking for new career paths, are filling classrooms in every subject. This spring, the college graduated one of its largest classes, and the student body is still growing.

“We’ve seen 6- to 8-percent enrollment increases over the past couple of years,” says Sam Overton, CFO and vice president of administrative services. “That’s good for us, even though it’s put capacity constraints on us, especially in math and science.”

Back in 2008, school leaders knew they had to act. RVC needed more classrooms, and the 40-year-old buildings were showing their age. During a meeting between staff members and the board of trustees, a solution emerged.

“We were talking about short-term possibilities for renovating our two classroom buildings,” says Overton. “The board said our ideas weren’t big enough, so we realized we needed a new classroom building. We decided to move chemistry, physics and the life sciences, because we didn’t want to build the labs twice during a remodel. Math was added later, because we had space and it was a logical connection.”

The brand-new greenhouse is covered in photo-voltaic cells that will contribute extra power to the building. (Dustin Waller photo)

Board members took the project one step further by supporting a proposal to incorporate green technology and seek Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, the highest standard in green buildings. While the up-front costs would be greater, they reasoned that energy cost savings would pay off long-term.

It wasn’t the first time they’d taken an energy-efficient approach. Renovations to RVC’s physical education center, finished in 2009 and certified in 2010, made it the first project in Rockford to earn LEED certification, and RVC was among the first community colleges in the state to do so.

“We looked at the payback for sustainable building and how fast we could see results,” says Overton. “We knew it would be worthwhile to be a regional leader, so we took some risks updating our physical education center. We took our plans to the board of trustees and they told us it was a great idea, just so long as we stayed within our budget.” They did.

Thanks to state and federal grants, it was even easier than anticipated with the new science building. When planning began, project leaders hoped to garner $170,000 in grants. By June 2011, they had secured nearly $800,000.

“With our geothermal system, we paid about $1.5 million,” says Overton. “We received about $400,000 in grants to fund the project. Doing some simple math, the grants dropped our payback from around 14 years to just eight.”

The board approved the science building proposal in 2009 and named the future building in honor of Karl J. Jacobs, a former RVC president who served the college for 28 years. Now nearly complete, the building is larger, brighter and more efficient than any building on campus. Along with chalkboards, the 106,000 square-foot space contains SMART boards, digital projectors and a wealth of power outlets and Internet connections.

With a clear view from top to bottom, the three-story lobby offers glimpses of every floor. In one corner, new shoots of bamboo have begun their ascent toward the sky. More than 200 common-area seats give students a variety of places to study and socialize. The entire facility – from doors and elevators to lab tables and chemistry equipment – is handicapped-accessible.

Thinking Green, Saving Green

Everything inside is expected to follow LEED Gold certification standards, issued by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) for environmentally-friendly construction methods.

To earn that identity, the building must contain energy-efficient and sustainable technologies and recycle waste as much as possible. Also required are geothermal energy systems, ample windows, energy-saving fixtures and as much recycled construction material as possible.

Illinois was among the USGBC’s top 10 states for LEED-certified projects in 2010. Still, there’s nothing like this in Rockford, outside of RVC’s campus. In Rockford, the Discovery Center annex, the east-side bus transfer station and the new federal courthouse are still waiting for official recognition, according to USGBC records. Spring Creek Development Group took a major step toward green in 2008, when it constructed the East Riverside Retail Center on Riverside Boulevard in Loves Park, heated and cooled with a geothermal system.

In Beloit, the Kettle Foods plant, Beloit College and Frito-Lay all have received LEED certifications. In Byron, Ill., the Byron Public Library has earned LEED Gold, and the forest preserve district anticipates the same for its Keller Education Center, which aptly hosts programs about recycling.

Green Features

The most obvious sustainability feature of the RVC science building is the closed-loop geothermal system, buried underground. Water or an alcohol solution pass through the system from wells bored 360 feet underground. The solution is warmed or cooled by the earth’s constant temperature (around 55 degrees Fahrenheit) to more efficiently heat and cool the building.

Many windows are made of fritted glass, which has ceramic glazing to allow ample light while blocking the sun’s heat. (Chris Linden photo)

This particular geothermal field includes eight pumps, 164 wells, producing 420 tons of heating and cooling. It’s so efficient that leftover heat will warm an adjacent building.

“We can feed the excess hot water from our geothermal system into Classroom Building I,” says Tom Viel, director of facilities and master planning. “The capacity will be used to help to reduce the overall load on our boilers.”

There’s more. One entire side of the building is covered in glass. Natural light not only saves energy by reducing overhead electric lights, but also helps students to focus.

“It creates a better learning environment and a better physical feeling in the building,” says Overton. “You can see outside, and you don’t feel isolated or alone.”

A closer look at these windows reveals that they’re not just panes of glass. Several window banks are covered in fritted glass. Stripes of white ceramic glazing run from top to bottom, reducing vision outside. It’s a new trick in allowing sunlight without heating up a room.

“The more frits you have, the less the light can come through, and the less heat you’ll build up inside,” says Overton. “Some of it has to do with the angle of the sun, so we can control the morning and afternoon sunlight and our system won’t work so hard to cool the building.”

Hidden inside the ceiling is another green technique for heating and cooling. Instead of using forced air, chilled beam technology uses simple physics. Water pipes pass through a heat exchanger; cooler, heavier air naturally falls toward the ground. It’s more efficient than forced air, because water is a better conductor of heat. In this building, there’s a combination of forced air and chilled beam.

