Archive for October, 2011

Morrison Residence Hall may have won an Environmental Protection Agency national award for energy reduction last year, but the building’s environmentally friendly upgrades did not live up to initial expectations.

Hot water producing solar panels were added to the residence hall in 2006. The student-run renewable energy special projects committee contributed $185,600 and the N.C. Energy Office contributed $137,000 toward the project, said Assistant Director of Facilities Steve Lofgren.

During an annual tour of the rooftop solar panels held Saturday, Lofgren said green upgrades to the building were not straightforward.

The project designer was not well equipped to plan the unusually large installation and the company that sold the panels would not provide input, Lofgren said.

This led to a system with less than optimal hot water output.

“They thought they knew what they were doing but they didn’t completely,” Lofgren said. “The university had to step up.”

Even though facility service workers weren’t trained to deal with the system, engineers worked hard to become more knowledgeable and to make improvements, he said.

The solar system – originally intended to provide hot water to faucets, showers and washers  – was tied to the building’s heating and cooling system by university engineers.

This regularly decreases the amount of steam the university’s cogeneration power plant needs to provide to the residence hall.

The 172 rooftop solar panels now provide an average of 40 percent of the building’s hot water usage, according to a UNC-CH sustainability office press release.

In September, the system reduced carbon dioxide output by 15,201 pounds, according to a document from the department of Housing and Residential Education. This is about the same amount of carbon dioxide that comes from burning 760 gallons of gasoline.

“We didn’t get it right out of the gate,” Lofgren said. “It’s a learning institution and it caused the institution to do some learning, and that’s always a good thing.”

To go beyond the rooftop panels in advancing Morrison Residence Hall’s sustainability mission, building leaders are competing in the Residential Green Games this year, Morrison Community Director Taris Mullins said.

The Residential Green Games is an environmental competition that seeks to promote sustainable behavioral change and education in UNC-CH residence halls.

“Morrison Community is not leading Green Games, we are doing quite well so far this year,” Mullins said. “We encourage sustainability in a number of ways through bulletin boards, encouraging residents to bring their own items to programs, and also looking for creative ways to reduce our footprint in the community.”

Luz Cuaboy, a Morrison resident who attended the tour, said she appreciated the green focus of the building even though the expense of the hot water producing solar panels surprised her.

“I think the cost is justified,” Cuaboy said “Over a long period of time, it’s going to do some good.”


View From The Top

Students explore the solar thermal system on top of Morrison Residence Hall Saturday afternoon.

Despite budgeting problems, the expanded Chapel Hill Public Library will be the first town building slated to receive a sustainability certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.

Because the construction company could not guarantee a price below the $12.5 million budgeted for the expansion after receiving bids from subcontractors, town officials are changing some aspects of the library’s design to reduce construction costs.

“All of the proposed modifications have been reviewed and approved by Robert A. M. Stern and Associates, the lead architect, for consistency with their intended design concept, and with library staff to assure that the functionality of the project is not compromised,” said Town Manger Roger Stancil in an email to town council members.

“The proposed modifications retain the project’s eligibility for LEED silver certification and do not include changes to the size of the building,” he said.

All new public buildings in Chapel Hill are required by a 2004 town ordinance to achieve a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) silver rating by the U.S. Green Building Council.

LEED ratings come in four levels: certified, silver, gold and platinum.

The Chapel Hill Public Library will be the first building to fall under the ordinance, Town Sustainability Officer John Richardson said.

No green features will be cut from the library despite budgeting problems, said Curtis Brooks, urban forester for the town, even though not all of them are required for LEED certification and many involve large upfront costs.

It wouldn’t make sense, he said, considering all the money that had been spent in the planning phase to design the green features.

“Half the cost has already been paid,” Brooks said.

Planned features include a high-efficiency heating, ventilation and air conditioning system, a path to a nearby bus stop, rooftop solar panels, covered bicycle storage, expansive windows, natural lighting and electric vehicle charging stations.

