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Saving 40% on Energy Costs Each Year: University of North Dakota Gorecki Alumni Center 2020 Energy Evaluation

Design and engineering. To measure their quality, you need data. Luckily, at the Gorecki Alumni Center at the University of North Dakota, data is collected every day.

To achieve the rare LEED Platinum certification, this project had benchmarks and energy models implemented from the beginning. And as stringent as these national standards are, an energy audit in 2020 revealed that the facility is exceeding predicted energy efficiency each of the last five years.

Not only that, but the evaluation helped our team at Obernel work with facility management to improve efficiency even further — through a systems review and HVAC programming guidance.

The Gorecki Alumni Center achieved its goal thanks to the hard work, dedication, and contributions of campus leaders and alumni over 10 years. The project design underwent many changes on the road to completion and involved a major capital campaign. It became the responsibility and privilege of Obernel, JLG Architects and our project partners to make it happen.

In this article, we will review energy evaluation data and provide insights on how other project developers — whether higher education, commercial, multi-family residential or others — can take what we’ve learned and apply it in cost-effective ways to benefit owners, occupants and communities.

Energy Evaluation Data

The UND Gorecki Energy Comparison Analysis chart reveals the actual energy usage of the Gorecki Alumni Center compared to national averages for ASHRAE Climate Zone 7. On average, the building is achieving a 40% energy use reduction compared to national usage in climates like North Dakota.

We also compared building energy use each year to the LEED Platinum energy modeling that originally guided project design and construction. On average, energy usage is consistently about 8% lower than model predictions.

It is important to note that “energy creep” of 1-5% per year typically occurs over time following project completion. Building owners may lose sight of original settings for HVAC systems or protocols for system monitoring. According to our evaluation, however, energy usage in this building has remained remarkably steady.

Overall, quality of design and engineering not only met LEED Platinum certification standards at project completion, but resulting energy efficiency is also benefiting the client years later.

Featured Solutions to Satisfy Owner Goals

To bring this vision to life with a practical eye toward energy savings required close collaboration between the architects, engineers, and contractors, included a variety of energy-saving materials and systems. These ultimately satisfied key design intents of the university and alumni donors, which were to (1) create an aesthetically beautiful and welcoming introduction to the UND campus, (2) deliver a comfortable and productive work environment for staff, and (3) offer a model of sustainability for students and visitors.

Here are the primary solutions built into the facility to achieve these goals — and their results:

HVAC System With Geothermal

geothermal heat pump
  • An innovative, highly efficient HVAC system works in tandem with a ground-source heat pump system to regulate temperatures and reduce heating and cooling costs. The system in this building is already saving the university approximately $38,000 in annual energy costs, according to city utility data. To sustain efficiency and occupancy comfort, the facility has CO2 sensors to detect occupancy levels, automatic temperature control programming for times of day and seasons, and it uses Earth’s natural mass as a heat source and sink.
  • Piping for the geothermal system was constructed underneath the parking lot to allow for double use of open land. Permeable paving also lets water filter through the ground, avoiding storm water runoff and thereby reducing chemicals entering the city water system.

Daylighting Without Heat and Glare

  • To support energy efficiency, over 60% of the Gorecki Alumni Center’s exterior is high-performance glass, which brings natural daylight into even the basement spaces and greatly decreases the need for artificial light. As a result, not only do outer office spaces enjoy the sunlight, but the central core of the building is also bright and inviting. Occupants appreciate this advantage, particularly in winter months with limited daylight in North Dakota.
  • On the building’s west side, architecturally aesthetic sun shades provide beautiful exterior design, plus reduce heat and glare in the summer while allowing the winter sun to shine through.

Solar Power

UND Alumni Solar Panels (2) blue sky - Copy
  • On the building’s white roof — another conscious choice that lowers roof temperatures by 15 degrees — over 200 rooftop photovoltaic panels provide about 8% of total energy each year. The team had to make several calculations for design and installation of the panels to achieve maximum sun exposure throughout the year. Locating the panels on the roof also maintains the building’s compact site footprint.

Natural Resources Management

Professional Gorecki Interior
  • Through aerators and sensors on faucets, plus low-flow toilets and waterless urinals, water consumption is reduced by 38% compared to a standard building.
  • Landscaping with native plants that require less watering contributes to natural resource management.
  • Air quality exceeds national benchmarks, with a 90% average satisfaction rating in our post-occupancy user evaluation. Air quality and daylighting are showing measurable, positive impacts on increased staff productivity throughout the year.
  • Thanks to reduced energy consumption, the building is showing a 14% reduction in CO2 Additional features to reduce carbon output include electric vehicle charging stations and a basement locker room with showers for staff who walk, run, or bike to work.

A Lasting Model for Future Project Design

During project planning, one particular alumnus from Grand Forks, Glen Gransberg (’59), came forth with his dream to pursue the highest LEED certification — Platinum. It would make UND’s alumni center the first alumni center in the nation with this designation as well as the first building ever in North Dakota. Glen and his wife Janice had a lifelong interest in environmental awareness and stewardship, and they generously contributed another $1.5 million to pursue LEED Platinum.

Not every project has donors like the Gransbergs or Ben (’62) and Dorothy Gorecki (’63), for whom the alumni center is named. But there are many elements of the Gorecki Alumni Center that can be modeled for other projects. Here are some of those smart systems, materials, and processes that owners may find attractive for the project budget as well as long-term efficiencies.

Smart HVAC Systems

From simple things like carbon dioxide sensors and motion detectors to miles of geothermal piping, the Gorecki Alumni Center represents the best in technologies to maximize efficient energy usage over the life of the building. Although the upfront or capital costs of state-of-the-art technologies can deter some developers, others view the reduced reliance on fossil fuels over decades of use as a valuable investment. All things considered, a net present value analysis can help owners determine which technologies make sense for them and their budgets.

Air Pressure Testing

At certain points in the construction process, the contracting team conducted air pressure tests on the building to make sure it was properly insulated and sealed. They paid particular attention to transitions such as joist intersections or wall and roof intersections. The simple application of spray foam has helped the facility maintain high insulation values.

LED Lighting and Automatic Lighting Controls

LED lighting provides fast returns for the investment within large facilities. Adding motion sensors and automatic dimmers further reduces wattage use, and is now required on some building types. It is an easy addition as a budget-friendly consideration.

Construction Reuse and Recycling

One of the remarkable results of pursuing the LEED certification for this project was realizing a large reduction in construction waste costs (51%) compared to normal waste disposal for a project of this size. More than 72.6 tons of materials were diverted from landfills by reusing or recycling materials right on site. One interesting example is that trees removed from the site were used in the building’s millwork.

A Fresh Take on Air Intake Systems

Rather than constructing large metal louvers on the outside of the Gorecki Alumni Center, we came up with a more aesthetic design using Swiss Perl composite panels on the exterior. These attractive panels disguise the air intake louvers while allowing fresh air to pass through, and they were not cost-prohibitive to use or install.

Data Collection Continues

This energy evaluation of the Gorecki Alumni Center is not the end, but the beginning of a continuous, ongoing process. The University of North Dakota will experience the results of quality design and engineering for decades, fulfilling their promise to past and future alumni. For the engineering and architectural industries, these systems and practices can be pragmatically adopted for the benefit of many future projects.


David Vig, PE, CEM

Production Principal / Mechanical Engineer

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