The SourceCivil Engineering MagazineNet-positive energy building designed with circularity in mind
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Net-positive energy building designed with circularity in mind

By Catherine A. Cardno, Ph.D.

THE DELFT UNIVERSITY of Technology in the Netherlands, known as TU Delft, is constructing its newest teaching building, dubbed Echo, with circularity and sustainability in mind. Once complete, it will be a net-positive energy building, generating more energy than it consumes.

Dutch architecture firm UNStudio designed the project in collaboration with the multinational engineering and professional services firm Arup and the Dutch building cost consultancy firm BBN.

The new construction is part of an overall campus strategy that is focused on sustainability and improved use of space. “When completed, the building will be the most sustainable educational building in the Netherlands,” said Arjan Dingsté, a director and senior architect at UNStudio, who wrote in response to questions posed by Civil Engineering. “This ambition was jointly set with the client, originating from our responsibility to future generations and, of course, to inspire the students,” he said. 

Echo will have seven lecture halls, the smallest of which will have a capacity of 150 people and the biggest 700. (The largest lecture hall will be dividable into three smaller halls.) Four classrooms with a capacity of 70 will be available for project-based learning. In addition, there will be spaces for small group meetings, group work, debates, and individual study, according to the architects.

At full capacity, the building will have space for 1,700 students and will be used by multiple departments, so it requires flexible study areas and workspaces to accommodate different subjects and teaching styles. Underground bicycle parking will be provided in the basement.

CLIMATE CONCEPT (Image Courtesy of Plompmozes)

“The building has been designed as a covered square that welcomes and distributes its users in a setting of warm bamboo surfaces and large, open-void spaces that double as co-working areas for the students,” said Dingsté.  So-called “in-between spaces” have received careful attention in the design as a reflection of TU Delft’s sustainability vision, and UNStudio has focused on creating areas for reflection, inspiration, and communication. An expansive, open-study “landscape” defines a corner of the building, while opposite it on the diagonal are a restaurant and terrace.

The building’s structural steel frame is topped with a lightweight clerestory roof. The structure sits atop the concrete basement, which is mostly founded on vibrated displacement piles, according to Roel Schierbeek, an associate and structural engineer at Arup, who wrote in response to written queries from Civil Engineering. Drilled displacement piles were used when needed to avoid generating vibrations in a nearby building during construction, Schierbeek said.

The steel trusses and hollow-core slabsare connected to dry joints and were built using standard sizes so that the building could be deconstructed—rather than demolished—and its elements reused elsewhere.

A striking internal circular staircase, which is structurally independent of the building’s framing system, is formed from a combination of curved steel and concrete steps that were formed from steel stringers clad with bamboo and steel and concrete treads that extend upward in the central atrium. The staircase’s central spine and stringers are load bearing and part of the building’s structural framing. The staircase joins study and cooperative-learning spaces within the building and has been designed to promote physical movement through the building, which will contribute to the health of its users, according to the architects.

The principles of circularity, including flexibility for short-, medium-, and long-term uses, were key to the design, affecting everything from the column placements to the air circulation system. The building will have “large column spacing and expansive spans [that enable] … large lecture and teaching spaces and allow the users to flexibly ‘hack’ the project spaces to suit [their] needs,” Dingsté said. Ventilation ductwork and electrical lines are located within the floors to increase the flexibility of these spaces. “The building uses an air-floor plenum system that doubles as a raised access floor, [and] the floor grills can be relocated to whatever the space configuration requires by the building operator, without the need for specialized staff,” Dingsté said. The air system also supports occupants’ health. “The floor plenum creates the cleanest air possible and pushes all nonfresh air toward the ceilings where it is extracted from the spaces,” he noted.

ECHO ORGANIZATION (Image Courtesy of Plompmozes)

The building has also been designed to maximize natural light, so that the energy used for artificial light can be minimized. “The building has a fully transparent skin that has been carefully designed, alongside strategically placed cantilevered ‘wings,’” Dingsté explained. This provides “daylight-flooded spaces without the risk of overheating [the] interior.”  The wings are deep aluminum awnings that protect the building from excessive solar heat gain to help it attain its net-positive energy goals. The canopies will be connected vertically by cables on which climbing plants will be grown to form a shaded green facade for the building.

High-performance glass will support the building’s energy-positive ambitions. Photovoltaics are also being constructed on the entire roof, and insulation and underground heating and cooling thermal storage will be used to balance the building’s energy use against its energy collection, according to the university.

Construction is expected to be complete by December 2021.

This article first appeared in the September 2020 issue of Civil Engineering.

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