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Building Innovations in Alaska

Reaching ultimate efficiency


2012 was an exciting year for Alaska on the building front. Old buildings are getting new treatments that make them more efficient and even, in at least one case, mostly independent of fossil fuel. Buildings are being built that are using technology that is both new to Alaska and the United States, and existing buildings are being reborn into jazzy new structures built with a nod to centuries-old traditions.


Old is New Again

One way to be environmentally sustainable is by reusing what’s available. To that end, design-build team Pfeffer Development, Criterion Construction and kbp architects worked with tenant NANA Regional Corp. to renovate the old Unocal building at 909 W. Ninth Ave. in downtown Anchorage.

Mike Prozeralik, president of kpb architects, says the building, built in 1969, was stripped down to concrete and steel. The design-build team collaborated with the NANA Development leaders to design an office building that meets their needs and work flow. NANA Development’s communications group provided design inspiration so the finishing, materials, furniture and details reflect the Iñupiaq culture and the NANA brand.

“We sat down with a number of their building committee members and talked about their organization and heritage,” Prozeralik says. “At kpb architects, we listen first before we start our design exploration. Connecting with a client’s culture helps move us to a design that truly represents who they are.”

Prozeralik says his team studied garments and traditional sewing patterns, called qupak, used for parka trim. Three parka trim designs are integrated as a pattern in a large zinc wall behind the main-floor reception area. The wall connects the cultural history, through the stitching pattern, with NANA’s present-day economic efforts, which include operating Red Dog Mine, the world’s largest zinc mine.

One of the most noticeable new exterior features is the repeated use of the symbolic NANA arc, an umbrella which unifies NANA’s companies and people. That motif is visible atop the building, with blue LED lights on the mechanical equipment penthouse. The building captures the 360-degree views of mountains, inlet and Anchorage skyline. A cantilevered section was added to the sixth-floor boardroom. It juts out from the rest of the building by a few feet, changing the architectural character of the building.

The glass exterior of the building was replaced with high-efficiency blue-tinted panels that reflect NANA’s corporate color and also help with solar performance. Along the interior walls, offices have full-height modular glass walls to allow daylight to penetrate the core of the building. Every staff member has access to views and natural daylight, Prozeralik says.

Interior materials are neutral, allowing regional graphics, photography and branding to remain the focus. LED lighting and high-performance boilers were installed and the heating system was upgraded to increase efficiency.

“The project gives new life to a building that had long been vacant. Renovating an old building makes a positive impact in our community,” Prozeralik says. “Instead of tearing a building down, you refurbish it … so you’re not taking all that waste and throwing it in a landfill to build a new structure.”


Alaska Sea Life Center operations manager Darryl Schaefermeyer, CEO Tara Jones, and Your Clean Energy engineer Andy Baker stand with new sea water heat pumps that have cut energy costs for the aquarium.

Photo courtesy of Andy Baker

Pump It Up

If there’s a buzzword in the construction field this year, it might be “heat pump.” In Southeast Alaska, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association installed a seawater heat pump at its Alaska Marine Research Institute last year, closing the loop to make the 66,000-square-foot facility completely green. NOAA was one of the first to make the step, but several other public buildings are in line behind it.

One of the most notable is the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward. The 120,000-square foot facility needs building heat and energy and it must also keep aquarium and lab temperatures stable for the animals, fish and birds that live there. Prior to April 2009, the facility relied exclusively on large oil-fired boilers. Operations Manager Darryl Schaefermeyer says an efficient 500-kilowatt electrical boiler was installed in 2009 to cut energy costs, but the biggest push to improve efficiency came more recently.

A former SeaLife Center employee read a report about sea water pumps being used in Japan and suggested SeaLife Center officials consider tapping into the latent energy in Resurrection Bay as a power source. Schaefermeyer contacted Andy Baker, a clean energy consulting engineer who owns Your Clean Energy, in 2009 and secured funding to study the project. The study showed a potential savings, so SeaLife Center staff started applying for grants to make it happen.

“This is a very expensive building to run and operate. We’re a not-for-profit, so we don’t have beau coups bucks to operate. We were slammed with the high fuel costs in 2008; that’s why we went with the (new) electric boiler,” Schaefermeyer says.

Sea water is piped from Resurrection Bay, which ranges from 37 to 52 degrees, to a titanium plate heat exchanger, where it warms a mixture of glycol and water. The glycol mixture is piped to two 90-ton Trane chillers, where it comes into contact with a refrigerant that boils at a low temperature, turning it into a gas. The gas is then compressed, raising its temperature. The compressed gas raises the temperature of another loop of water to 120 degrees. It’s then pumped throughout the facility to warm ventilation air, preheat domestic hot water and heat concrete slabs to keep ice from forming on pavement around walkways and animal enclosures.