Overall, these techniques dramatically reduce the amount of energy needed to operate the building. The natural light, chilled beam technology and geothermal system make up a large chunk of the credits needed to earn a LEED certification.

“As we check with our LEED scorecard, we’ll achieve 19 of the 35 points that we need in this department,” says Viel.

More points will be earned for using flooring made from recycled materials, and benches made from recycled redwood. The bathrooms include recycled-material countertops, automatic dryers and sinks, and “green toilets,” better known as “low-flow.” Push the green-colored handle upward to dispose of liquid waste, and press it down to dispose of solid waste.

Upstairs, the roof is free of hot, black surfaces that absorb heat. It’s covered instead with a reflective white material. In several nooks outside, the white roof will be covered with “green roofing,” as plants are installed to further absorb sunlight.

Even the landscaping outside is built for sustainability. Above the geothermal wells, a rain garden traps and absorbs stormwater and pollutants running down the hillside. At the bottom of the hill, additional stormwater collects in a retention pond transformed into a bioswale, or naturally-landscaped pond. Inside the bioswale, water-loving vegetation will absorb pollutants and run-off dirt. The nearby creek will be restored later this year, using some of the same techniques.

Night vs. Day

This building is a world beyond the science department’s current facilities – chemistry professor Pearl Kinney will tell you that. Her present organic chemistry lab is dark and crowded. Its concrete walls and dim lighting betray the room’s 40-year age. Kinney’s desk is actually a long countertop, filled with papers and computers.

Popular classes, such as general biology and anatomy, fill classrooms from early morning to late evening. The demand simply doesn’t match the available supply.

The new science labs (left) are spacious and state-of-the-art, whereas the current labs (below) are crowded and outdated. (Dustin Waller photos)

“Even though we had the demand and we could have added more classes, we didn’t have the space,” says Kinney. “The new building will allow us to accommodate many more students.”

Walking through her new chemistry labs, Kinney looks like a kid in a candy store. She marvels at the space for her lab equipment. There’s a room filled with chemical ventilation hoods that enable students to safely analyze potentially harmful chemicals. As a member of the faculty team that advised architects and planners, Kinney is gratified to see the fulfillment of a long wish list that she and her colleagues submitted.

“When they designed this building, the planners really did listen to the desires of the faculty, for our needs and for those of our students,” she says. “They made this happen, and this is what we get. I love it. This is beautiful.”

Kinney moves into her new office around mid-July, though she’ll teach summer classes in the old labs. Many of her fellow professors already are packed up.

“My students are definitely excited, because I’ve been talking about it all the time,” she says. “There are some who’ve said, ‘Now I want to retake your class.’ They don’t have to do that, but they’re disappointed they couldn’t take my class in the new facility.”

Each floor is designed to hold a specific department. Chemistry, physics and geology are housed on the top floor; life sciences, like biology and anatomy, below that; math classes on the ground floor.

Modern technology is everywhere, from the SMART Boards and digital projectors in every classroom to the Internet ports and power outlets at every lab table. Designers kept future needs in mind during construction. “Stealth classrooms,” already piped and wired, will someday become labs, as the departments grow. Today, they are simple lecture rooms.

“There’s room for us to grow in the future,” says Overton. “Also, long-term, we plan to renovate classrooms elsewhere on campus, and we’ll use this space to relocate those faculty members for the duration of those projects.”

As the college looks to improve other classroom spaces, Overton sees an opportunity to continue sustainable behaviors.

“We want to make the campus Gold-certified, but that’s still eight to 10 years down the road,” he says. “Every building we update will conform to those standards, so as we do renovations, we’ll be able to retrofit the rest of campus to this standard.” ❚

What’s It Mean To Go Green?

The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification, better known as LEED, is the nation’s highest standard in environmentally-friendly and sustainable construction. The U.S. Green Building Council offers several applications for LEED standards, covering everything from new construction and K-12 schools, to remodeling, health care and homes. The simplest of these standards is LEED Silver. LEED Gold and Platinum statuses require further sustainability investments. In order to gain its Gold certification, RVC must accumulate a certain number of points in each of these categories:

Sustainable Sites (Up to 26 points)
Preventing construction-related pollution
Protecting/preserving natural habitats
Installing environmentally-sensitive stormwater systems
Reducing heat islands and light pollution

Water Efficiency (Up to 10 points)
Water-saving technologies
Water-efficient landscaping

Energy and Atmosphere (Up to 35 points)

Energy-efficient electronics
Renewable energy/green power

Materials and Resources (Up to 14 points)
Recycling programs
Construction waste management/recycling
Integration of recycled materials

Indoor Environmental Quality (Up to 15 points)
Increased ventilation
Low-emitting materials (paints, flooring, wood, adhesives)
Daylight
Thermal comfort

Innovation and Design Process (Up to 6 Points)

Regional Priority Credits (Up to 4 Points)

Source: USGBC New Construction Checklist

Grand Opening

RVC will host a public grand opening for the Karl J. Jacobs Center for Science and Math on Aug. 16. The celebration begins at 3 p.m., with a ribbon-cutting at 3:30 p.m. The first classes in the new building will convene on Aug. 23.

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