Reaching Net Zero | Library Design

Colorado College’s library renovation added space, services, and facilities while achieving ambitious sustainability goals.

Colorado College’s library renovation added space, services, and facilities while achieving ambitious sustainability goals

Since 2009, Colorado College (CC) has been working toward becoming entirely carbon neutral—offsetting carbon dioxide emissions by reducing consumption or using renewable energy sources—by 2020. So when this small private liberal arts college in Colorado Springs began planning the renovation of the school’s Charles L. Tutt Library, whether to make it a sustainable building was never in question.

CC’s Campus Sustainability Council—an advisory group comprised of faculty, staff, and students representing various departments across campus—was at the forefront of the discussions. As ideas were floated about adding square footage and modernizing and remodeling existing facilities, the aim of carbon neutrality was always top of mind.

In April 2015, the council brought a resolution to CC president Jill Tiefenthaler, explaining that in order to reach the college’s sustainability objectives as well as meet the needs for a larger, state-of-the-art building, the library would need to be not only carbon neutral but also net-zero energy, producing as much energy as it consumes. Tiefenthaler and the Board of Trustees concurred, and the net-zero target set the tone for the subsequent process of visioning, designing, and building the new library.

LET THE SUN SHINE Tutt’s exterior shows off its clean lines, with the red-orange rain screen creating shade and dissipating heat. Photo ©Steve Lerum

The $45 million renovation, completed in August 2017, has already received one of three 2017 Innovation Awards from the National Association of College and University Business Officers. Yet perhaps most important, it is moving CC toward its sustainability goals.

“This is a leading-edge building that sets the stage for not only how other campuses and other places can do this but also for our campus,” says CC sustainability director Ian Johnson. “We’ve been increasing the performance of our buildings with each large project.”

Gearing up for energetic usage

“The library is the academic and intellectual hub of campus,” Tutt director JoAnn Jacoby tells LJ. “It was designed to bring together library services [and] the core print collections, as well as parts of our IT organizations and our Academic Excellence services.”

It was also designed to accommodate CC’s Block Plan, an academic schedule that allows students to study a single subject intensively for three and a half weeks, rather than juggle multiple subjects throughout a traditional, longer semester. The entire college runs one block at a time, which means the library can get heavily bottlenecked during the last days of each block, when it is open 24 hours a day. Thus, its spaces have to be designed for maximum flexibility as well as meeting increased energy usage needs.

To that end, the renovation included some 25,000 additional square feet—a 35 percent increase in area—and nearly doubled the library’s seating capacity. A data visualization lab, a geospatial information systems (GIS) lab, and an experimental classroom equipped with teaching technology were created, as well as seven classroom spaces that can be repurposed after morning classes end for afternoon study, conferences, or meetings. Three outdoor terraces and a third-floor café were also added.

Public computers were reduced by about a third. Instead, circulating laptops and device chargers meet student needs. More than 400,000 volumes of the print collection have returned from the remote storage facility where they were kept during construction; thanks to new compact shelving, they no longer take up the majority of the library’s floor space. Lower demand material remains off-campus and is delivered within several hours upon request.

An Energy Give and Take

Net-zero energy functionality is achieved through a number of coordinated systems. A geothermal energy field, a grid of 80 five-and-a-half-inch-wide wells drilled 400 feet into CC’s Armstrong Quad, circulates water—and heat—to and from the library. During summer, it cools the library, with heat expelled from the building returned to the ground in a continuous loop. In the heating season, the library pulls in the stored heat, along with ambient geothermal heat, to warm the facility.

Temperature regulation is controlled by a VRF system—short for variable refrigerant flow—which responds to thermostats in various rooms and areas. The building’s south side, for instance, receives a lot of sun and needs to cool down during the summer; the north side often requires additional heat in winter. “Traditionally, we’d have two separate systems…more or less be battling it out,” says Johnson; VRF instead takes excess heat and moves it where it needs to go.

A 115 kilowatt rooftop solar array supplies a portion of the library’s electrical usage, augmented by a 400 kilowatt off-site solar array nearby. In addition, a 130 kilowatt combined heat and power (CHP) system uses 100 percent natural gas to generate electricity and capture the heat produced from that combustion to heat the building, cutting down on emissions. This supplements the energy produced by the geothermal field; excess heat that can’t be used by the library is sent to the campus heat distribution system. Unused electrical power is fed back into the municipal utility grid.

KEEPING IT BRIGHT Library renovations emphasize natural light and flexible spaces. Top: The Colket Center for Academic Excellence added new seating options and adaptable study space without sacrificing print materials. Bottom: the fourth-floor reading room offers abundant student seating and great views. Photos ©Steve Lerum

Colorado Springs gets more than 300 days of sunshine in the average year, bringing in natural light through Tutt’s nearly 13,000 square feet of windows. LED lighting is installed throughout, with occupancy and light sensors for maximum efficiency and blinds to keep rooms cool during the hottest times of day.

