JE Dunn – Energy Systems Integration Facility

In designing and building a structure for the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) that will help transform the way renewable energy connects to the grid, it only makes sense that the energy efficiency of the building itself is a paramount concern.

“There are three distinct elements of the building,” JE Dunn Senior Project Manager Mike Tilbury explains. “It’s three buildings combined into one consisting of an office building, data center and a high-bay power electronics laboratory.”

The 182,500-square-foot Energy Systems Integration Facility (ESIF) will provide laboratory and office space for approximately 200 NREL researchers and support staff who are working on interconnection of distributed electrical energy systems like the smart grid and integrating renewable energy technologies into the electrical grid.

The ESIF will be the nation’s first facility that can conduct integrated megawatt-scale research and development of components and strategies that are needed to move clean energy technologies onto the electrical grid “in-flight” and safely, and at the speed and scale required to meet national goals.

ESIF researchers will engineer, design, test and analyze components and systems to enable economic, reliable integration of renewable electricity, fuel production, storage and building efficiency technologies with the U.S. electricity delivery infrastructure.

Special Delivery

DOE/NREL is utilizing a performance-based design/build delivery method for the project, the total cost of which is $135 million. “NREL provided us with a 920-page request for proposals [RFP] narrative of what the building must do, not what the building must be,” Tilbury explains. “So it was up to the design/build team to take the performance requirements and deliver a conceptual design, budget and schedule in response to the RFP document.”

In 2008, NREL’s request for qualifications was solicited, and JE Dunn was short-listed for the ESIF project as one of three competing design/build teams. “The request for proposals document was issued in May of 2009, which commenced the competition and selection phase of the selection project,” Tilbury remembers. “The project was awarded in the fall of 2009.”

Between then and April 2011 – when construction of the ESIF began – the building was designed in distinct design packages in a fast-track delivery approach. The first design package included the structural and civil design. The final mechanical, electrical and finish package was not completed until the end of August 2011. The ESIF is scheduled for completion in fall 2012.

JE Dunn selected SmithGroup as its design partner; it had worked with it on other projects, such as the Denver crime lab. “We have a contract with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and then the SmithGroup contracts to us,” Tilbury explains. “SmithGroup has a tremendous amount of experience with laboratory and energy-efficiency types of projects. We have a good working relationship with them, and it’s a partnership we developed with SmithGroup to target complex, energy-efficient projects such as the ESIF.” 

Elevated Project

The 5-acre site is tight and falls 45 feet from top to bottom and 25 feet from side to side. “It’s extremely logistically challenging in terms of coordinating construction of a building that stair-steps up a hill,” Tilbury points out. “When you go up to the third floor on the office building and walk back to the high-bay labs at the north end of the building, you will be at grade.”

The soil is mostly bentonite clay that expands when it gets wet, so the building is anchored on 295 deep-drill piers that range in depth from approximately 30 to 70 feet. The high-bay lab has an unoccupied crawlspace under it that ranges from 3 to 16 feet in height to separate the building from the expansion of the bentonite clay under it. A vapor barrier on the soil keeps moisture at bay. The crawlspace aspect of the design also allows flexibility for future changes to the laboratory.

The building has a concrete foundation with no basement and precast concrete on the high-bay lab. The three-story office, data center and two walkways connecting them are structural steel. The exterior is a combination of curtain wall, architecturally finished or precast concrete and metal wall panels. The precast concrete on the lab will have a high-performance coating applied to it.

Turn Out the Lights

The high requirement for energy efficiency at the ESIF includes a data center that must meet a power usage effectiveness (PUE) rating of 1.06 or better. Aiming for LEED Gold certification, the building is designed to operate from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. while being illuminated only with natural daylight. High-efficiency HVAC, low-flow plumbing, a white roof and insulated wall panels will help the building achieve its LEED certification.

Because the ESIF is researching electrical grid technology, its electrical requirements are substantial. “One of the distinct, unique elements of this project is the research electrical distribution bus,” Tilbury notes. “It’s a power integration circuit capable of utilizing multiple AC and DC buses that connect multiple sources of energy and interconnect labs and simulated test equipment. It is the most complicated part of the project.”

Subcontractors on Team

To help in the design phase, the electrical and other subcontractors were selected during the design phase. “We teamed up early on with our mechanical and electrical subcontractors,” Tilbury relates. “They were actually part of our qualification submission and have been a part of the team since the very beginning of the selection process.

“So they’ve been working side-by-side with us through all our design charettes and have been a big part of helping steer the design to meet the performance requirements and maintain the budget,” he continues. “Likewise, we’ve been able to have our precast concrete and steel fabricators blend their models into our BIM model to help with the 3-D coordination process.”

The same was done with the subcontractors who worked on the exterior cladding and coatings. Tilbury estimates more than 30 subcontractors will work on the project. JE Dunn is self-performing all the cast-in-place concrete and rough carpentry.

“It’s an exciting, extremely complex project with technically challenging performance requirements,” he concedes. “The process of striking a balance between maintaining the schedule, meeting performance requirements and maintaining aesthetics all within our budget is not unusual on any project, but it is particularly challenging on the ESIF project.”

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