Central Energy Facility at Stanford University
PHOTOGRAPHY: TIM GRIFFITH The Central Energy Facility serves as the heart of Stanford University’s transformational campus-wide energy system.

Picture a typical energy plant for a large institution such as a hospital or college campus. Chances are your mental image is of a drab utilitarian facility on the periphery—out of sight, out of mind. Although it makes sense to place an institution’s most important functions such as the emergency room, library, or student union at its center, there are consequences for hiding away something as important as energy—for ignoring where it comes from and how it’s used.

The new Central Energy Facility at Stanford University has turned that convention on its head—and in the process earned a 2017 AIA Committee on the Environment (COTE) Top Ten Award and a 2017 AIA Institute Honor Award for Architecture. The main idea behind the design is that an energy plant can (and should) be educational, beautiful, and connected to the heart of the campus. Although it’s hard to predict which projects will stand the test of time, it is precisely this kind of forward-thinking project—one that could influence how energy use is understood—that might someday earn it an AIA Twenty-Five Year Award.

In addition to the Stanford facility, two other recent COTE Top Ten winners—Bushwick Inlet Park in Brooklyn, N.Y., and the U.S. Land Port of Entry in northern Minnesota—have pushed the boundaries of their programs in ways that, one day, could also be deemed worthy of the Twenty-Five Year Award. Although very different, they are unified by one common principle: to reveal what was once concealed.

Positive Energy

Two contrasting design schemes are at work at Stanford’s Central Energy Facility. The first is the light-filled administrative and teaching pavilion, which features glass curtainwalls and a trellis of photovoltaic panels, an elegant design for such a utilitarian purpose. This is wrapped around the innovative and highly efficient heat-recovery system, whose colorful water tanks and pipes replaced an outdated (and fossil fuel–based) natural gas system.

The three massive water tanks use a chilled-water loop to collect waste heat from campus buildings and move it to a new hot-water loop that distributes heat back to the buildings. The designers, ZGF Architects in collaboration with Affiliated Engineers, sought to make the process as understandable as possible for students and visitors: The cold-water loop pipes are light blue; as heat is recovered from these pipes, they turn dark blue. Hot-water pipes, by contrast, are bright orange and red.

“Energy plants are traditionally hidden away, stinky, and often dangerous,” says Joe Collins, FAIA, a partner at ZGF. “We realized we could do more with this project than we were being asked to do. We were thinking about the mission the university has to educate. We took the position that we were going to treat this the same way we would a biomedical teaching facility in the middle of campus.”

Between numerous energy-efficiency measures and the rooftop solar array, the building has net-positive energy use, and the whole facility has allowed the university to cut its fossil fuel use by 65 percent, water use by 15 percent, and greenhouse gas emissions by 68 percent. The facility is sited so that it will be the terminus of a future planned extension of an axial campus road, so the campus will grow toward it. Already, according to Collins, tours of the facility are in high demand.

“This project has eye-popping metrics,” Collins says. “It’s because there was a really good idea put in place [with the heat recovery system], and they could take it to scale. This is an idea that could be done all over the world.”

On the Waterfront

Just as the Stanford project is designed to make energy visible and accessible, Bushwick Inlet Park makes an urban riverfront accessible.

Bushwick Inlet Park
PHOTOGRAPHY: © PAUL CROSBY Bushwick Inlet Park on the Brooklyn waterfront, also a 2014 COTE Top Ten winner, transformed the site from a brownfield industrial strip into a public park.

Designed by Kiss + Cathcart, Architects and Starr Whitehouse Landscape Architects and Planners, this project transformed an industrial brownfield waterfront site in Brooklyn into a 6.2-acre green space that includes a soccer field and passive parkland down to the East River. The most striking feature is a green roof that extends from the field up and over a New York City parking facility, expanding the park and creating a hill with zigzagging paths and sweeping views across to Manhattan.

“This was a neighborhood with a longstanding community that couldn’t easily access the waterfront, and was very short of park space,” says Kiss + Cathcart project architect Clare Miflin, AIA. “So for them to have public access was a big deal. We wanted a larger understanding of the term ‘environmental.’ We felt that designing an environmentally conscious project meant providing a social component that lets people be outside. Sustainability has to incorporate a lot more social justice.”

Stormwater treatment was a major consideration for the design team and, again, making the process visible was important. “We decided that all water on the site should be not connected to the sewer, but instead it is filtered through tidal pools before going into the river,” Miflin says. “So when the river’s high, it provides a different habitat.”

The original site, a parking lot with no access to the waterfront, consisted of a hard barrier between the land and the water; it has now been replaced by a small sandy beach and rip-rap. Originally, there was a pier extending from the site, which had collapsed, and the debris had formed an island. The design aim was to cut away the silt and debris between the island and the park so it couldn’t be accessed. However, it silted up again, so now people can walk to and from the island at low tide— allowing city kids to learn about tidal currents and natural water processes in an organic way.

“People can now just play and explore and have a better relationship with the water,” Miflin says. “They’re now thinking about the East River as an estuary. It’s so needed for city kids.”

Crossing Over

As with the other two projects, access is also at the heart of the mission at the U.S. Land Port of Entry, located only three-quarters of a mile from the Canadian border in northern Minnesota. In this case, however, the need for access is tempered by the equally important need for security. Further complicating matters is the fact that, unlike other projects where landscape features might dictate where something is built, a port of entry needs to be located near the border no matter what. Here that meant building on a sensitive wetland. Finally, as a gateway to the United States, this kind of building needs to reflect our highest ideals, to put our best face forward.

 U.S. Land Port of Entry
PHOTOGRAPHY: © PAUL WARCHOL The U.S. Land Port of Entry in northern Minnesota won a COTE Top Ten Award in 2014.

To solve this challenging program, Snow Kreilich Architects took its cues from the land itself. For starters, the long horizontal building mimics the horizon in this pancake-flat locale. The lumber and wood industries of northern Minnesota are reflected in the black-stained cedar that clads the exterior as well as the honey-colored heartwood used in interior and pass-through areas. The contrast is intentional. The dark wood projects strength and authority while the lighter wood is warm and soothing. Nearly all of the wood in the project came from sustainably harvested sources.

“Coming through the port of entry is not the most calming experience, even if you have nothing to hide,” says firm principal Matthew Kreilich, AIA. “There’s an intensity to it. We hope the building balances that out to a certain degree.”

The building basically floats on the wetlands, supported by friction piles and sitting on geo-engineered fill and fabric. To mitigate the impacts, additional wetlands were reconstructed using native plantings to help filter surface runoff. Siting was also critical in this flat landscape, to maximize solar heat gain during the notoriously brutal winters and to protect against high winds. The designers tucked the building against an existing tree grove and also added additional tree rows for protection and visual interest.

“Land ports of entry have been described as a mix of a ‘Welcome to America’ sign, a toll booth, and a jail,” Kreilich says. “It needs to have all the security and technology you would expect, and still have that sense of openness that represents our democratic values.”

Someday, preserving energy and resources might be considered a democratic value as well, to protect citizens in a world besieged by climate change. If so, these three projects will be among those that will have pointed the way forward.