Sustainable Renovation at Caltech
A conversation on how the trailblazing Linde Laboratory renovation influenced the future of green construction on campus
In 2010, Caltech transformed a 1930s–era astrophysics laboratory into a cutting-edge, sustainable facility for the Ronald and Maxine Linde Center for Global Environmental Science. The Linde Laboratory for Global Environmental Science earned a LEED Platinum rating and won a Los Angeles Conservancy Preservation Award.
Uncertain of success, the construction team piloted revolutionary approaches to green building, buoyed by institutional support and a gift from Foster and Coco Stanback. Fuel cells and solar panels supply power and heat water. Specialized laboratory equipment powers itself down when not in active use. A telescope shaft at the core of the building now beams natural sunlight to the basement. Submeters initially measured energy use down to the level of individual outlets and fixtures to help building occupants find opportunities to conserve.
As Caltech expands its efforts in sustainability research—and practice—we asked two people involved in the renovation to share what they learned from the project and how those lessons have changed construction on campus.
Nathan Dalleska serves as the lead laboratory administrator for the Linde Laboratory for Global Environmental Science. John Onderdonk, a longtime leader in campus sustainability, serves as the assistant vice president for facilities operations and services.
"We learned that we can put a lot of science into a historic space, which is a big win because it's the appropriate use of the historic core of campus."
Overall, how do you feel about the renovation?
Dalleska: It is a surprisingly good space for science, even though the sizes and layouts of the lab spaces were constrained.
Onderdonk: We set the bar super high. There were many constraints: protect the historic features, modernize to support science labs, and achieve bleeding-edge sustainability. We learned a lot!
What succeeded beyond your expectations?
Onderdonk: We learned that we can put a lot of science into a historic space, which is a big win because it's the appropriate use of the historic core of campus. We have a saying in facilities, "The most efficient building is the one we don't have to build," and in this case, it absolutely made sense to renovate and modernize versus scrap and build new. There would be a lot lost, not just in terms of dollars.
Also, in trying to make the building energy self-sufficient, we tried out a Bloom fuel cell, which generates electricity from natural gas, and it worked so well that now we have four megawatts of fuel cells across the campus.
Dalleska: Another big success was the medium-chilled-water loop. Most buildings are cooled with water that is close to freezing, and getting it that cold takes a lot of energy. Our medium-chilled-water system is closer to 60 degrees [Fahrenheit], and that enabled the design to separate fresh air flow from laboratory cooling, which cuts energy use.
Onderdonk: Heating, ventilation and air conditioning [HVAC] is usually the biggest energy use in campus buildings, so that's important.
Dalleska: Some labs need high airflow because of chemicals they use. But in places that don't, we use a technology called chilled ceilings to keep the air temperature exceptionally stable, which is important for instruments. There are metal panels on the ceiling that the cool water runs through. Warm air cools when it runs into the panels. The system wouldn't work with colder water because the panels would condense and drip.
Onderdonk: Since then, we've installed this technology elsewhere on campus.
What did you try in the Linde Laboratory that you will do differently in future projects?
Onderdonk: For me, the big takeaway was how we frame sustainability at Caltech. While the LEED ratings and traditional construction approaches are oriented toward individual buildings, we have to look at the campus as an integrated system. The utilities and buildings are all connected, from the upgraded cooling towers at the central plant [LINK to companion article] to the new labs and the renewed historic spaces. To make the biggest efficiency and sustainability gains, we need to look at the campus, its buildings and all its infrastructure holistically.
We also learned the drawbacks of extensive submetering down to the level of plugs and light fixtures.
Dalleska: As users, we wanted that data.
Onderdonk: Of course, but we got so much data that we couldn't process and analyze it, and we couldn't maintain the submetering infrastructure. We also realized that knowing electricity consumption at the plug level didn't give us much additional actional information to significantly reduce consumption. The big energy-savings wins are going to be things like the air handling systems. With the future Resnick Sustainability Center, we still want to submeter, but with a focus on the larger energy consumers in the building.
These and other lessons learned will continue to inform and influence the way we operate our campus, utilities and our buildings well into the future. Similar to what we did in Linde, we are continually exploring ways to become more sustainable and resilient while we stay laser focused on how we can best support the research and education mission at Caltech.