Earth Hour Countdown: Walking the green talk

This is part of a series of stories about York University’s new learning commons that will examine different aspects of this innovative, learning-centred place for students. The learning commons, which will be housed in the Scott Library on York’s Keele campus, will feature an innovative design, a green retrofit to lighten its footprint and supportive programming for students. Phase 1 of the commons will open in September 2010.

York, like many other Canadian universities built in the 1970s, is coping with rising energy costs and a reduced operating budget. Faced with an unsustainable situation, the University, through its Campus Services & Business Operations (CSBO), embarked on a five-year plan in 2006 to reduce its energy consumption and improve teaching, learning and working environments. 

Now closing out the third year of its energy management plan, one of the big winners is the Scott Library on York’s Keele campus. The library has gone from being an energy ogre to being the jolly green giant of energy reducers through energy efficient retrofits and a renewal of interior space, which will see the development of future spaces, such as the new learning commons undertaken, in an energy efficient, environmentally sensitive fashion.  

The proof of the Scott Library’s winning ways comes in the figures. From January 2008 to January 2009, the Scott Library consumed a litte over 4.66 million kilowatt hours of electricity, and from January 2009 to January 2010, it consumed about 4.13 million kilowatt hours – for a net consumption decrease of more than 530,000 kilowatt hours, or 11 per cent. Over the course of the December holiday shutdown, the library further decreased its energy consumption by 17 per cent. (The figures are available on the new online energy map available on the CSBO Web site.)

How did this behemoth of concrete and ’70s construction achieve such stellar results?

The answer comes by way of work performed by the library’s facilities management group to introduce green retrofits and plan future space renewal, such as the new learning commons, with a green mindset. Headed by library facilities manager John Thomson, staff have been hard at work implementing a lighting retrofit and renewal of space in the building.

Working with CSBO and the University’s energy consultant, MCW Custom Energy Solutions, the facilities staff have, over the past two years, taken dramatic steps to cut the facility’s energy hogging ways by reducing the lighting fixtures by some 50 per cent. So why aren’t students, staff and faculty complaining of mass eye strain? The secret, says Thomson, is in the quality of light used and the thoughtful planning of the library’s space renewal.

“The quality of the light is superior to what we had in the past. The lighting is more focused on the important areas, including work surfaces,” says Thomson. “As well, the old lighting system had plastic diffusers that right off the top consumed more than 20 per cent of the available light. The diffusers also collected dust that further reduced the available light. 

“We replaced the higher wattage lighting with more efficient lighting and put the lighting where it needs to be,” says Thomson. “The energy savings with the new lighting is somewhere in the neighbourhood of 1,000 tonnes of carbon. As well, the lighting used to be in a grid pattern, now it runs perpendicular to the stacks so that the books are evenly lit.

"Time sensors have also been installed in renovated areas of the library. The recently completed renovation of the first floor introduced sensors, which turn the lights on as long as someone is moving around. Half an hour after everyone goes home, the lights go out and stay out until the custodial staff come in at 11pm," says Thomson.

Thomson and his crew have also installed better ceiling tiles, which in turn reflect the light. All of the innovations improve the student, staff and faculty experience.

"In our study areas, we have provided energy efficient task lighting. In 2002, we replaced furniture in the central square study area, main reading room and in areas on the third floor with tables supplied with this high-efficiency task lighting," says Thomson. "The overhead lighting has been made more energy efficient, with 18-watt tubes replacing the 40-watt tubes.

"We expect to receive full payback in the terms of energy savings in just over three years," he says. "We are also building these considerations into future designs, including the retrofit for the new learning commons."

Starting this summer, the second floor of the Scott Library will undergo a major facelift as walls are torn down, new areas are opened up and the space is reconfigured into a learning commons. The renovation involves a renewal of some 23,000 square feet of space into a new high-tech, student centred place. (See YFile, March 1.)

"Once completed, the new learning commons will be the benchmark for new student study space and it will be beyond anything that is currently in place at other Canadian universities," says Thomson.

The space will feature a green retrofit that is based on the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System, the gold standard for energy efficient buildings. "The learning commons renovations are LEED quality," says Thomson. "Unfortunately, given the building’s age, we can’t achieve LEED certification; however we can implement LEED best practices."

Above: The learning commons Hub will feature private booths and for consultation with research, writing and learning skills support services.  All finishes on walls and furniture will have low or no levels of volatile organic compounds. Carpet tiles made from reclaimed material will be used on the floor and lighting will feature a combination of energy efficient task and overhead lighting. Image courtesy of Levitt Goodman Architects.

As part of the creation of the learning commons, the renovation will reuse the area’s existing lighting grid but with attention paid to retrofitting it with the same kind of high-efficiency lighting used in other areas of the library.

"By reusing the existing grid, we are limiting the financial and environmental costs of the demolition," says Thomson. "We are also using carpet tile, which uses reclaimed materials and almost no water in its manufacturing process. What demolition we do undertake will be done with a contractual commitment that specifies that the waste be dealt with in an environmentally responsible way."

Paints and finishes in the learning commons will have low or no levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). In the past, paints and finishes released low-level toxic emissions into the air for years after application. The source of these toxins is a variety of volatile organic compounds which, until recently, were essential to the performance of the paint. The use of low- or no-VOC paints in the learning commons will ensure better air quality, says Thomson.

Other renovations to improve the building’s efficiency include reusing the air distribution system so that it works on demand rather than just constantly blowing cold or warm air, which will make the building more comfortable, says Thomson.

"Once completed, it will be a modern environment with a traditional feel to it. Each of the renovations and retrofits has been done, or is being planned so that we won’t have to redo everything else. We are changing the library’s environment in more ways than one and the whole concept of the library as place has really become entrenched in everything we do."

By Jenny Pitt-Clark, YFile editor