UW science building uses new goo to help stay cool

Filed Under: News

By Jon Silver
September 6, 2012

The 90,000-square-foot space includes research labs, faculty offices and common areas.
Filling your walls with goo may seem like a strange way to cut energy costs, but that’s exactly what the University of Washington did with its new Molecular Engineering and Sciences Building.

The $77 million, five-story building opened over the summer on a site near Drumheller Fountain. It houses the Molecular Engineering and Sciences Institute, which is a center for research on biotechnology and clean technology. The 90,000-square-foot space includes research labs, faculty offices and common areas.

The goo in the walls is actually a "phase change material," or PCM, made from vegetable oil. The goo melts when the building gets warm during the day and refreezes overnight as the space cools. As the goo refreezes, it releases heat back into the building.

The goo is one of a number of green strategies in the building designed to reduce energy use.

The PCM takes the form of a gel that is installed in 5- to 10-milliliter pockets arrayed into thin panels. The panels are then inserted into walls behind the gypsum board and draped over ceiling panels. The pocket design enhances the effectiveness of the gel and reduces damage to the building if pockets get punctured.

Ed Clark, a sustainable designer for ZGF Architects, compared the gel system to ice in a picnic cooler, which passively chills the soda cans stored inside. The ice melts as it absorbs the heat from the cooling soda cans.

The gel is in thin panels that are are inserted into walls and ceilings.
The system "shaves the peaks a bit" by keeping indoor temperatures more stable throughout the day, he said.

The gel panels were installed only in the office spaces, common areas and support spaces because higher ventilation rates inside labs would make the gel less effective there.

Clark said the system is best used in offices, classrooms or housing, where air has more time to exchange heat with the gel.

The gel system can be seen as a substitute for structural mass, Clark said.

Concrete and adobe structures perform the same service as the gel, absorbing heat during the day and releasing it at night. But bulky buildings are out of style, he said, so designers need to find other energy-saving strategies.

The gel system is manufactured by a North Carolina company called Phase Change Energy Solutions, and has been used elsewhere in the U.S. ZGF is incorporating a phase-change component into the redevelopment of Federal Center South in South Seattle for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The Molecular Engineering and Sciences Building has been designed to receive a LEED gold rating. It also has a green roof, natural ventilation, high-performance glazing, a heat-recovery chiller system, reduced air-exchange rates and variable-air-volume fume hoods.

Clark said building occupants can be reluctant to open windows and let in outside air on warm days, so the gel system moderates the heat and "removes the uncertainty" for building owners who rely on tenant behavior to help keep a lid on energy use.

The system works best in parts of the country where temperatures "” and cooling costs "” spike during the day, Clark said.

Still, if it is used in concert with other energy-saving strategies, it helps form "a whole that is more than the sum of the parts," he said.

Hoffman Construction Co. was the general contractor for the building. Other project team members include Affiliated Engineers, KPFF Consulting Engineers, Walker Macy, Site Workshop, Research Facilities Design and SOLARC Architecture and Engineering.

This article was originally published in the Daily Journal of Commerce.