Building tech breakthrough: Vacuum insulated panels keep University of Alaska students cozy in sub-zero temps

In a first-of-its-kind curtain wall installation, triple-pane VIP glass panels provide an astonishing R-40 insulation value at the university's new student union in Fairbanks. 

March 15, 2015 |
Perkins+Will’s Ideas + Buildings
Building tech breakthrough: Vacuum insulated panels keep University of Alaska students cozy in sub-zero temps

Students cozy up to the windows for the first time, thanks to innovations in curtain wall technology that allows for high-performance insulation. Images: Perkins+Will

When the temperature dips to 45 F below zero, students at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks (UAF) are accustomed to eating their lunch seated far from drafty windows. But thanks to a recent addition on campus, they don’t have to.

Innovations in curtain wall technology now allow students in the new UAF Wood Center student union dining hall to have a warm lunch by the window with natural daylight and views, supposing they can even find a seat in this now-popular snacking spot.

Achieving comfortable window seating in a sub-arctic region required collaborating with many consultants on the design team and, most importantly, with the end-users, the students. Early in design, the university explained that even if the window seats aren’t cold, it is unlikely that students would sit there in the winter because they are conditioned to avoid windows during winter months. By the end of design, however, the university was in agreement with the design team’s strategy to create tall windows with comfortable lounge seating on the south and west sides where the daylight and views are most desirable. And it worked.

Students are using the perimeter dining seats not only during meal times, but also throughout the day—working on laptops and meeting with friends and faculty.


Photo: Perkins+Will


Lydia Anderson, UAF’s Wood Center Director commented, “No matter what time of day you come into the new addition, the students are planted right in front of the windows.”

Innovation made this all possible. The most significant step was incorporating a vacuum insulated panel (VIP) in between panes of glass. This had never been done before. VIPs have 6 to 8 times the insulation value of typical batt or rigid insulation. In this first-of-its-kind installation the VIPs were 1.3” thick providing an insulation value, or R-value, of 40, a thermal performance that is rarely seen in Fairbanks in a conventional wall, much less a thin curtain wall.

Another technological advancement came from the glass itself. We used a triple pane unit with two low-emissivity coatings, argon gas filling, and an innovative thermal spacer called a “Bautec Strut” that is just beginning to be used in curtain walls. A standard triple pane unit, which performs better than the double pane units typically installed throughout the U.S., has an R-value of 2.9. The triple pane units installed on this dining hall are almost twice as effective with an R-value of 4.8. The higher the R-value, the more effective the wall is at keeping students (and their lunches) warm.

In order to ensure that the wall is performing up to design, sensors have been placed within the VIP panels and at various locations on the vision glass. The sensors will relay information real-time to a building dashboard near the entrance so students and faculty can use their dining hall as a building science lab, gathering performance metrics throughout the year.

The high performance curtain wall and glass is part of a larger sustainable design goal of meeting the 2030 Challenge for energy reduction, while maintaining an open and airy feeling with daylight and views for the students. When all was said and done, the design exceeded the 2030 Challenge by reducing the modeled energy use by 66% below a typical dining hall. 

For an extreme, subarctic environment like Fairbanks, this is an exciting success. This achievement, however, pales in comparison to the even greater success of providing students a comfortable lunch by the window for the first time.

About the Authors: Based in Seattle, Devin Kleiner leads that office's Sustainable Design Initiative. He is involved in numerous community organizations outside of the office, such as the Seattle 2030 Roundtable, the University of Washington Professional Advisory Council, as well as being a professional stakeholder committee member for Seattle 2030 District.

Based in Seattle, Carsten Stinn's design philosophy is guided by the belief that the quality and expression of our built environment has a direct influence on our wellbeing and the quality of our lives. He spent the first four years of his professional career in an apprenticeship position as a carpenter and consequently is rigorously attentive to detail and craftsmanship.


Photo: Perkins+Will

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