Net Zero U: Cornell’s Climate-Conscious Urban Campus Arises


When Cornell University competed in 2011 to develop an applied science and engineering campus in New York City, part of its pitch was that it would construct an academic building that would at least approach making as much energy as it used in a year, a concept known as net zero. It won. Then came the hard work of making that vision happen at the campus, known as Cornell Tech.

The first step: Architects from Morphosis designed the building, on Roosevelt Island in the East River, to use as little energy as possible. The second was making enough electricity to cover that reduced load without natural gas, part of its effort to stem climate change.

So the four-story building, the Bloomberg Center, is squat, with a roof larger than the body, to maximize space for solar panels. When it is complete in September, 1,464 solar panels will span the roof.

The Bloomberg Center, the first academic building to open on the Cornell Tech campus, will be topped with 1,464 solar panels.Credit

Designers created an image of the Manhattan skyline on the west side, visible from the tram connecting the island with Manhattan, and an image of a gorge in Ithaca, N.Y., where Cornell is based, on the east side.

In the basement of the center, a geothermal heating and cooling system will connect to 80 wells drilled 400 feet beneath the dirt field, reducing the need for electricity. The field will eventually become a grassy public open space. A 40,000-gallon underground tank will collect rainwater for use in plumbing, cooling and irrigation systems. Wrapped around the thick-walled sides of the center, a perforated aluminum skin will act as both shade and insulation.

The facade of the Bloomberg Center, perforated with small holes containing discs, lends both shade and insulation.Credit

Small discs, positioned by a robot fashioned from an old welding machine, sit at different angles and degrees of rotation to form an overall image like pixels in black and white. The building appears to change color — depending on the weather, time of day or angle of view — from green to brown to gold.

The discs sit at different angles and change the appearance of the building depending on the weather, time of day and viewing angle.Credit

Planners extended the solar panel design to the roof of a neighboring structure, the Bridge building. Towers, like an apartment building and a planned hotel, were restricted to the north end of campus so they would not shade the roofs.

The residential building, which uses passive-house technology, as seen from the roof of the Bloomberg Center.Credit

Built for graduate students, professors and staff members, a passive-house apartment building — which means it can maintain a comfortable living environment largely without active heating or cooling systems — currently looms above a support structure, edged in a ribbon of perforated aluminum, that awaits solar panels on the roof of the Bloomberg Center.

The residential building and the Queensboro Bridge are reflected on the Bridge building, which will be a business incubator for companies, Cornell Tech graduates and research teams.Credit

At any given moment, you can see the passive house and the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge reflected in the glass cladding of the Bridge building, which will serve as a business incubator for companies and Cornell Tech graduates and research teams. The glass itself helps save energy, as will a planted area on the roof nestled amid 761 solar panels arranged in two arrays.

Inside the center, in what is informally known as the Submarine Room, lie the guts of the geothermal system.

The so-called Submarine Room houses the geothermal system controls in the basement of the Bloomberg Center.Credit

Pipes carry 57-degree water from the 80 wells into the building. It is then pumped through heat exchangers and combined heater-chiller units that can adjust the indoor temperature depending on the building’s needs. At the end of the cycle, the water flows back out to the wells.

Aiming for zero at the new campus took unusual cooperation among the separate architects and developers involved. It was an opportunity to think about sustainability, said Andrew C. Winters, senior director of capital projects for Cornell, “not to just think about it at the level of the building, but to think about it on the level of the entire campus.”

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