earth tubes

Lab facility demos energy-saving ‘earth tubes’

New LEED Gold building at the University of Toronto Scarborough showcases science
Thursday, June 2, 2016
By Michelle Ervin

Six shiny metal tubes peer out of the ground like periscopes from a submarine. With vents across their midsections, they are reminiscent of de-labelled food cans but for their slanted tops.

The tubes, which run 80 to 90 feet in length, draw fresh air underground before piping it indoors. The temperature of the ground is more stable than the temperature of the air, so this journey either cools or warms the air a few degrees, depending on the season.

Located at the University of Toronto Scarborough’s new Environmental Sciences and Chemistry Building, which officially opened in January, these “earth tubes” are just one of the features expected to help earn it LEED Gold status — an ambitious target for facilities with energy-intensive laboratories.

The tubes are believed to mark the second and largest such installation in the GTA. The first installation occurred at the Earth Rangers Centre for Sustainable Technology in Vaughan, Ontario.


Projected to generate roughly five to 10 per cent in energy savings, the tubes will work in tandem with 77, 600-feet-deep geothermal wells, which themselves are forecasted to generate 30 to 35 per cent of the facility’s energy needs.

“Geothermal systems are not exactly new, but in most cases, what happens is the well points are installed beside the building,” noted Jim Derenzis, director of facilities management, UTSC. “Here, because of space restrictions, we didn’t have that luxury, so we decided to go straight under the basement slab.”

Down a narrow corridor, cast in UV light that kills bacteria, the earth tubes connect to the building at basement level, through concrete pipes measuring two metres in diameter. Sheet metal baffle, which causes the air to eddy, spending more time in the tube cooling or warming before traveling to the mechanical system, is visible from the opening of the pipes.

On the main level in the atrium, a glass screen and floor opening put one of the tubes on display as it charts a water-slide-like course into the building, in an educational demonstration befitting the facility’s function.

Master plan

Likewise, Diamond Schmitt Architects positioned the laboratories in the five-storey, 110,000-square-foot building above ground rather than relegating them to the basement as would traditionally occur. The $52.7-million design-build project, constructed by EllisDon, represents the second facility in the University of Toronto Scarborough’s seven-year, $500-million master plan for its new campus precinct.

The building links to the Instructional Centre, the first facility on the post-secondary institution’s north campus, by underground tunnel. Later will come a 750-bed student residence, hotel/conference centre, social science building and new parking as well as an anticipated rapid transit stop.

Building layout

A sky-lit atrium bisects the building length-wise, grouping together offices in one wing and lab spaces in the other. Modular lounge furniture, in a bright orange and abstract camo-coloured print, snakes through the atrium, giving students a place to congregate casually.

At ground floor, the Catalyst Centre provides flexible meeting space in the administrative wing, while the first-year teaching labs enjoy ample natural light, thanks to glass partitions and glass flume hoods.

“All the first-year teaching labs are on the ground floor,” said Andrew Arifuzzaman, chief administrative officer, UTSC. “We wanted to bring that sense of animation to let people see people doing science.”

The layout of the labs organizes students into six pods that accommodate 16 students each. Demonstrations occur at the front of the lab, where instructors have a clear sightline to students using the flexible, open benching system.

A central prep area encourages spontaneous interactions between students from different disciplines. As a measure of safety, a special elevator with wave-door controls connects students to the second-floor lab, so they don’t have to travel far with chemicals. Similarly to the movement in office environments toward unassigned spaces, different disciplines share the labs in a way that allows groups to expand and contract as grant money ebbs and flows.

Emergency power

Emergency power is especially important in these facilities, as outages can affect experiments taking place in the labs. A 10,000-litre diesel generator, located on the sixth floor with rest of the building’s guts, is sized for extended power outages.

During the 2013 ice storm that walloped Toronto, the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus lost power for three days. Since there is a 10 to 15-second gap between an outage and the switchover to the generator, the facility also relies on an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) unit.

User groups

Only the lab used for the study of hydrodynamics is housed in the building’s basement, where there is access to floor drains for activities such as chemical spill modeling.

The facility’s core users are faculty, staff and nearly 200 graduate students in the University of Toronto Scarborough campus’ Environmental Science and Chemistry programs. They research issues including climate change, groundwater pollution in urban settings and rising sea levels.

Natural views

The design of the building speaks to this educational focus with its views to Highland Creek, which are shaded by fins of varying depths that dance with the sun to create dynamic interest that shifts with the time of day.

“A visual connection is made between the appearance of this building on the edge of a ravine and its academic pursuits rooted in nature and the environment,” said Nigel Tai, associate, Diamond Schmitt Architects. “You could say nature inspires this highly sustainable building, the building inspires the researchers, the researchers help sustain nature.”

Back outside, on the surroundings grounds, permeable pavers give the fire lane grass cover. Like the earth tubes, the turf-concealed fire lane is one of the rare elements that makes the Environmental Sciences and Chemistry Building unique.

If the University of Toronto Scarborough went into the capital project viewing these and other unique features, largely untested in the GTA, as something of a science experiment, today the post-secondary institution sees it as a successful one worth replicating.

Other post-secondary institutions are taking note, with some staff stopping by to tour the new lab facilities. In April, UTSC learned that the Environmental Sciences and Chemistry Building had earned LEED Gold certification.

Michelle Ervin is the editor of Canadian Facility Management & Design.

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