The Divide: How eco-friendly is SUNY Poly’s ZEN building?

The Divide: How eco-friendly is SUNY Poly’s ZEN building?

The final week of April is full of events reminding us that we have a moral obligation to protect our planet from environmental abuse and degradation. And, while the divide between the reality of climate change and the “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” administration we have in Washington is “great” (to quote Trump and his most-used word), locally we can work on ways to be environment-friendly. We can use public transportation, ride bicycles, compost our food waste, increase the use of the three “R’s” – Reuse, Reduce and Recycle, among many other actions.

One of the things that has caused me agita in recent years is all of the praise for the Zero Energy Nanotechnology (ZEN) building. Many people in the “Smart Buildings” field applaud the innovative energy-saving technologies included in ZEN, while forgetting to account for the amount of energy used to get to the building by those who work or go to school in the building. I think ZEN is a wonderful example of a “Smart Building,” however, I also feel that to get the complete picture of how environmentally-friendly ZEN is, all aspects of using the building must be taken into consideration, not just the building itself.

ZEN, the “largest zero energy-capable, mixed-use building in the United States” has a major flaw that keeps eating away at me. The flaw is the location of the building. This “cutting edge” building, which is being touted as having the capability of creating more energy than it uses, is located in an area that is almost impossible to get to without driving! Just about everyone who works or takes classes in ZEN must drive a fossil-fueled, carbon-producing vehicle in order to get to the building.

On any given day, the parking lot adjacent to ZEN is filled with hundreds of cars. I have been told that it is almost impossible to find an empty parking space at ZEN. This says to me that this energy-capable building is not all that it is cracked up to be. The ZEN building utilizes renewable power generation through solar panels and fuel cells. The building is also designed in such a way as to save on the need for electric lights. But, the people who work at ZEN drive cars to get to this $200 million building. When extolling the virtues of ZEN, the representatives of SUNY Polytechnic Institute, the developer, the architect, and all others involved in its construction, fail to mention the adverse affect all of these vehicles have on the environment.

I would like to see SUNY Poly figure out the true carbon footprint of ZEN when transportation impacts are added to the equation. Perhaps one of the professors at SUNY Poly could assign this task to their class: Survey all of the people who work or attend class in ZEN to see what type of transportation they use to get to ZEN. Ask what the round trip miles are from home to ZEN. Ask the make and model of the vehicle that is driven to ZEN. Ask what the average miles-per-gallon is for that vehicle. The students then could take this information and calculate the carbon footprint resulting from the transportation choices used by ZEN’s tenants. The students would be able to determine the true energy efficiency of ZEN and we would have a better handle on how energy-capable ZEN really is in context, not just the building itself. After all, an empty building with its power and water shut-off, could be touted as a zero-energy building despite all of the negative social aspects associated with vacant and abandoned buildings.  

I would ask the professor to go a little bit further and assign a second class to follow-up on the findings of the first class and have this next class investigate the carbon footprint for ZEN if it had been located in an area that was easily accessible by walking, bicycling or public transportation. One site they could look at for this “what if” study is the original site for the Albany Capital Center. You know, the site near Broadway in downtown Albany that has been taken off of the tax rolls and is home to the vacant, and one could say, zero-energy E-Comm buildings. This part of the assignment would also include a survey. Possible questions would be:

If ZEN was located in downtown Albany, would you: (A) Still drive to work? (B) Carpool? (C) Take public transportation? (D) Bicycle to work? (E) Walk to work?

If you drive to work downtown, what is the round trip mileage?

How many miles-per-gallon does your vehicle get?

If you chose not to drive to downtown Albany, but used either public transportation or walked or bicycled or carpooled, how many miles a day are you saving compared to driving to the ZEN building at SUNY Poly?

If ZEN was located in downtown Albany, would you: (A) consider living downtown? (B) consider living in another part of Albany where you could take the bus to ZEN? (C) stay living where you are now and just make adjustments to changes in your travel time?  

Essentially what I am suggesting is that in the name of climate change protection, and as we celebrate Earth Day and March for Science and hold a People’s Climate March, that a post–construction environmental impact study be undertaken on the ZEN building. Let us see what the true impact of ZEN is on the environment and in energy use when transportation to and from the building is factored into the equation. If we are to take seriously the need to “keep it in the ground” and get off of fossil fuels in order to save our planet, then we must go beyond just constructing zero-capable workplaces, and include zero-emission transportation choices, too.  

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