Instead of shedding these features, the town is working to give developers a variety of choices in material use and specifying less expensive aesthetics to lower construction costs.

While some of the environmentally friendly library features are expensive, Richardson said that incorporating green building practices at the beginning of the design process can save money long-term.

“Although LEED certified projects were initially reported as being costly to build, more recent findings suggest that these projects can be cost-competitive,” Richardson said. “Green building proponents often times flip the question around to ask, ‘What are the costs of not doing green building?'”

These costs include higher electricity bills, Brooks said.

The heating, ventilation and air conditioning system that will be installed could account for as much as 10 percent of the upfront building cost, Brooks said.

“The high-efficiency HVAC system will, by its nature, cost more,” Brooks said. “But that system will generate savings in the long run.”

Not all features will significantly help with LEED certification or energy savings – like having large windows – but they will improve the library user experience, Brooks said.

Despite the bidding setback, town officials hope the library will be completed January 2013.

New bids are due Nov. 3 and changes will not be finalized until the town council reviews them at the Nov. 21 town council meeting.

LEED Energy Ordinance

Chapel Hill’s local government requires that new public buildings must be built to “employ the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System throughout their design, construction, and operation.”

The expanding library is above the 12.5 million budgeted for the project. I wonder if including LEED-based design in construction is affecting the libraries budget? What LEED-based changes are being implemented?

LEED buildings are supposed to be green by being built on sustainable sites, being energy and water efficient, using sustainable materials, having above average indoor air quality and promoting public transportation. I wonder how the library has been designed to meet these goals.

Jordan Lake Litter

State mandated Jordan Lake cleanup rules ignore a growing problem – a trash buildup spanning nearly 30 years.

The Chapel Hill Town Council voted yesterday to open a public hearing until February for amending new development rules, which would incorporate more environmentally friendly stormwater practices.

“These are not addressing littering, they’re addressing the algae blooms in Jordan Lake,” said Sue Burke, the stormwater engineer for Chapel Hill who presented the rules at the council meeting.

But Fran DiGiano, president of Clean Jordan Lake, said the trash problem is too big to be ignored.

“We’ve picked up 40 tons [of trash] and there’s a lot more out there,” DiGiano said. “Anyone that goes out to help us do this work is astounded by how big a problem it is.”

Much of the trash in the lake was carried there through the stormwater system, said Wendy Smith, stormwater manager for Chapel Hill. When it rains, litter is swept into storm drains which eventually lead to Jordan Lake.

Litter has been accumulating since the man-made lake was created in 1983.

“Jordan Lake is just a mess,” Smith said. “It’s horrendous.”

While the draft of new development rules outlines improvements to stormwater drainage systems, it only does so in regard to pollutants that cause excessive algae.

“Because it’s a man-made lake, the only outlet is the dam,” DiGiano said. “Everything is deposited in the lake, so it can’t leave the lake.”

But stormwater runoff isn’t the only issue for areas around the site.

DiGiano said his group has removed about 2,000 tires from in and around Jordan Lake.

“These are legendary tire dumps,” Smith said. “Hopefully a lot of that has stopped but we still see it every once and a while.”

Friends of Bolin Creek President Julie McClintock said fixing the problem would be complicated.

She said while storm drains were once considered state of the art, newer, more environmentally friendly systems try to imitate nature by allowing rainwater to be absorbed on-site.

The new development rules draft does not require this type of stormwater management system.

“The modern way of dealing with it is to not the have storm drains because what you’re doing is funneling everything towards a place where you don’t really want it to be,” McClintock said.

DiGiano said he wished litter laws would be enforced as much as possible, but it’s difficult to do so in such a large area under so many different jurisdictions.

After participating last week in a clean-up effort along a creek that feeds into Jordan Lake as a part of the N.C. Big Sweep, McClintock said she found tires, old chairs, clothing, plastic bottles, diapers and other trash in the area.

“My husband dragged a carpet once out of Bolin Creek,” she said.

