Boston University’s new zigzagging tower that looms over the Charles River has garnered plenty of attention because of its unusual shape: Is it meant to be a pile of staggered computer servers? A stack of books? Or a precarious Jenga game?
But in many ways the most important feature of this 19-story tower is what’s happening beneath it, well beyond the view of curious commuters. BU’s 345,000-square-foot Center for Computing & Data Sciences will be heated and cooled by 31 geothermic wells, dug roughly 1,500 feet below the ground. All of its electricity, including the power needed to run the geothermal pumps, has been secured through a broader, long-term campus procurement with a wind farm in South Dakota. There’s not one natural gas pipe to be found.
As it opens to professors and staff this month, and to students next month, the tower will be by far the largest net-zero carbon building in Boston, and probably all of New England. BU leaders say it’s also the biggest geothermal building they’re aware of to go up in a dense urban environment anywhere in the United States.
The completion of the structure, built by Suffolk Construction and designed by KPMB Architects, represents an important milestone for state and city efforts to push building systems toward the point in which they do not result in an increase in carbon emissions.
“It’s a tremendous moment,” said Joe Curtatone, president of the Northeast Clean Energy Council. “It’s not [just] the optics, but the realization it can be done.”
Within a few years, Boston officials will start requiring that systems in large and midsized buildings gradually move toward net-zero emissions. The Wu administration also wants Boston to be one of 10 communities in the state to be allowed to impose bans on fossil-fuel hookups for most new construction.
Developers, BU president Bob Brown said, are paying close attention to the university’s newest addition, which went up on a BU-owned parking lot along Commonwealth Avenue. (The site was once home to a Burger King, and the project was often labeled internally at BU with the initials “BK.”)
The electric bill to heat a building of this size would be astronomical, if not for the geothermal wells that rely on the earth’s relatively constant temps to provide heat in the winter and to remove it in the summer. This computing and data sciences center won’t be stuffed with servers; nearly all of the computing will be done on servers housed 90 miles away, in Holyoke, in a hydroelectric-powered complex BU shares with several other universities.
Brown expects the $305 million building’s geothermal system will pay for itself within a decade, in terms of energy savings.
“Something that has a decade or more payback, we can consider,” Brown said. “A developer may consider it differently [if] they’re going to flip it.”
There’s another challenge to going geothermal: finding a place to drill the wells. In this case, only four of the 31 wells are actually under the building; the rest are under an adjacent alley.
“We own the alleyway, we had a place to drill them,” said Walt Meissner, BU’s associate vice president of operations. “Many city buildings don’t have that luxury.”
Nonetheless, there will be plenty of lessons to be learned. At least that’s what Green Energy Consumers Alliance chief Larry Chretien hopes. The BU building could serve as a good laboratory to study maintenance and operations of these geothermal systems for future construction projects.
“Anything that is that groundbreaking, pun intended, on its own, it’s a drop in the bucket,” Chretien said. “Its real value is on the issue of replication . . . I’m optimistic that over the long run, these geothermal projects will be all over the place.”
Still, it’s reasonable to expect that most of the building’s 1,300 faculty members and staffers — as well as most of the students who pack its 800 classroom seats — will pay more attention to its structural design than to its HVAC systems. The tower essentially is broken into a stack of six blocks, sitting atop each other in a staggered way, above a five-story podium. Most of the classes will take place on the podium levels, with offices and smaller workrooms up above. Each block is intended to be a “neighborhood,” to use BU’s word, assembling people together in a particular department, with common rooms and terraces that offer killer views of the city and beyond.
Professors have already started to unpack. One was so inspired by the design, he created miniature wooden replicas of the building to give to colleagues as holiday ornaments.
The zigzag shape wasn’t BU’s idea, but university officials did tell KPMB Architects they wanted the building to be memorable.
“This is the most prominent piece of property we have on the Charles River,” Brown said. “We talked about something distinctive. I think we got it.”
But the precise inspiration for the shape may have to remain a mystery. Even the university president can’t say for sure.
“I like ‘Stack of Books,’” Brown said, “better than a ‘Jenga Tower.’”