Syracuse Builds $41 Million Green Incubator: James S. Russell

Syracuse Center of Excellence
A detail of the Syracuse Center of Excellence shows the sloping roof over industrial-style spaces for experimentation in Syracuse, New York. Architect Toshiko Mori designed a planted roof (not visible under snow) that absorbs storm water runoff, a tactic that is rapidly becoming more common as a means to reduce burdens on aging sewage-treatment systems. Photographer: Iwan Baan/Toshiko Mori Architect via Bloomberg

Rising in the embrace of a freeway intersection, the Syracuse Center of Excellence is a glassy slab of laboratories poised on delicate X-braced columns. A roof covered in plants zigzags up from the entry to meet the labs at the third floor.

The $41-million Syracuse project in upstate New York is the most ambitious of just a few American incubators of advanced building technology.

Since Japan’s ongoing disaster may end the already feeble case for nuclear power as a clean-energy silver bullet, the lab offers timely options for conservation.

Architect Toshiko Mori stretched and pushed the conventional laboratory slab, advertising its construction-innovation mission with an angle here, a kink there.

Ed Bogucz, the center’s executive director, met me in a reception area level with the passing cars that felt eerily futuristic. He showed me the building’s many green features.

Panels hang from the ceiling, providing heat and cooling using water, like updated radiators. They are more efficient and need fewer fans than conventional all-air systems.

New Ideas

Research in the U.S. lags, while the rest of the world races to own the green technologies likely to power 21st century homes and offices. The radiant panels, for example, are old news in Europe.

Bogucz walked me to the south-facing window wall, where thin silvery blinds between panes of glass rotated, as if on cue, to reduce glare from the sun, which had obligingly moved from behind the clouds. The varied, fast-changing weather in Syracuse is ideal to optimize a variety of tactics.

We walked into a lab where testing equipment hangs from the ceiling: there were dozens of modules permitting fine adjustments to the air feeding a test office space above.

The lab varies quantities of fresh air and filtration, measuring the health benefits of cleaner ventilation. (The freeways handily provide plenty of pollutants to scrub.)

“Better indoor air quality has enormous productivity-enhancing potential,” Bogucz said. A tiny increase in productivity pays back much more than even massive energy savings because a company’s cost of labor is many times greater than the cost of energy, he said.

Smaller Boilers

Bogucz hopes to focus the center’s projects on “holistic” efforts that develop multiple benefits. Integrated tactics, such as having the center’s advanced windows use daylight for offices, lower costs by potentially reducing the size of boilers and ducts.

That’s how conservation is looking better every day.

Even if oil-patch political unrest settles down, the long-term price trend is upward, given the rapid growth of consumption in China and India.

Once the U.S. recovery builds some steam, those prices are likely to spurt up further because America’s five percent of the world’s population consumes almost one fourth of the world’s oil output. Inflating oil costs could stymie growth.

Energy use need not grow in lockstep with the economy. Mori designed the building to consume less than half the energy conventional American labs use simply by carefully uniting cost-effective technologies that already exist.

President Obama has proposed $36 billion in new loan guarantees in an attempt to bribe utilities to build nuclear plants, even though U.S. taxpayers would assume the liability for a Japan-style disaster.

In comparing conservation “negawatts” -- energy saved -- to other alternatives, America doesn’t account for benefits such as reduced pollution and lower disaster risks (as “Fukushima Daiichi” joins “Deepwater Horizon” in our horror lexicon).

We also don’t credit the jobs produced by building-technology innovation.

Spare Labs

The Syracuse Center, for instance, is the hub of an emerging Regional Innovation Cluster that, according to Bogucz, “engages industry, academic and government resources from upstate and downstate New York.”

The stakes are too high for America to continue to pretend conservation is not urgent. Bogucz has a couple of spare labs. It’s time to get them humming.

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. Island Press will publish his book, “The Agile City,” on how conservation in buildings and communities can quickly combat climate change. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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