DiGiano said that while most of the trash doesn’t pose a health hazard to drinking water, residents shouldn’t discount the harm it does to wildlife or the aesthetics of the area.

“It doesn’t send the right message when you see all kinds of trash on the shoreline of a lake that’s used as a water supply for 180,000 people,” DiGiano said. “If you really care about a resource, you should try to protect it.”

Last week, eighth grade students from Culbreth Middle School completed their first round of water quality testing on a small stream located at the bottom of drainage basin behind the school.

The Town of Chapel Hill, UNC-Chapel Hill Institute for the Environment and local science teachers were all involved in making the event happen, allowing students to learn about community problems from community members.

“We’ve combined all of our resources to provide more resources to teachers,” said Wendy Smith, stormwater management and environmental education coordinator for the Town.

Students spent two days completing on site testing for dissolved oxygen, pH, turbidity, nitrates and temperature as they study their water quality unit, according to a press release.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools

Rob Greenberg, Chapel Hill High School science teacher, said hands on education is the key to understanding the environment.

His students create model islands that have features for green living and display them during Chapel Hill Earth Action Days every year.

“I try to make it meaningful and relevant, Greenberg said. “There’s a lot of art in science.”

Greenberg said he utilizes resources from the Town, such as Wendy Smith, to bring in outside perspectives.

“I’ve always felt lucky to live in Chapel Hill,” Greenberg said. “I make an effort to tap the resources of this community.”

Smith said she comes into high schools on request and has specialized programs in the second, fifth and eighth grades where she teaches about water pollution and shows environmental models.

“The kids are so smart these days,” Smith said. “It’s really fun because you get that excitement with kids who really know a lot already.”

Haw River Assembly

The Haw River Assembly, a local group engaged in preservation activities, follows a similar philosophy.

For more than 20 years, the organization has hosted students from around the area to learn about the Haw River.

Students catch and identify a local organisms, measure the pH of the water, analyze the effects of runoff and turn sedimentary rocks from the river into paint.

“Ninety-nine percent of the projects we do are hands on,” Watershed Education Coordinator Donna Myers said. “Our programs really empower youth, or participants of any age, with knowledge of things they can actually do in their neighborhood later that day.”

Seawell, McDougle and Morris Grove Elementary Schools participated in the 2011 Haw River Learning Celebration which ended Friday, Myers said.

The organization also brings environmental models into classrooms and provides training for teachers.

UNC-CH Institute for the Environment

Representatives from the UNC-CH Institute for the Environment organized and taught two workshops to promote water quality education.

“This was a great opportunity to support the science teachers in promoting hands-on science activities and to encourage scientific curiosity in the students,” said Michele Drostin, project coordinator of the environmental resource program.

The workshops were developed in collaboration with the Haw River Assembly, Friends of Bolin Creek and the Town of Chapel Hill. They included hands-on training in watershed mapping and stream monitoring.

The workshops also stressed how school grounds contribute to runoff and stream pollutants.

“This workshop demonstrated the opportunities for hands-on, outdoor water science activities for schools that do not have a natural stream or wetland available to them,” Drostin said.

The screening of Carbon Nation on the Green in Southern Village is scheduled for Friday, October 14 at 7 p.m..

From the press release:

Carbon nation is an optimistic discovery of what people are already doing, what we as a nation could be doing and what the world needs to do to prevent (or slow down) the impending climate crisis.  We already have the technology to combat most of the worst-case scenarios of climate change, and it is very good business as well.

Local green vendors and representatives form the Town of Chapel Hill WISE program, a local energy efficiency program beginning its second phase, will be at the screening.

From the press release:

Viewers inspired by the movie can take immediate action by consulting energy experts, getting information and contacts, or even scheduling energy assessments for their homes right there and then.

See a trailer and learn more about the film at


The ductbank that is planned to run through Carolina North Forest cannot run along Martin Luther King Boulevard, according to the press release discussed in my last post.

