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New dorm at Massachusetts college features 18,000+ square feet of PCM mats

Ben Welter - Thursday, August 15, 2019

Garfield passive house elements

A new dormitory at Williams College in Massachusetts is equipped with 18,200 square feet of mats filled with phase change material.

Garfield House, completed in time for the first students to move in this month, is designed to achieve Passive House PHIUS+ certification and LEED Gold certification. It features R-38 walls, R-60 roofs, triple-pane windows, high-efficiency energy recovery ventilation units, drainwater heat recovery and a 50 kw photovoltaic array.

The Infinite R PCM mats, made by Insolcorp LLC of New London, N.C., will help keep the passively cooled building comfortable when the weather is warm. The PCM is a salt hydrate with a peak melting point of 73 degrees F and a thermal storage capacity of about 170 joules per gram. The mats are deployed within Garfield's interior walls and above ceilings.

Jacob Higginbottom Jacob Higginbottom, director of higher education design at SGA in Boston, was project manager. He first learned about the potential use of phase change material in building envelopes and interiors in March 2018.

"A member of our team had run across the Infinite R product at a trade show and our client was looking for ways to introduce passive cooling techniques since it’s their campus standard to build residence halls without active cooling," said Higginbottom, right. "Upon research we convinced the client that this could help and they decided to give it a try."

Garfield House has no active cooling system. Did that present any special challenges?

"The fact that Garfield did not have cooling wasn’t necessarily a challenge for the PCM, but perhaps was more of an opportunity for the project itself," said Mick Dunn, Insolcorp president. "The project wasn’t without a cooling source altogether. The design team implemented well-designed ERV/ventilation to leverage cool overnight temperatures. As part of the Passive House design process, some issues were identified with cooling and being able to maintain comfort without the introduction of A/C. So we worked with them to analyze a suitable amount of PCM to help address that cooling issue and help negate the need for investment in mechanical cooling other than ventilation.

"We’ve had numerous applications where the PCM has been used with no active cooling. Most of these have been very large industrial applications where the PCM has been used to control peak plant temperatures in buildings with very high internal heat loads. The results have been very good, and we’ve seen reductions as much as 10 to 15F compared with baseline temps. Sometimes we’ll be using a higher temp PCM to promote natural re-freezing. In more conventional occupied office/housing applications we’d typically still be looking for some kind of mechanical cooling mechanism such as ventilation if air conditioning is not present. And we’d probably be more likely to consider this as a viable strategy in climates such as California or New England than say Florida where humidity and overnight temperatures are very high."

The engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti of New York conducted whole building energy modeling in WUFI Passive, the program required by the Passive House Institute US (PHIUS). The models project cooling demand of 0.74 kBtu per square foot per year and a cooling load of 1.64 Btu per hour per square foot. A PCM thermal simulation model projects a peak cooling reduction of 10 degrees F.

Will the building's actual performance be measured against these metrics in the first year of occupancy?

Elsa Mullin, senior sustainability consultant at Thornton Tomasetti, says PHIUS "does not require post-occupancy measurement and verification after initial occupancy."

Higginbottom said LEED certification for the design portion is completed. All construction requirements have been submitted and he expects a LEED Gold certificate from the U.S. Green Building Council by the end of the month.

He said the use of PCM won't be a factor in the certification process.

"A building like this can easily achieve LEED Gold without the use of this material," he said. "PCM was introduced to address thermal comfort. Active cooling does not dramatically affect the building energy consumption in a use type like this (most loads come from domestic HW and plug loads and ventilation fans which are still required irrespective of cooling design)."

It's the first time Higginbottom has used PCM in a project. He hopes to use it in future projects.

"The interesting part about this product is the ability to fine-tune a building towards net zero or net positive and also to flatten out the demand for cooling and possibly downsize equipment in the future and save money on operating and up front costs," he said. "We would like to have more research to back that up, but it’s a speculation on our part that this would be a benefit to building owners’ first costs and life-cycle costs."

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