Jason Robinson

“It did a pretty good job of bringing multiple kinds of systems together for integration.” —juror Phillip Bernstein, FAIA

When Oakland University first approached SmithGroupJJR about designing a new center for the engineering school on its Rochester Hills, Mich., campus, both sides agreed that the building should be more than just a shell with a collection of classrooms. Since the school has a focus on power systems, the obvious place to innovate was the building’s electrical, heating, and cooling infrastructure. “We thought the building should be expressive of its systems, so as to be a teaching tool,” says Paul Urbanek, FAIA, the firm’s vice president of design. SmithGroupJJR has experience working with cogeneration systems, which transform energy wasted in electrical generation into heat—so why not go a step further with trigeneration?


With trigeneration, the excess heat from a cogeneration plant is recycled, in part to generate chilled water for air conditioning. Usually found in extremely large systems such as city power grids, SmithGroupJJR’s design is one of the first to be used for a single building.

Jason Robinson

At Oakland, the system begins with natural-gas-fed turbines that generate electricity for day-to-day operations. The high-temperature exhaust passes through a heat-recovery boiler, which churns out water heated to 350 F for heating the engineering center. Any excess energy goes back into the campus grid. The now cooler exhaust goes through a second boiler, which puts out water at 130 F, also for heating, and at 110 F for tap water. Some of that heated water powers chillers that deliver 65 F water to chilled beams in the ceilings of the engineering center’s classrooms.

Jason Robinson

The result is a sophisticated technology that turns one step’s waste into the next step’s fuel—significantly reducing the school’s utility bills in the process. “We tried to wring every drop of energy out of the system we could,” Urbanek says.

Jason Robinson
Jason Robinson
Jason Robinson

Project Credits
Project: Trigeneration System at Oakland University Engineering Center
Client: Oakland University
Design Firm: SmithGroupJJR, Detroit . Paul Urbanek, FAIA (principal designer); George Karidis (mechanical engineer); Chris Purdy, AIA (principal-in-charge); John Sobetski (senior project manager); Andy Arnesen, Laura Walker, AIA, Mike Nowicki, Sarah Wickenheiser, Kevin Gurgel, Luke Renwick, Dino Lekas, Mark Lodewyk, Chris Vanneste, Lori James (design team)
Structural and Electrical Engineer/Lighting Designer: SmithGroupJJR
General Contractor: Walbridge
Fire Protection Consultant: Jensen Hughes
Cost Estimating Consultant: Kirk Value Planners
Acoustics Consultant: Talaske