Skip to content

What’s Happening with FCNL’s Green Building?

July 26, 2010

After five years, we’re at the point where we have to make some adjustments in our Green Building.

The FCNL Education Fund created our green building with the expert advice and assistance of the Architect Burt Hill, the construction company K-3, and the HVAC company Harvey Hottel.

We knew at the start that creating a green, environmentally sustainable building on Capitol Hill would call for a community effort and would be an ongoing process, and we’ve had that knowledge reaffirmed in the last month.

In June, we realized that all the stakeholders in our green building were going to have to come together to address a problem with our geothermal loop.  It is too warm.

That geothermal loop is a part of a green system for heating and cooling FCNL’s office building.  Our green HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning) system has served us well, since we moved into the building in August 2005.

Why do I want you to know about our problem with FCNL’s geothermal loop?  We want to use our experience with a green building as an educational and as a learning tool.  When things are going well, we can tell you about it, and we educate for green building practices.  When we have a problem, we tell you about it so that we can all learn how to do green buildings better.

Historically, we’re at the front end of what will be a century-long process of moving from our current “hydrocarbon civilization” to a future “sustainable civilization,” one based on green or environmentally sound practices.  At the front end of this transformation from a civilization based on fossil fuels to a new civilization based on sustainable energy, we have little experience and a lot to learn. By the end of this century, everyone will be an expert on it.  We want FCNL to help create those future experts.  Learning how to solve new problems is our way into the future.

Daring to learn requires that we take some risks, and, at FCNL, we took the risk of trying to get off fossil fuels.  Our geothermal heating and cooling system provided an alternative to fossil fuels.  Because we’re on Capitol Hill, we had to adapt our geothermal system to a small “footprint.”  Our geothermal HVAC system has virtually gotten us off fossil fuel.  It has been dependable until now.

Five years into our green experience, we noticed that our server room was getting too warm for our IT equipment.  I’m not an engineer, and I’m not going to get into graphs, charts, and measurements.  I’m going to keep this story simple.

When we looked into that “little” problem, we saw a bigger problem:  the temperature of the fluid in our closed geothermal loop was too high.

During the summer, when our building needs cooling, the temperature of the fluid in our geothermal loop should be lower when it comes into our build, and it should be higher when it goes out of the build.  If the incoming fluid’s temperature is too close to the outgoing fluid’s temperature, then something isn’t working right.  That’s what we discovered in our system.

We have ten geothermal “wells” in our parking lot.  Each well is about 300 or more feet deep.  The closed pipe– geothermal loop — takes heated fluid down the well and deep into the ground, dumps that heat, and returns up into the building at a lower temperature and then repeats the process.  Thus, our building is cooled. No oil, no coal, no gas.  We pay “wind credits” for wind generated electricity to run the pumps.

This summer, in June, we noticed the overheating problem.  We’re working with our architect, our HVAC subcontractor, and our general contractor to diagnose the problem and to find the right solution.  When we began our green building project, our architect said, “Remember, there is no elegant solution to a poorly defined problem.”  We’re looking for a solution which is elegant.  What’s elegant?  That would be a solution that preserves the integrity of our green building and that restores our geothermal heating and cooling system for the long term.

In the short term, so that we can continue to work in our building, we’ve moved staff to the first and second floors, stopped cooling the third floor, stopped using our conference room in the basement, and augmented our HVAC system with temporary portable AC units that run on electricity.

In the long term, the solution will be for us to shed more heat from the geothermal loop than we now shed during the winter months (the heating months).  We don’t yet know how we will do that.  One thing we’ve learned already is that running a green building’s HVAC system is more “organic” than running a standard fossil fuel system.  We need to think of our activities in the building and of our building as being a part of a larger ecosystem with which we interact.  We want to monitor that interaction daily and make the appropriate adjustments.

We have identified options to restore our system and maintain its green qualities.  We may use a mix of those options.  For example, we may shed some heat to our neighbors, and they could use it to help heat their water, or we may add a “cooling tower” (not really a tower) to the loop to shed heat through evaporation of water in warm months and through transfer of heat into the cold air in winter months.

We hope that our experience will encourage others to get into the green building movement, to learn how to do it better, and to join us in developing every day practices for an earth restored.  We’re taking important steps toward the sustainable civilization that will free us from a heated planet.

One Comment
  1. George Brown permalink
    January 9, 2013 12:19 am

    how far apart are the wells in the parking lot from each other?

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: