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Building a Conservation Masterpiece
Honolulu Star Bulletin
by Ryan Alessi
Scripps Howard News Service
May 3, 2001

Months after approving plans for a new environmental science building, the University of California Santa Barbara had second thoughts.

The school's advisory board liked the design but thought the blueprints for the new school should be a bit greener. After all, said Dennis Aigner, acting dean of the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management, it would house a school that stresses efficiency and conservation.

"Not much of the original building design took that into account," he said. "now we've got a building much more in line with the program."

None of the technologies going into the Bren School is revolutionary, the interest stems from how they are being put together.

"It's just better design," Aigner said. "And now with the price of electricity and natural gas climbing, it makes even more sense to look at efficiency and conservation.

For instance the building is positioned to catch nature's air conditioning off the ocean. The offices and lecture halls over looking the Pacific Coast will have wide windows to sweep in the cool breeze. Only the laboratories in the rear will need to be cooled electrically.

The Bren School is buying sensors to adjust the indoor lighting according to how many people are in the room and how much sun shines through. And, to prevent students from dozing off, classrooms will come equipped with air sensors to circulate new air in and carbon dioxide out.

The amazing thing, said Mo Lovegreen, the school's assistant dean, is that many of the energy saving features were mere tweaks to the original plans. The price tag of the new Bren School is expected to be between $23 million and $24 million - only a smidgen more than the $22 million the state footed for the original project.

Aigner is raising money to cover the difference, which mostly comes from the light and air sensors, as well as solar panels and a fuel cell. Lovegreen is shopping for a cell, which can cost anywhere from $700,000 to $3.5 million. But the hope is that a clean generating fuel cell could churn out nearly half the school's electricity.

If we spend an extra $1 million in construction, we're basically guaranteeing that we'll make that back in three to five years of energy conservation," Aigner said.

These features also have snared a lot of attention.

Perrin Pellegrin graduated from the school in June but was so intrigued by the new building that she returned in the fall as the school's full-time special-projects coordinator. It's her job to keep track of all the building's environmental attributes, such as recycled materials.

The steel support beams of the building shelf used to be old Fords and Chevys. Countertops, carpets and upholstery will come from recycled material. And even the foundation's concrete is mixed with fly ash from coal power plants, which makes the structure stronger and cheaper, Pellegrin points out.

To reduce waste, the furniture will arrive in blankets, not boxes. And crews recycle whatever cardboard, plastic and metals that are left over at the end of the day.

"It's all about the little things," she said.

Those little things will make the Bren School one of the most environmentally conscious buildings in the nation, according to the U.S. Green Building Council in Washington. More than a dozen structures, scattered from the Sun Belt to the Rust Belt, meet the council's minimum environmental criteria.

"Certainly there is a long way to go," says Peter Templeton, the council's program coordinator. "it has become pervasive in certain markets and certain regions. But I wouldn't call it mainstream yet."

That's why the Bren School signifies a start of something big. Pellegrin has seen how curious people are.

She has given dozens of tours through sites and answered hundreds of questions from local builders.