When it opens to faculty and staff this month, and to students next month, the tower will be by far the tallest zero-carbon building in Boston, and likely all of New England. BU executives say it’s also the tallest geothermal building they know to climb in a dense urban environment all over the United States.
The completion of the structure, built by Suffolk Construction and designed by KPMB Architects, represents a significant milestone in state and city efforts to push building systems to the point where they do not cause increases carbon emissions.
“It’s a great time,” said Joe Curtatone, president of the Northeast Clean Energy Council. “It’s not [just] the optics, but the realization, it can be done.
In a few years, Boston officials will begin requiring systems in large and mid-sized buildings to gradually transition to net-zero emissions. The Wu administration also wants Boston to be one of 10 communities in the state allowed to tax net zero rules for new construction.
Developers, BU President Bob Brown said, are paying close attention to the university’s latest addition, which was built on a BU-owned parking lot along Commonwealth Avenue. (The site once housed a Burger King, and the project was often labeled internally at BU with the initials “BK”.)
The electricity bill to heat a building of this size would be astronomical, if not for the geothermal wells which depend on the relatively constant temperatures of the earth to provide heat in the winter and remove it in the summer. This computing and data science center will not be stuffed with servers; nearly all of the computing will be done on servers housed 90 miles away in Holyoke at a hydroelectric complex that BU shares with several other universities.
Brown expects the building’s $305 million geothermal system to pay for itself within a decade, in terms of energy savings.
“Something that has a decade or more of recovery, we can consider,” Brown said. “A developer may view it differently [if] they will return it.
There are another challenge for switching to geothermal energy: finding a place to drill the wells. In this case, only four of the 31 wells are actually under the building; the rest is under an adjacent alley.
“We own the lane, we had a place to drill them,” said Walt Meissner, BU’s associate vice president of operations. “Many buildings in the city don’t have that luxury.”
Nevertheless, there will be many lessons to be learned. At least that’s what the head of the Green Energy Consumers Alliance, Larry Chrétien, hopes. The BU building could serve as a good laboratory to study the maintenance and operation of these geothermal systems for future construction projects.
“Anything revolutionary, pun intended, in itself is a drop in the bucket,” Chretien said. “Its real value is on the issue of replication. . . I am optimistic that in the long term these geothermal projects will be everywhere.
Still, it’s reasonable to expect most of the building’s 1,300 faculty and staff — plus most of the students who pack its 800 classroom seats — will pay more attention to its structural design and its HVAC systems. The tower is essentially divided into a stack of six blocks, sitting on top of each other in a staggered fashion, above a five-story podium. Most classes will take place on the podium levels, with offices and smaller breakout rooms above. Each block is intended to be a ‘neighborhood’, to use BU’s word, bringing people together in a particular department, with common rooms and terraces that offer sweeping views of the city and beyond.
The teachers have already started unpacking. One was so inspired by the design that he created miniature wooden replicas of the building to give to his colleagues as holiday ornaments.
The zigzag shape wasn’t BU’s idea, but university officials told KPMB Architects they wanted the building to be memorable.
“This is the most significant property we have on the Charles River,” Brown said. “We talked about something distinctive. I think we got it.
But the precise inspiration for the form must remain a mystery. Even the president of the university can’t say for sure.
“I like ‘Stack of Books’,” Brown said, “better than a ‘Jenga Tower’.”
Jon Chesto can be contacted at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.
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