After a few more calls, the N.C. Department of Transportation got back to me. Chuck Edwards, a district engineer for the department, said that there was concern with traffic.

“It was going to present a significant traffic impact during construction as well as after construction for maintenance,” said Chuck Edwards, district engineer for the department.

Clearing for a 40-foot-wide corridor necessary to install power and communications wiring through Carolina North Forest is scheduled to begin within the next two weeks.

Residents are concerned about how the forest and trails will be affected by the cleared corridor, anxieties compounded by the fact that they feel left out of the planning process.

“40 feet is really wide,” said Patrick Brandt, a program director at UNC-CH and frequent user of the forest trails. “It’s like the width of South Road between Wilson Library and the Bell Tower.”

The corridor is being cleared for the construction of an underground ductbank for electrical and telecommunication cables, increasing power and communications reliability for critical University buildings along Airport Drive, according to a press release.

It will also serve as the electrical backbone for the planned Carolina North campus.

Trail effects

The ductbank will run near existing trails and intersect the Pumpkin Loop several times.

“Even if they plant vegetation, it will end up looking like the Bolin Creek trail where there’s still quite a scar,” Brandt said.

An alternative ductbank route along Martin Luther King Boulevard was studied and rejected by the N.C. Department of Transportation, according to a press release.

Residents question why – if the ductbank has to go through the forest – it can’t run along existing trails to minimize disturbance to nature.

“I’m wondering if instead of intersecting in all those areas…if they can just widen the Pumpkin Loop trail, where trees have already been knocked down,” Brandt said. “It’s a 10-foot-wide gravel road that parallels more than two-thirds of the ductbank proposed route.”

But Carolina North Forest Manager Greg Kopsch said because the existing paths would have to be widened and do not run in a straight line to the planned site for Carolina North, more trees would have to be cut down.

“The shortest distance is between two points,” Kopsch said. “If we were to use the existing corridors, it would involve more clearing.”

Residents also worry about how the cleared corridor will affect the atmosphere of the forest.

“Some manifestation of the Pumpkin Loop will continue to exist and there will be this new greenway as well,” Kopsch said. “The current plan is that once the ductbank construction is completed there is to be a paved or some kind of surfaced path that runs on top.”

Brandt said that while rollerbladers and people with strollers might prefer a paved path, the many runners and mountain bikers who use the existing trails would prefer a packed earth or gravel path.

“I think that most people would prefer that it’s not paved,” Brandt said. “But I can see both sides of the argument.”

When construction on the ductbank is complete, the 40-foot-wide corridor required for the movement of heavy equipment can shrink and the path will remain.

“After construction, there will be a 14-foot or so corridor left open but the remaining 13 feet on either side will be revegetated and possibly reforested,” Kopsch said.

Resident input

Groups active in the planning for Carolina North were caught by surprise when the exact details of the ductbank were released.

“It’s like we’re getting the details right at the point when the thing’s going to be built,” said Julie McClintock, Friends of Bolin Creek president and a member of Neighbors for Responsible Growth.

The ductbank project has been planned for several years, is part of the Carolina North Development Agreement and has been discussed at Town meetings and Army Corps of Engineers meetings. Details are also available in the 2010 and 2011 Carolina North Annual Reports, according to a press release

But McClintock said specific details about the project were not well known.

“We knew that when they signed off on that agreement…nobody knew the details, nobody knew how this thing would pan out,” McClintock said. “Nobody thought down to this level of detail at the time.”

Additionally, the Chapel Hill Town Council agreed to a public participation plan, which McClintock said was not effective.

“The citizens really want some input,” McClintock said. “I think that it’s very important that the council committed to do something, and as far as I’m concerned, we don’t have anything.”

She said the Sept. 13 public information meeting was too little, too late for significant changes to the plan.

“There’s so much attention being directed to the 2020 plan…and that’s very important,” McClintock said. “But we shouldn’t be distracted from the big issues right in front of us.”