Sustainable Energy Engineering Program Housed in a Living Laboratory
Tom Lombardo posted on November 04, 2019 |
SFU's new program blends theory and practice, a pragmatic curriculum, and a world-class facility.

In August 2019, Simon Fraser University (SFU) welcomed the first group of students to its new Sustainable Energy Engineering program. The university offers bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees, and blends advanced research with practice to create a pragmatic engineering curriculum housed in a world-class facility that also serves as a living laboratory.

Sustainable Energy Engineering

Graduates of the Sustainable Energy Engineering (SEE) program are prepared to design systems that harvest, store, transmit and conserve energy, while addressing the economic, environmental and social issues associated with the energy industry. Undergraduates in the SEE program may specialize in Smart Cities, Clean Transportation, or Sustainable Manufacturing.

Figure 1.Sustainable Energy Engineering at SFU. (Image courtesy of Simon Fraser University.)
Figure 1.Sustainable Energy Engineering at SFU. (Image courtesy of Simon Fraser University.)

The program includes a healthy dose of real-world experience for the students. After one year of coursework, students spend a fall trimester performing the first of three required coop experiences. Equipped with practical knowledge, the students complete two more trimesters of coursework to finish the sophomore year. The junior year begins with another coop experience—this one lasting two trimesters—followed by additional trimester of coursework. The senior year includes specialty electives and a capstone design project that carries over two terms.

From an educational perspective, going from institution to industry gives the students opportunities to apply their newly acquired abilities in a practical setting. Returning to the classroom after the coop experience provides a lens through which students can view additional knowledge. Ideally, the two would be blended in a “just-in-time” fashion with no semester/trimester boundaries. While some very innovative schools are doing exactly that through competency-based education (CBE), such a model does present a slew of logistical problems. Interlacing classroom learning with coop experiences offers a reasonable compromise between the ideal and the pragmatic. If you think about it, that’s what engineers do every day, isn’t it?


In keeping with the program’s overall sustainability philosophy, the newly constructed, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold Sustainable Energy Engineering Building is a model of energy efficiency. The various contractors who designed and built the structure have already garnered seven awards from the Vancouver Regional Construction Association (VRCA) for their work on the project. The building is also close to public transportation and has secure bike storage, bike lane access to the building, and dedicated parking stalls for electric and carpool vehicles.

Figure 2. SFU’s Sustainable Energy Engineering Building. (Image courtesy of Simon Fraser University.)
Figure 2. SFU’s Sustainable Energy Engineering Building. (Image courtesy of Simon Fraser University.)

The Sustainable Energy Engineering Building is a 16,000-square-meter (172,000 sq ft) LEED Gold facility that was constructed in just under two years. Its facade, which is made of straight and curved precast concrete slabs, is intended to resemble traces on a printed circuit board. I think it looks more like an energy flow chart turned sideways, but I guess it’s appropriate either way.

I spoke with officials at SFU, who put me in contact with several of the engineers and architects who designed the building and its systems. They were kind enough to answer my questions about the facility.

Lisa Potopsingh, lead architect for Revery Architecture, which built the facade, told me about the precast concrete:

“SFU’s Sustainable Energy Engineering unique facade is composed primarily of framed alternating strips of undulating precast panels and reflective glazing. Drawing inspiration from the geometric pattern of electrical circuit boards, the precast concrete panels relate to one of the technological subjects taught within the building. The heavier precast concrete facade with reflective glazing animates the facade and is juxtaposed with the transparent glazing at the building’s ground plane, which extends the outdoor public realm into the interior more public programmatic spaces, engaging the local community of Surrey’s downtown.

“The precast panels are sandwich panels consisting of a 75mm inner smooth concrete wythe, 75m rigid insulation, and 75mm outer ridged concrete wythe. By fabricating the exterior finish, thermal and moisture protection, and interior finish off site in SureClad’s plant as a single pre-assembled system, the fast-tracked project’s schedule, performance and energy-saving goals and quality standards were achieved while mitigating on-site construction noise and debris on a constrained urban site. (The construction site was adjacent to another construction site that shared a zero property line and was confined by two roads, allowing little room for on-site layout and fabrication of the facade; having the precast units assembled off-site and craned into place helped significantly in this regard.)”

Figure 3. The building’s facade. (Image courtesy of Simon Fraser University.)
Figure 3. The building’s facade. (Image courtesy of Simon Fraser University.)

“SureClad, the precast trade, fabricated, assembled and installed 335 insulated precast concrete cladding panels 225mm thick, representing 15,317 square feet with production and installation completed over a five-and-a-half-month period from December to June. A custom form liner was used to create the relief fluting allowing shadows to be created and achieve a three dimensionality to the facade. To create this unique facade, Revery analyzed how the various precast panel shapes could be repeated, mirrored and rotated to minimize the number of form liner profiles used to a maximum of six. Sparkling white sand from Ontario, bright white cement powder from Mexico, and a gray local aggregate from Vancouver Island achieved the white facade and added depth, achieving the design intent.

