Energy academy provides a low-tech lesson for the future

It’s a given that fossil fuels are a finite resource and it’s only a matter of time before they run out. The problem is buildings use a lot of energy, so planning for the future has never been more important.



aced with this challenge, the team behind the design of an award-winning building in the Netherlands decided to create a building which demonstrates innovative design, materials and technologies that will serve as an example at a time when fossil fuels and other polluting, high-consumption solutions are a thing of the past.

Bringing together science, teaching and business interests under one roof, the Energy Academy Europe has set itself on a path towards a CO2-neutral university and one that produces more energy than it consumes. This exemplary and inspiring project is without equal among education-related buildings in the Netherlands.

An ambitious green strategy

BREEAM award-winning and the most sustainable education-related building in the Netherlands, the Energy Academy Europe has been built on the Zernike Campus Groningen and provides a meeting place for students, entrepreneurs and researchers who work daily on innovative and sustainable ideas. Based on the BREEAM guiding principles, the unique design demonstrates how a building can make optimal use of the natural elements – earth, water, air and sunlight – as primary sources of energy. Comprising two sections, the 15,000m² building has research areas with laboratories and related offices have been built on the north side, while the south side houses workspaces, teaching rooms and a winter garden which serves as an important buffer zone, where air can be acclimatised.

The design team worked along with these challenging energy performance standards:

  • Zero emissions (after 40 years, including construction)
  • BREEAM-NL ‘Outstanding’
  • EPC = 0 or less
  • 51kWh/m² per year (which is extremely low for an education-related building)
  • Earthquake-safe (added later on during the design phase).

By taking a low-tech approach to energy, the design of the compact building makes optimum use of readily-available natural resources, such as earth, water, air and sunlight. Energy is generated using solar panels; a ‘solar chimney’ helps with natural ventilation, the winter garden creates a pleasant indoor climate and geothermal energy is used to heat and cool the air.

Finally, rainwater is collected for flushing the toilets and watering the plants. If natural resources temporarily prove insufficient, back-up installations have been fitted for heating, ventilation and lighting systems.

Rooftop energy

In order to achieve these highly ambitious sustainability objectives, the building has an unusual design with a sloping roof facing south for optimum solar performance. The roof is fitted with around 1600 solar panels, arranged in 133 triangles so that natural daylight can penetrate deeply into the building, reducing the need for artificial light.

The solar chimney is a striking solution for providing natural ventilation at the right temperature. The solar chimney on top of the building is a warm spot that stimulates the airflow. Air enters the building underground and flows slowly through a long system of ducts (i.e. the 200m-long labyrinth) under the building, where it is heated in winter or cooled in summer with geothermal energy to ensure the right air temperature.

This natural ventilation saves approximately 20% in energy. On warm summer nights there is additional cooling through a natural process that requires no energy. Cool night air flows through the interior winter garden via the atrium and through the entire building, so that the next day occupants can start their day in a cool working environment.

The building also makes a sustainable contribution to its immediate ecological surroundings. A ‘fauna tower’ and fauna-friendly green spaces have been designed to attract bats and swifts, as well as insects, such as bees and butterflies. Adjacent verges of wild flowers also attract insects, which then serve as food for the birds and bats.

To ensure a pleasant climate, the CO2 levels in every space are constantly monitored. If they are too high, the mechanical ventilation will function as back-up supplying more fresh air into a space so that occupants always work in a pleasant climate.

Below ground

The heating and cooling comes mainly from the ground. Two water reservoirs are located at a depth of 100m – one for heating and one for cooling. In summer, the cold water is pumped up and absorbs heat in the building. This now warmed water is then pumped back into the second reservoir.

In winter, this process is reversed. The water is further heated by a heat pump which efficiently turns electricity into heat which is distributed throughout the building for underfloor heating (60% of the heating), to heat the airflow through climate ceilings and to heat tap water. When needed, cool water can be used from the nearby pond.

Rainwater that flows down the sloping roof is filtered and stored in the reservoir. This water is used to water the plants in the winter garden and to flush the toilets.

Fostering innovation in the field of energy, the Energy Academy Europe (EAE) brings together institutes including the owner, The University of Groningen, Hanze University of Applied Sciences, Energy Academy Europe, Energy Valley and Energy Delta Institute who will work together towards the transition to a sustainable energy future.

Commenting on the benefits of BREEAM, Pieter van Hoesel, Project Manager at University of Groningen, said: “The BREEAM guidelines help us to make highly sustainable buildings like the Energy Academy Europe in an objective and structural way. The institutes within the Energy Academy Europe focus their efforts on the transition to a reliable, sustainable and affordable energy future.

“Housing in a BREAAM-certified building supports this important aim. We want to develop more highly sustainable buildings in the future. BREEAM certification helps to fulfil this policy.”

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