Sonnentag Complex team formulating plans for additive sustainability measures

The city and UW-Eau Claire aim to make the complex a “national model for sustainability”


Sam Janssen

With construction set to begin next spring, the university and the city are formulating plans to implement technologies including solar panels, geothermal systems for heating and air conditioning and batteries for energy usage to the complex.

The current scene at the future site of the Sonnentag Complex doesn’t look like much right now.

As cars drive by the site along Menomonie Street, all there is to be seen behind the chain-link fence is large piles of dirt and some overgrown bushes where the building will stand.

However, there are plans being made in these early stages for the complex to have major impacts over the long term, said Kimera Way, the principal officer of Eau Claire Community Complex, Inc.

The complex will serve as a fitness center, Mayo Clinic Health System sports medicine clinic and major event facility.

The city and UW-Eau Claire are working to make the complex a “national model for sustainability,” Way said.

With construction set to begin next spring, the university and the city are formulating plans to implement technologies including solar panels, geothermal systems for heating and air conditioning and batteries for energy usage to the complex, she said.

“We hope to exceed everybody’s expectation for what you would consider to be a sustainable building,” Way said.

Way said all the additive building measures that will be implemented are going to be covered by private donations and partners, so they will not increase the cost of the building being funded by student dollars.

David Delfosse, the vice president of Ayres Associates and the design project manager for the Sonnentag Complex, said UW-Eau Claire and the city are seeing the long-term outlook by prioritizing sustainability for the complex.

“It’s all about making the right decisions at the right time,” Delfosse said.

Delfosse joined the Sonnentag project a year and a half ago when he joined Ayres Associates — a full-service architectural and engineering firm, which he described as having “a lot of experience in the sustainability world and the energy-efficiency world.”

“We’re designing this building to be a 50–100-year-old building. It’s got a long life ahead of it,” Delfosse said.

James Boulter, a professor in public health and environmental studies at UW-Eau Claire, said despite the higher up-front cost of implementing sustainability technologies into the building, they will lead to long-term savings.

“These sorts of technologies — because they’re not yet as widespread — cost more money up front, but their return on investment is actually an almost guaranteed five to eight or even higher percent,” Boulter said.

Boulter said the university does not have a great track record with sustainability in terms of buildings, but this is “not entirely their fault.”

“This is the result of the department of administration at the state level down in Madison that has really prevented the university from being more progressive in terms of building sustainability,” Boulter said.

Outlining the sustainability plans

Ayres Associates has been conducting research on many proposed systems and features for the building by running computer simulations that indicate the potential carbon footprint and energy usage under various scenarios, Delfosse said.

The project team is exploring geothermal heating and air conditioning “very heavily” with the goal in mind of producing a fully electric building that needs no natural gas, Delfosse said.

Implementing geothermal heating and air conditioning will involve drilling deep wells (up to 500 feet into the ground) which work to use the grounds’ heat to regulate the building temperature and keep it steady all year-round, he said.

If the building is too hot, the geothermal system pumps the excess heat into the wells, allowing the ground to extract that heat and pump it back into the building at a much cooler temperature, Delfosse said.

He said the system works the same way in the wintertime.

Delfosse also said they are planning to design an open rooftop for the building that can hold many solar panels.

They are looking into possibly meeting an optimistic goal of creating as much energy with solar as the building will be using, which would make it self-sustaining, Delfosse said. He said the open rooftop gives them the option to add more panels in the future.

“Our strategy at the moment to reduce our carbon footprint is to try to target electric with the advantage of being able to create much of our own power using solar to offset what we need to use,” Delfosse said.

The project team is also in the early stages of exploring battery systems for low-energy usage, Delfosse said.

They have explored ways to store extra energy and use it at a later time, which would be a battery system paired with solar, Delfosse said. He said extra energy could possibly be pushed back out into the public utilities’ power grid and get used in the community.

David Solberg, the interim city manager of Eau Claire, said a battery system could also help for the center to be used as a community shelter in emergency situations if there was a natural disaster.

“This could be a backup facility for people to come to for a few days while the infrastructure gets put back online, and the batteries can help with that,” Solberg said.

Solberg said stormwater filtration systems are also being discussed for the building, which UWEC’s Boulter said would be the “responsible thing to do” due to the building site’s close proximity to the Chippewa River.

“These are very achievable goals,” Boulter said. “You put in the right kinds of landscape structures between the building and the river and you can create natural filtration systems that will handle most runoff situations.”

Delfosse said before these larger systems are even employed, it is critical to design a “building envelope” that is as strong as possible, which refers to the walls, windows, doors, roof and floor of the building.

Good insulation in the building is critical for systems like solar energy to have an even bigger impact, so designing the “building blocks” of the building to be well insulated needs to be the first priority, Delfosse said.

Beyond this, he said power-saving systems such as LED lights that turn on and off automatically among others are being considered.

“The key to this project is we were able to identify this idea that we want to have a resilient building, something that is energy efficient from the start,” Delfosse said. “We’re considering any energy-efficient building systems that we can add to it.”

Accountability within the campus community

Boulter said while all the measures being discussed in the planning will contribute to the building’s sustainability in a positive way, the geothermal systems are “certainly the most important.”

The colder climate in Wisconsin makes the geothermal systems all the more critical, Boulter said.

“Because we are so dependent on heating and cooling in this part of the country, you have to have geothermal because the alternative is fossil fuels,” Boulter said.

Boulter said eliminating carbon emissions from the building will require a smart, energy-efficient design plan.

“As a climate scientist, the most important thing to do is to minimize the carbon footprint of the building,” Boulter said. “Certainly in terms of construction but mostly operationally.”

Maddie Loeffler, the director of the Student Office of Sustainability at UW-Eau Claire, said their on-campus group is “optimistic” about the sustainability plans for the building and will work to make sure the plans actually come to fruition.

“It’s our job to advocate for sustainability on behalf of the student body,” Loeffler said. “If for some reason some of these promises or goals don’t go through, or maybe they’re going to be dropped for budget constraints, we can continue to be that advocate for sustainability and keep pushing to have that actually happen.”