Currently Reading

America's Greenest Hospital

America's Greenest Hospital

How a Building Team applied three guiding principles to help Dell Children's Medical Center become the first hospital to achieve LEED Platinum status.

By By Robert Cassidy, Editor-in-Chief | August 11, 2010
This article first appeared in the 201002 issue of BD+C.

 Courtyard at Dell

Hospitals are energy gluttons. With 24/7/365 operating schedules and stringent requirements for air quality in ORs and other clinical areas, an acute-care hospital will gobble up about twice the energy per square foot of, say, a commercial office building.

It is an achievement worth noting, therefore, when a major hospital achieves LEED Platinum status, especially when that hospital attains 14 of a possible 17 points for Energy & Atmosphere and 11 of 15 for Indoor Environment Quality.

Kudos, therefore, to Dell Children's Medical Center of Central Texas, a 169-bed, 503,000-sf children's hospital and trauma center in Austin, which gained the coveted top spot in green certification (under LEED-NC 2.1) in early 2009, making it the first LEED Platinum hospital in the U.S.

Phil Risner, PE, LEED AP, the owner's project manager and building systems network engineer, said LEED Platinum was the hospital's goal from the outset because “being green” would have “real, positive effects on both the environment and our healthcare delivery capability.”

Interior hallway

Wishing is one thing; executing is another. How the Building Team tackled the difficult energy and IEQ problems of such a facility may provide valuable instruction to AEC professionals facing similarly complex situations.

“We had three guiding principles,” recalls Joseph F. Kuspan, AIA, SVP and design director at Karlsberger, the Columbus, Ohio, firm that did the master plan and design for Dell Children's. “One, don't do dumb things to get LEED points. Two, anything less than a 12% return on investment is dumb. And three, we had to know if we were being dumb.” That is, before rejecting any strategy—roof-mounted wind turbines, for example—the team had to weigh it seriously to see whether or not it was truly viable.

A boon from Austin Energy

Dell Children's sits on 32 acres within a 700-acre brownfield redevelopment site that was once home to Austin's municipal airport. To provide power to the new facility, the local utility, Austin Energy, built an $18 million combined cooling/heating power (CCHP) plant. This increased the energy efficiency of the primary fuel conversion for the project from roughly 29% in a conventional power service model, to 75% efficiency.

The CCHP also saved $6.8 million in capital costs that would have gone to boilers, emergency generators, cooling towers, chillers, and the space necessary to house them. The bulk of the savings, $5.8 million, was plowed back into energy-conservation measures and other LEED initiatives.

Equally important to the sustainability of the project was its use of courtyards, which not only opened up the building massing (and played nicely into the project's pace-setting daylighting strategy), but also led to an interesting approach to the hospital's air handling units.

The 18 million combined

“The owner wanted the AHUs to be in enclosed spaces, not on the roof,” to simplify maintenance and extend their life expectancy, says Kuspan. Instead of doing the usual 10% space gross-up for the mechanical system, the designers put the air handling units in 2,000-sf “rooms” distributed across 15 locations. “We stacked those rooms and put five heat recovery rooms on the roof, because we didn't want to lose that 70° air on a 100° day in Texas,” he says. “That allowed some of the floors below to use that 70° air.”

Each “stack” of AHU rooms was also right-sized to meet the needs of the hospital department it served. One stack might serve a cardio OR, where the room temperature has to be jacked up from 60°F to 90°F in a matter of minutes following surgery, while another stack might serve administrative offices, where the room temperature would be fairly constant.

This innovation produced further benefits and cost savings, says Kuspan. It allowed for shorter duct runs, which enabled the Building Team to overscale the ducts to reduce air velocity and noise. “That kind of background noise can be a stress factor for patients, families, and staff in a hospital setting,” says Kuspan. The designers were also able to reduce the size of fan motors, thereby saving on initial cost as well as operating expenses.

The project's glazing also had to be fine-tuned to achieve a delicate balance between achieving energy savings in the hot Texas sun and not distorting the view to the outdoors. “The grid that was established in the [master] plan was on a 37-degree angle, which was great for some things but tough for sun control,” says Kuspan. Seton Healthcare Network wanted to avoid any hint of a “techy” look on the exterior; therefore, no applied exterior shading devices, no sunshades, no vertical blades, and definitely no motorized systems.

The team solve this problem by using high-efficiency, double-e coated glass high up on the walls and clearer glass, with low-level coatings, in what Kuspan calls “the sweet spot” from three to seven feet above the floor, where greater transparency was called for.

Perhaps the most commendable aspect of Dell Children's, though, is what the Building Team and hospital board didn't do. They stuck to their principles and didn't go overboard to look super-green. Design elements that could have added LEED EA or IEQ points but failed the “don't do anything dumb” rule or fell below 12% ROI didn't make the cut—things like active photovoltaics, roof-mounted wind turbines, vegetative roofs, natural ventilation in the lobby, charging stations for electric vehicles, and a biofuel fueling station for fleet vehicles.

Many other non-energy-related design elements were also scratched, things like denim wall insulation, waterless urinals, an on-site tertiary water treatment plant, pervious pavement and bioswales in the parking lot, a 500,000-gallon rainwater cistern, and recycled gypsum board. All were struck from the program, even though they might have added LEED points.