With the standard pouring of concrete, you are looking at only one component of the exterior assembly. Thermal and moisture barrier, interior finish and structure for the interior finish still need to be added. Costs need to be factored in for patching of the concrete (to maintain quality standards), cleanup of debris and scaffolding. In this scenario, the time frame for the exterior assembly elements to be installed is over a longer period as one component needs to be built before the other is installed. The precast sandwich panels provided the full exterior wall assembly as one component, the quality control we needed, aligned with the fast-tracked schedule, and mitigated the space constraints of the site."

Heating and cooling represent a large portion of a building’s energy consumption, so the HVAC systems in a LEED certified facility need to be efficient and reliable. Kevin Shea, engineer with AME, elaborated on that point:

“We have a significant number of strategies that were implemented on this project to help us with our energy targets. We earned 10 points by being connected to the City of Surrey District Energy Systems. Unfortunately, LEED has a requirement that if you are connected to a DE system, and you cannot define the efficiency of that system (it is too new in Surrey for energy data), then it caps you at 10 (out of 19) energy points.

“We were able to achieve all 10 points through the following strategies:

  • Improved glazing performance in the building compared to baseline strategies.
  • Fan energy savings with lowered static pressure loss in our ductwork and reduced static pressure loss in our air handling systems. We were able to use a single coil for heat recovery, heating, and cooling for our laboratory air handlers, compared to three coils, which is often the strategy (preheat/heat recovery coil, heating coil, cooling coil).
  • Energy savings through the use of magnetic bearing chillers, which have a better coefficient of performance (COP) than typical chillers due to reduced friction loss in the bearings of the compressors at low loads.
  • Run-around heat recovery loop achieved 60 percent energy recovery from the exhaust air stream. This was a process of iteratively selecting the coils to increase the efficiencies from the 40 percent efficiency of the systems that were initially selected. We did this by selecting the coils for our ‘normal’ operation and not our ‘peak’ operation.
  • We utilized a system called Aircuity, which is a Facility Air Quality Monitoring system. This was the first time it was used in BC, but it is used throughout the U.S. This allows us to reduce the air changes in the laboratories when we know that they are clean and safe. When particles start to build up in the spaces, we increase the air changes in response. This significantly reduces the energy used through fan power, heating/cooling energy, and helps the health and safety officers understand how clear the labs are.
  • We achieved significant savings through lighting strategies.
  • Low flow fixtures reduced our overall domestic hot water demand by 20 percent.”

Lighting and other electrical systems are responsible for another hefty slice of energy consumption in most buildings, so Brad Ou-Yang, engineer with AES Engineering, illustrated the measures that improve structure’s electrical efficiency:

  • Highly efficient LED luminaires are located throughout the building. The connected lighting load is ~20 percent less than the baseline (ASHAE 2010).
  • Advanced lighting controls automatically dim the luminaires when daylight in the space is sufficient, taking advantage of the large area of glazing throughout the building.
  • Manual dimmers in most areas can adjust the lighting level if needed.
  • Receptacles in office, lounge area, and computer classrooms are connected to occupancy sensors. Receptacles will be de-energized automatically when the space is vacant, in order to reduce ghost load.”

I asked whether the building had solar panels on the rooftop for energy production. SFU said that a solar array was desired, but that the cost exceeded the building’s budget. Nonetheless, the architects roughed in the services to install solar panels in the near future.

Kevin Shea, engineer with AME, discussed the building management system (BMS), which monitors and controls the HVAC, lighting and electrical systems, and gives students an opportunity to see the building’s energy systems in action:

“The BMS controls all of our mechanical systems and allows SFU to trend all of the data over time to understand how the systems react during changes of season. When there are failures, they can pinpoint when it happened. To date, the energy monitoring dashboards are not yet complete. They are expecting to complete these in the coming weeks. In addition, we intend for the students to have access to the systems in order to see how the systems are functioning behind the scenes in their building. There are also classes that want to use BMS data for their team assignments. This is always the last thing to get done in a building, but we are almost there!”

Research, Practice and Education

Besides serving as a model of efficiency and a living laboratory to enhance student learning, the facility will also provide data for cutting-edge research on architecture, energy systems, and construction. SFU’s Sustainable Energy Engineering program delivers a holistic blend of research, practice and education, which helps ensure that tomorrow’s engineers are well-versed in theory and also have some input into the research agenda. This helps close the gap between theory and practice and gets the next generation of researchers excited about the real-world applications of their work. This model of academic innovation is becoming the norm in the engineering education community, and it’s no surprise; engineers are problem-solvers, after all, and the word “engineering” is derived from the same root as “ingenuity.”

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