The idea of using a renewable energy source was appealing, especially if it resulted in lower operating costs, Baker says. The oil boiler was inefficient, sending 12 to 15 percent of the heat energy generated up the exhaust stack. And while the electrical boiler has no waste heat, it’s not large enough to carry the whole building’s energy needs, especially in winter when more heat is needed for the building and to clear the 12,000 linear feet of heated concrete outside the building.

“We are an aquarium. We are trying to be a green facility—we want to improve things and be an example of a green economy,” Schaefermeyer says. “And I thought … we can establish this and show that it will work elsewhere.”

In 2010, the center secured $713,000 in grants from the Denali Commission and Alaska Energy Authority’s Renewable Energy Fund and secured Your Clean Energy to design the heat pump system. It was enough, Baker says, to install two sea water heat pumps in 2011 and connect them to air handlers and domestic hot water heating. In December 2012, with additional funds from the MJ Murdock Trust, the center added the sidewalk slab-heating loop to the system. The inefficient oil boilers were turned off in December, a cause for celebration. In the first year of operation, the heat pumps saved the SeaLife Center $32,000 between May and September. The savings will increase in the winter, Baker says, because heat loads are larger then and, since Resurrection Bay retains heat from the summer, that heat can be extracted more efficiently.

Schaefermeyer says with the slab heat connected, at least 60 percent of the building’s heat is being provided by the sea water pumps. Additionally, the facility comes close to being carbon neutral by avoiding burning fuel oil and reducing the amount of electricity used by the electrical boiler.

Schaefermeyer is seeking funding for one more phase: installing a heat recovery system to capture heat from two large exhaust fans and other areas of the facility that waste heat.

“At that point it will reach ultimate efficiency,” Baker says.

Schaefermeyer says the new, efficient heating system is generating interest among people who visit the SeaLife Center. Around 100 people asked for more information or a tour of the new heat pumps, and he says it would likely be added to the behind-the-scenes tour.

More heat pump systems are on the way. Anchorage engineering and survey firm PDC Inc. Engineers was the lead engineering firm on the 11,000-square-foot Juneau Forestry Sciences Laboratory at Auke Lake, which will be heated by a ground source heat pump system. The system works like the sea water heat pumps, except that the heat is being extracted from the temperature of the soil.

PDC also designed a ground source heat pump system coupled with a solar hot water system that was installed at Weller Elementary School in Fairbanks. The Kodiak Fisheries Research Center is also installing a sea water heat pump, which is heating the building and providing chilled sea water for experiments, says Danny Rauchenstein, a senior associate with PDC, which is working on the project.


An artist’s rendering shows the new Margaret Murie Life Sciences Building that PDC Inc. Engineers is working on. The building contains several efficiency measures, including a radiant cooling system that is the first of its kind in Alaska and perhaps the United States.

Image courtesy of PDC Inc. Engineers

New UAF Building is a New Kind of Cool

Rauchenstein is the lead mechanical engineer on the new 100,000-square foot Margaret Murie Life Sciences Building on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus.

The university generates its own power and uses excess steam to heat buildings on campus. In the summer, the steam heat isn’t needed; cooling is done through the ventilation system, which uses a lot of power. But Rauchenstein says studies have shown cooling through ventilation requires more energy than cooling with water. So the company proposed using the radiant floor heat to heat and cool the building as well—the first radiant-floor cooling system in Alaska and one of the first in the nation, PDC officials say.

“It’s hard to imagine a building in Alaska whose innovation is in the cooling system,” says Steve Theno, PDC’s principal mechanical engineer.

Rauchenstein says the building also contains a steam absorption plant which uses the steam to generate chilled water for cooling the buildings on the upper campus.

The steam is generated as a byproduct of power generation needed to run the campus’ cooling systems. “The steam is essentially free,” he says.

Daylighting controls are another neat feature, says PDC senior associate Robert Posma Jr. The building has a lot of glass, so outside facing spaces incorporated photo sensors that automatically adjust to the light level needed. So fewer lights might be needed on a sunny day, but the lights will be brighter if it’s dreary outside.

Laboratory spaces vent directly outside, which can be a source of a lot of waste heat. Rauchenstein says a heat pipe heat recovery system is being installed in the exhaust streams that will harvest the heat for use in other places inside the building.

Theno says other innovations were included, such as LED lighting and smart heating and light systems that sense when people are present in a room and can lower thermostats and turn off lights when people leave. Rauchenstein says clients are more frequently asking for these types of innovations but, ultimately, the project has to make monetary sense. The features included in the Life Sciences building, he says, will pay for themselves in fewer than 10 years.

The building will be complete in spring 2013 and in use in the fall.

Theno says energy costs have almost always been at the forefront of discussions when they’ve worked with rural communities in the past 15-20 years simply because energy costs were so high. But as energy costs rise, more clients in Southcentral Alaska are asking for buildings that are more efficient or environmentally sustainable.         


Freelance journalist Rindi White lives in Palmer.

This article first appeared in the February 2013 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly magazine.
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