In some cases, otherwise popular sustainable design elements were ruled out by the owner. For example, interior light shelves were vetoed by the hospital because they were seen as dust collectors and a potential infection control threat. Even without light shelves, however, the Building Team was able to use the open spaces in the courtyards to daylight more than 80% of occupied administrative and nonclinical spaces. Perhaps more remarkable was their ability to get daylight into 35% of diagnostic and treatment areas. By using the LEED “alternative compliance path,” the project was able to earn the first LEED point for daylighting by a hospital.

Of course, not everything worked as planned. Motion sensors were used extensively to control lighting use, but this went a bit too far when the motion sensors in the on-call room kept turning the lights on every time the residents rolled over in their sleep. These motion sensors were quickly removed. Seton Healthcare's Risner and his staff also had to do a lot of fine-tuning to optimize all the mechanical systems.

By sticking to their guiding principles, however, the owner and the Building Team were able to produce a BMW project at a KIA price. “A lot of people think we must have had an $800 per square foot budget, that's just not true,” says Kuspan. The construction cost was somewhere between $280/sf and $305/sf, depending on whether the $18 million for the cogeneration plant is included in the calculation.

“That's not an exorbitant cost per square foot for a project like this,” says Kuspan. Not when you get the kinds of bragging rights Dell Children's Medical Center has earned.


Related Stories

Smart Buildings | Jul 1, 2024

GSA to invest $80 million on smart building technologies at federal properties

The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) will invest $80 million from the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) into smart building technologies within 560 federal buildings. GSA intends to enhance operations through granular controls, expand available reporting with more advanced metering sources, and optimize the operator experience.

Building Technology | Jun 18, 2024

Could ‘smart’ building facades heat and cool buildings?

A promising research project looks at the possibilities for thermoelectric systems to thermally condition buildings, writes Mahsa Farid Mohajer, Sustainable Building Analyst with Stantec.

Concrete Technology | Jun 17, 2024

MIT researchers are working on a way to use concrete as an electric battery

Researchers at MIT have developed a concrete mixture that can store electrical energy. The researchers say the mixture of water, cement, and carbon black could be used for building foundations and street paving.

Contractors | Jun 4, 2024

Contractors expect to spend more time on prefabrication, according to FMI study

Get ready for a surge in prefabrication activity by contractors. FMI, the consulting and investment banking firm, recently polled contractors about how much time they were spending, in craft labor hours, on prefabrication for construction projects. More than 250 contractors participated in the survey, and the average response to that question was 18%. More revealing, however, was the participants’ anticipation that craft hours dedicated to prefab would essentially double, to 34%, within the next five years.

MFPRO+ New Projects | May 29, 2024

Two San Francisco multifamily high rises install onsite water recycling systems

Two high-rise apartment buildings in San Francisco have installed onsite water recycling systems that will reuse a total of 3.9 million gallons of wastewater annually. The recycled water will be used for toilet flushing, cooling towers, and landscape irrigation to significantly reduce water usage in both buildings.

HVAC | May 28, 2024

Department of Energy unveils resources for deploying heat pumps in commercial buildings

To accelerate adoption of heat pump technology in commercial buildings, the U.S. Department of Energy is offering resources and guidance for stakeholders. DOE aims to help commercial building owners and operators reduce greenhouse gas emissions and operating costs by increasing the adoption of existing and emerging heat pump technologies. 

Building Tech | May 21, 2024

In a world first, load-bearing concrete walls built with a 3D printer

A Germany-based construction engineering company says it has constructed the world’s first load-bearing concrete walls built with a 3D printer. Züblin built a new warehouse from a single 3D print for Strabag Baumaschinentechnik International in Stuttgart, Germany using a Putzmeister 3D printer. 

Industrial Facilities | Apr 9, 2024

Confessions of a cold storage architect

Designing energy-efficient cold storage facilities that keep food safe and look beautiful takes special knowledge.

AEC Innovators | Feb 28, 2024

How Suffolk Construction identifies ConTech and PropTech startups for investment, adoption 

Contractor giant Suffolk Construction has invested in 27 ConTech and PropTech companies since 2019 through its Suffolk Technologies venture capital firm. Parker Mundt, Suffolk Technologies’ Vice President–Platforms, recently spoke with Building Design+Construction about his company’s investment strategy. 

MFPRO+ Special Reports | Feb 22, 2024

Crystal Lagoons: A deep dive into real estate's most extreme guest amenity

These year-round, manmade, crystal clear blue lagoons offer a groundbreaking technology with immense potential to redefine the concept of water amenities. However, navigating regulatory challenges and ensuring long-term sustainability are crucial to success with Crystal Lagoons.


More In Category


Contractors expect to spend more time on prefabrication, according to FMI study

Get ready for a surge in prefabrication activity by contractors. FMI, the consulting and investment banking firm, recently polled contractors about how much time they were spending, in craft labor hours, on prefabrication for construction projects. More than 250 contractors participated in the survey, and the average response to that question was 18%. More revealing, however, was the participants’ anticipation that craft hours dedicated to prefab would essentially double, to 34%, within the next five years.


Most Popular Content

  1. 2021 Giants 400 Report
  2. Top 150 Architecture Firms for 2019
  3. 13 projects that represent the future of affordable housing
  4. Sagrada Familia completion date pushed back due to coronavirus
  5. Top 160 Architecture Firms 2021