University of Vermont

Vermont Quarterly

Renovated Aiken a model of efficiency

Aiken Center lobby
The renovated Aiken Center is modeled to be 62 percent more energy-efficient than the original building. Photo by Sally McCay

The Green

Renovated Aiken
a model of efficiency

The renovated George D. Aiken Center’s credentials as an environmental standout are hard to miss. The solarium in the building, which re-opened in January after an eighteen-month, $13 million rehab, boasts an “eco-machine” for treating waste water, nearly every interior wall is ribbed with Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood paneling, and its green roof features eight experimental watersheds.

But the most impressive green attribute of the 40,000-square-foot building, home of UVM’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, could escape notice completely:  Aiken’s unusual “building envelope,” the skin between its interior and exterior walls that insulates it from the outside cold and heat.

Thanks in large part to this almost air-tight enclosure, the renovated Aiken Center is modeled to be 62 percent more energy-efficient than the original building, built in 1984, reducing its energy use from 89 kBTUs per square foot per year, the standard measure of a building’s energy use, to 34, despite adding air conditioning, which the original building lacked.

That’s no small accomplishment. The projected energy saving qualifies Aiken as that most talked about and elusive of projects in contemporary green building—a “deep energy retrofit,” defined as a renovated building that reduces energy by at least 30 percent over the original structure.

The reborn Aiken Center, designed by Maclay Architects of Waitsfield, Vermont, is one of the first such buildings on a college campus, and one of a small number in the United States, say experts at the New Buildings Institute, which recently completed a study of fifty deep energy retrofits in the United States and Australia. 

Aiken’s dramatic efficiency upgrade is not merely of academic interest. America’s 120 million existing commercial buildings are one of the country’s major pollution sources, consuming 42 percent of the nation’s energy and producing more than one third of its carbon emissions, according to the Rocky Mountain Institute, the Aspen-based environmental think tank, which has made promoting deep energy retrofits one of its core missions.

“Adding even a net zero new building—one that consumes no energy at all—is well and good, but it doesn’t really address the current energy problem,” says Rubenstein School Dean Mary Watzin. “It is older buildings like Aiken that are the issue. We need to dramatically reduce their energy consumption.”

The new Aiken Center’s enviable energy profile came about because university leaders decided to break step with convention and make energy efficiency the top design objective—something that is rarely done in new environmental construction, let alone rehabs. Unaccountably, environmental designers have historically given short shrift to their projects’ “gas mileage,” as Aiken architect William Maclay puts it.

Based on the 40 percent energy savings the renovated building is modeled to achieve, the payback period is estimated at eleven to thirteen years. And the green benefits of the work helped the renovation project earn a $900,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency funded by an appropriation secured by Sen. Patrick Leahy.

It was clearly the right decision to make for both financial and environmental reasons. “We’ve gone from a building that was an environmental embarrassment to one that, like the Rubenstein School itself, is a national leader,” Watzin says. “We look forward to having a home that will inspire our faculty, students, and staff to do their best work every time they walk through the doors.” 

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