Continuing our coverage of the 2014 AIA COTE Top Ten green projects, this article is part of a series of 10 pieces that examine a specific, defining design challenge or innovation of each of this year's winners.

Think back to your days in college. Was the campus power plant belching steam and black smoke in a back corner? The State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY–ESF) in Syracuse, N.Y., took the opposite approach, integrating its plant front-and-center in a new campus hub. The three-story, 54,000-square-foot Gateway Center houses a conference facility, café, bookstore, admissions offices—and a combined heat-and-power (CHP) plant. Though occupying the basement of the Gateway Center, the 7,000-square-foot facility is celebrated rather than hidden. “This is the front door of the campus, the number one hangout for students and faculty,” says architect Ellen Watts, AIA, co-founder and co-manager of Boston’s Architerra, which led the project. “We wanted to engage people in thinking about how energy affects their lives and how energy use affects the environment.”

The Gateway Center, completed last fall, is part of SUNY–ESF’s ambitious plan to achieve carbon neutrality by 2015. Fueled by wood pellets and natural gas, it generates 20 percent of the entire campus’s electricity needs and 60 percent of the campus’s heating needs. By replacing an inefficient system that relied on steam purchased from nearby Syracuse University, the CHP plant cut 65,000 million fossil-fuel-generated Btu per year, energy costs by 65 percent, and carbon emissions by 25 percent.

Many factors shaped the plant’s size and configuration: the carbon neutrality goal; a narrow, urban building site; and the building’s need to serve many functions. Architerra worked with environmental design consultants Atelier Ten and engineers from van Zelm Heywood & Shadford, using DOE-2 eQUEST software to do parametric modeling for energy, carbon emissions, and cost. They considered scenarios ranging from heating only the Gateway Center to heating the entire campus, and found a sweet spot in a district plant linking the Gateway Center to three other buildings. The team settled on waste-wood pellets as a fuel to supplement natural gas.

Made from industrial or forestry scraps, pellets are clean, densely packed, and regionally abundant. Delivery trucks fill a two-story storage bunker tucked beside the building’s lobby. SUNY–ESF manages 25,000 acres of woodlands, and the school recently received a grant to buy a small pellet mill. It plans to make 5 to 10 percent of its biofuel from its own waste wood, and it’s also experimenting with fast-growing shrub willow. “We’ve been teaching students how to be good stewards of our forests and environment for 100 years,” says senior research associate and executive director of energy and sustainability in the Department of Forest and Natural Resources Management Mike Kelleher, who advised the design team. “Pellet fuel is a next step in how to do that.”

A Vermont company, Chiptec Wood Energy Systems, provided the pellet boiler system. It and a natural gas boiler generate steam which turns three Capstone Turbine Corp. microturbines supplied by GEM Energy. An enthalpy heat wheel recovers exhaust heat to warm incoming air during the heating season, and an electrostatic precipitator—a device containing a set of electrically charged metal plates—captures 90 percent of fine particulates created by the pellet combustion. Waste ash is collected and recycled as soil nutrients in a nearby forest property.

The CHP plant is also a teaching tool. System components are visible and monitored using built-in data-gathering devices. A digital display beside the plant (soon to be available online as well) shows real-time performance, and faculty and students can conduct R&D on particle emissions and pellet energy density. “We all look forward to a smart grid, but that may take 20 years,” Watts says. “We think this district energy strategy, which is common in Europe, makes sense now for all sorts of different uses—schools, corporate campuses, and neighborhoods.”

Click here to access our full coverage of the 2014 AIA COTE Top Ten Green Projects, including more information on each project, additional images, and exclusive Q&As with each winning firm.