Built-in energy-conserving features include increased insulation, a rain screen around the building’s perimeter to conserve or dissipate heat as needed, and a green roof to provide shade, reduce solar gains, and add aesthetic flair.

The third-floor café sources local and sustainable ingredients whenever possible and composts coffee grounds. In addition to standard recycling containers, compost bins are located throughout the library as well. Break rooms are now shared among departments.


The original Tutt Library, built in 1962, was a classic example of the era’s brutalist architecture, sheathed in prefab concrete slabs broken by narrow vertical slit windows. An adjacent two-story addition was built in 1979, and a 2004 renovation replaced the concrete on the east side with thermal glass panes, giving library users a view of the surrounding Rocky Mountains and Pike’s Peak. A full transformation of the building, begun as part of the college’s strategic planning in 2007, was shelved after the economic downturn of 2008–09.

Those plans were resumed in 2013, when Tiefenthaler began imagining a library remodeled to support the Block Plan. In 2014, CC began a campuswide visioning process, gathering data on what the community wanted from its library—services and amenities as well as design and preservation concerns. Boston-based architects MASS Design Group produced initial conceptual renderings. Over the course of the 2014–15 school year, plans for the new Tutt Library began to take shape.

BREAK TIME Tutt’s third-floor Susie B’s café sources local, sustainable ingredients whenever possible and composts all organic waste; it has become a popular spot for faculty office hours. Photo ©Steve Lerum


A Request for Proposal (RFP) was issued in 2015, with the contract going to Pfeiffer Partners Architects. Farris Engineering, an Omaha-based firm with offices in Colorado Springs, designed the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing elements, with G.H. Phillips as general contractor. Construction began in May 2016 and was completed just in time for the beginning of classes in fall 2017, when Jacoby stepped in as director.


The price tag was not a barrier to the planning process. The project received nearly $20 million in gifts, and work was completed within the original budget projected before the net-zero energy construction goal was set.

Because the concept was incorporated into the planning early on, costs were not excessive.

“If you design a building as a suite of systems that work harmoniously together to achieve the goal of net-zero, it can be done relatively inexpensively,” explains Johnson. “If you design a building and then come back and say, ‘Okay, now how do we make this net-zero?’ that gets very expensive. If it’s designed from the ground up with that as the intent, it can be done without a whole lot of extra costs.”

One way CC kept costs down was by opting not to pursue third-party verification such as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) or the International Living Future Institute’s Net Zero Energy Building certification. “Those are all really good things, and they’ve changed the [building] landscape,” says Johnson, “but in some ways they’re also pay-to-play systems.” While those fees pay for important oversight, he notes, in CC’s case “they are also dollars that could be used to make important changes on the building.” LEED certification turned out to be more expensive than the cost of any of the individual net-zero components. Instead, planning focused on system performance and how to verify and assess energy use ­internally.


Now that the library is up and running, the next step is to commission the building—to balance all the elements. “There are multiple systems that work together to make this…a net-zero building, and they all have to function pretty precisely to make that happen—and that doesn’t happen on day one,” Johnson explains. “You have to adjust one system, see how that impacts things for a period of time, go back, adjust some of the other systems. This is actually a one- to two-year process, getting it dialed in to perform the way that it was designed to perform.”

Another challenge involves effectively communicating that performance to the CC community on an ongoing basis; the net-zero assessment will be made at the end of the first year and then calculated again each fiscal year. The Office of Sustainability is working with students to create a dashboard that shows the library’s energy use at any given time, which resource that energy is drawn from and where it’s going, and the net average usage over the course of the year—and displaying the information in real time.

“That’s a difficult thing to put together in a single user-friendly, easy-to-understand dashboard,” says Johnson. “So many different sources and meters monitoring all of these systems—collecting them all and making sure they display the right units at the right time against one another is a large undertaking, plus conveying it in a way that people can readily understand.” But it’s an important step, he notes. “It’s incumbent upon us to educate people as to how the building is working and whether it’s achieving the goals.”

The dashboard is likely to see widespread use once complete. Students are proud of the building, says Johnson; interns at the Office of Sustainability have been leading tours, and several students have talked about the possibility of doing research or a senior thesis about the library.

The Tutt’s philosophy, posted on physical and digital signage throughout, repurposes a well-known ­wilderness principle: Leave no trace. “It’s something that resonates with this community and with the intentions of the building,” notes Jacoby—“and I think it’s an effective way to encourage people to clean up after themselves.”

That is as critical a system for sustainability as any ­mechanical installation. “Issues like sustainability require solutions that are human and creative and social and ­political,” says Jacoby, “as much, or perhaps more so, than technical.”

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