U.Va. Engineering Students Investigate Energy Use in Buildings on Grounds

March 3, 2011 — Three University of Virginia buildings are becoming case studies in sustainability engineering for students.

Undergraduates in the commercial building energy systems practicum are examining energy consumption in Gilmer, Thornton and Campbell halls on Grounds. They are also looking at Henley Middle School in Albemarle County and a building at Piedmont Virginia Community College.

By the end of the semester, they will recommend ways to reduce the buildings' energy footprints.

"My goal for the course is to teach students the basics of commercial building energy systems, and help them develop practical skills in analyzing energy use and identifying ways to conserve," said Paxton Marshall, a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. "Doing energy audits of University buildings and identifying cost-effective energy upgrades is something I have done in my 'Introduction to Engineering' class several times over the past 15 years."

Marshall is working with a team of experts from U.Va. and the community to instruct the students. They include Armando de Leon, sustainability programs manager for Facilities Management; Paul Crumpler, an energy engineer with Facilities Management; Charles Carter, director of the Virginia Center for Weatherization Training in the Virginia Community College System; and Lindsay Check Snoddy, the environmental compliance manager for Albemarle County Public Schools, who is also a Ph.D. student in civil and environmental engineering.

"These folks all have extensive professional experience with building energy systems," Marshal said. "They are full participants in class planning, lectures and supervision of student teams."

All 17 of the students visited each building, then split into teams, with each team analyzing one building.

The teams received at least one year's worth of energy data on the buildings. Students are graded on interim design reports throughout the semester. They have to define a problem, then develop conceptual and preliminary designs. Finally, each team has to create a detailed design with a professional report and present its recommendations.

"We take an engineering design approach to the project," Marshall said.

While the class is following the Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star Program standards for energy efficiency in buildings, the teams are tasked with going beyond that.

"We're looking at all the systems within a building," de Leon said. "However, the bulk of the savings will come from energy conservation."

De Leon said the students would also be taught about Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards.

"Energy is a small part of LEED standards," de Leon said. "But we want to give them the complete spectrum. We want then to know what a building is using so they can come up with modifications. We want them to estimate the cost, and the impact, the return on investment and what the payback period will be."

Rachel Knee, a second-year engineering major, said she enjoys this comprehensive approach.

"Simply learning only the technical ways in which buildings consume energy will not allow you to improve the buildings' systems alone," she said. "It requires a careful understanding of the uses of the building and the occupants within the building.  Behavioral factors play a large role in commercial buildings. I find it very intriguing to focus on the interaction between humans and technology."

The class is a coordination of several departments and divisions. The Office of the Vice President for Research is providing support for Snoddy as part of an effort to establish new research networks connecting faculty, staff and students, using the University as a laboratory for sustainability research and learning.

"These networks can unlock creativity, lead to innovative collaborations and support the development of new social norms about environmental stewardship," Jeffery Plank, associate vice president for research, said. "This course is linked to the 'behavior change apps' research group that is a spin-off of the U.Va. Bay Game and can become a model for practicum courses in a larger sustainability minor. "

Knee learned a lot about Charlottesville through the course and she has learned to look at the University from another angle.

"I've gained knowledge about the historic districts of Charlottesville, the relative cost breakdown of living in this area, and the crucial steps to keep classrooms functional that an average student would never consider," she said. "It's fun to take a step back and look at the buildings and the campus as a microcosm that we must observe and analyze in order to come up with small, yet effective, changes to particular buildings."

The U.Va. buildings were chosen because they are slated for major upgrades by "Delta Force," a team of experts in Facilities Management that seeks to reduce energy and operations costs of University buildings. De Leon said the students' work will help with the Delta Force review and will gather information for the professionals in their assessment.

Henley Middle School was chosen because it recently received a $211,000 grant from Virginia Local Government and School Renewable Energy Utilization Program, administered by the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, for renewable solar and wind systems.

"PVCC was chosen because of our desire to cooperate with PVCC on training programs for green energy jobs in the building sector," Marshall said. "We don't have any PVCC students in the class this semester, but hope to do so in the future."

Ryan Hughes, a first-year student who plans to study electrical engineering, and Amit Talapatra, a fourth-year chemical engineering major, said they appreciate the course because they can see the practical impact of their work.

"As a practicum, students of this class have a great opportunity to use the facilities here on Grounds as a classroom – to see in person what is being taught," Hughes said. "It is one thing to learn about a concept in the classroom, but seeing the concepts or problems in person provides a greater level of education."

"Taking this class also makes me feel like I can contribute the skills I'm developing as an engineer even before my degree is complete," said Talapatra, who had previously worked on a retro-commissioning project for Gilmer Hall. "Last semester, I made several suggestions for upgrading lighting technologies in Gilmer Hall, and this semester, they've been implemented. Finding out that the University is already benefiting from my efforts is very rewarding."

— By Matt Kelly

Media Contact

Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications