Research Partnership Empowers a Firm’s Transformation and an Industry Shift

Research Partnership Empowers a Firm’s Transformation and an Industry Shift

Over the last 15 years, SRG Partnership and the University of Oregon’s Energy Studies in Buildings Laboratory (ESBL) have collaborated on a series of commercial and institutional buildings each more energy, cost, and design effective than the last.

SRG and ESBL’s shared access to a wide range of perspectives has greatly expanded opportunities for innovation; viewing empirical questions through the lens of applied research – and vice versa – has been the key to truly groundbreaking discoveries. By combining architecture and science, they have produced a methodology for high-performance success that is inspiring a cultural shift throughout the design and construction industry.

To fully appreciate SRG and ESBL’s pairing, it’s important to link their transformation to efforts of the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance (NEEA) and its BetterBricks program. Working on behalf of more than 13 million energy consumers creates leverage for change beyond energy supply alone, influencing architecture, urban planning, economic markets and more.

The 140,000-square foot Lillis Business Complex at the University of Oregon is a testament to the benefit of their collaboration. Completed in 2003, Lillis set precedents for large-scale daylighting and cooling through passive ventilation, thermal mass, ceiling fans and a night flush cycle. It was the first LEED certified public building in Oregon, and the first LEED Silver business school in the nation.

Starting with Lillis, SRG and ESBL support NEEA’s mission by bringing public institutions into the equation. Their projects make sustainable design broadly available, featuring integrated passive strategies that achieve high performance at the same cost as conventional buildings. The testing of innovative concepts, made possible by the lab, gives wary public clients the confidence to make decisions not only serving their institutions’ immediate needs, but also their long-term financial goals. This is an especially intriguing prospect when considering the potential for higher education projects to impact upcoming generations with a sense of environmental responsibility.

Over the years, SRG and ESBL have collaborated on more than 50 projects and are building a database of completed projects with trend log data. This program allows comparison to energy model simulations, highlighting systems or design features that may require adjustment for better performance. It also yields valuable data on innovations where established engineering criteria do not yet exist. The following SRG projects, completed from 2003 through 2014, illustrate the evolution in building performance taking place.

Lillis Business Complex, University of Oregon, Eugene, OR 182,600 SF; Design completed in 2003

Lillis is a stunning landmark featuring a major daylighting atrium cooled by natural ventilation, thermal mass and night flush. A 60-person case study room in active use every day needs cooling for only four hours during the entire calendar year, and all of them after 5:00 pm. Classrooms and offices are carefully positioned to harvest daylight and prevent electric lighting nearly year-round. Inspiring sustainable business practices, Lillis signifies the University’s triple-bottom-line commitment.

Academic Center, Mount Angel Abbey, St. Benedict, OR 21,569 SF; Design completed in 2005

Two strategies emerged from this building that the team still leverages today: passive ventilation using large turbine ventilators and operable windows; and daylighting via customized skylights, reflectors, and operable louvers. A full-scale model of a classroom was built to test and ensure performance. The strategy, based on expanding the comfort range by 5 degrees, had an immense impact with a night flush system using thermal mass and ceiling fans. In combination with classrooms requiring no electric lighting 95 percent of the time the space is in use, and a residential-size boiler for occasional radiant heating, the building is 62 percent more efficient than required by the state energy code.

Evans-Harvard High Performance Classroom, da Vinci Arts Middle School, Portland, OR 1,300 SF; Design completed in 2008

In 2009, SRG and ESBL revisited the implementation of daylight harvesting reflectors, but this time used reflective fabric instead of aluminum extrusions as a more suitable and safe option for inquisitive middle schoolers. Investigating passive ventilation for classrooms further revealed that adding thermal mass and cutting the number of turbine ventilators from four to two achieved the same level of success. This project is aiming for net-zero energy, achieved an impressively low EUI of 12 without photovoltaics, and became the nation’s first LEED Platinum public school classroom.

Health Sciences Complex, Chemeketa Community College, Salem, OR 72,000 SF Addition; Design completed in 2009

This addition is passively ventilated to stay cool and comfortable without air conditioning at the same cost as a conventional building. For the first time, SRG and ESBL designed a two-story building with light shafts to address the conundrum of getting ample daylight and ventilation deeply into interior spaces. Additional research support came from the Energy Trust of Oregon’s Net Zero Pilot project, while ESBL rigorously tested each variable.

Academic Building, Downtown Center, Lane Community College, Eugene, OR 91,818 SF; Design completed in 2011

This four-story academic building features an innovative evacuated-tube solar hot water array in the entry façade that supplies 255 students in housing next door with 70 percent of their hot water. Drawing from lessons at Mount Angel Abbey, the classrooms feature occupancy sensor-controlled louvers installed belowthe skylights so that people entering the spaces are instantly greeted with daylight, which then evens out incrementally to reach ideal levels. LEED Platinum certification is pending.

Library, Portland Community College, Southeast Campus, Portland, OR, 40,000 SF; Design completed in 2013

Just completed, this project activates an entire neighborhood with pedestrian life along busy streets for the first time. Putting systems on display, students get direct experience with sustainable design via the latest iteration of SRG and ESBL’s daylight harvesting reflector—innovative “cones of light” that reach between floors and allow daylight to permeate the building from top to bottom, while also providing a path for natural ventilation. ESBL created a model and tested the new technology prior to implementation to ensure the desired light levels. The project is targeting LEED Gold.

This action-oriented collaboration permeates SRG’s office and the University’s laboratory, and reflects a lasting shift in their cultures. At SRG, most of the staff has direct contact with the lab and its researchers, and a practice based on curiosity, investigation and application is having results. At ESBL, taking research out of the abstract and placing it in the real world is energizing the pursuit of innovation along with the vigilance that makes long-term progress possible. What began as a focused effort regarding sustainable design is producing opportunities for younger architects to develop expertise and emerge as leaders in the firm, their profession, and the community.

Looking ahead, these teams will continue to exemplify the high degree of discipline that valid research requires and increase the number of their collaborative studies. It may take years for others to catch up properly. Until then, these team members have lots more projects to meter and monitor, data to gather about what works and what doesn’t, design options to expand across building types and climate zones, and work with vendors and manufacturers to advance technology. They will continue to challenge convention, refining their strategies and leading the way.

For more information on these collaborations, visit