Building a better UNewly renovated mechanical engineering building example of sustainable University of Utah campus

Rio Tinto Kennecott building

PHOTO CREDIT: Dan Hixson, University of Utah College of Engineering

Rio Tinto Kennecott Building

The newly renovated Rio Tinto Kennecott Mechanical Engineering Building at the University of Utah goes well beyond the adage of “what’s old is new again.”

The completely remodeled building is not just bigger and newer, it’s also much safer, more energy efficient and the latest example of the U’s efforts to build one of the most sustainable campuses in the country.

A dedication for the new building, 1495 E. 100 South, will be held Friday, Oct. 9, at 1:30 p.m. in the third floor Sidney and Marian Green Classroom. On hand for the ceremony will be U President David W. Pershing; Richard B. Brown, dean of the College of Engineering; and Nigel Steward, managing director of Rio Tinto Kennecott.

Following the dedication, tours will be conducted in the new building. Photo opportunities for news media include the department’s robotics labs and a temporary display of an advanced F-35 cockpit demonstrator provided by Hill Air Force Base that shows off what it is like to fly the new military jet.

“The new Mechanical Engineering Building shows how far we have come in building technology,” said Brown. “When I joined the U 11 years ago, my office was in the Kennecott Building. It had no insulation in the walls, single-pane windows, an HVAC system that didn’t work well, and it was one of the worst places on campus to be if an earthquake should occur. I am delighted that the new Rio Tinto Kennecott Building sets the standard for energy efficiency and seismic robustness.”

The four-year, $24 million renovation was completed this month and has become the new home for the college’s mechanical engineering department with nearly 60 offices, 11 student study areas, five conference rooms and 12 research labs. The project was completed using all non-state and private funds, including a lead gift from Rio Tinto Kennecott.

What began as a 54,000-square-foot building built in the 1950s for Kennecott Utah Copper Corp.’s research offices has now become a 76,000-square-foot U lab space with the latest in energy-saving technology and safety features:

  • Energy-efficient elevators — The building has two KONE EcoSpace elevators, special cars that use smaller motors with less horsepower than regular hydraulic elevators. The cars also generate and store electricity every time they go down and save about 30,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year.
  • Chilled beam system — Instead of standard air conditioners, the building uses a “chilled beam system” in which cold water moves through pipes that cool the warm air. The system uses 53 percent less energy than a standard system.
  • Heating system — The building has boilers that are 95 percent efficient, much higher than standard heating systems.
  • Tighter envelope — The building has a tighter seal to prevent air from leaking out and therefore requiring less energy to heat or cool. The new areas of the building also have a “rainscreen,” a gap in the walls that prevents heat and moisture from penetrating.
  • Earthquake stabilization — The building is constructed with shear walls – thick, rigid concrete walls that can absorb more shock from an earthquake. “Building restrained braces,” special diagonal braces that are designed to absorb vibrations from an earthquake, were also installed. Finally, “micropiles” were used in the construction. These elements for the foundation also hold well under earthquakes but have a much smaller footprint so construction workers didn’t have to demolish as much of the building to install the shear walls.
  • Horizontal fire shutter — In the building’s four-story atrium is a horizontal shutter designed to close automatically in the case of a fire. When closed it prevents fire and smoke from spreading to the rest of the floors and allows the building to meet fire code without using giant circulating fans that require much more electricity.
  • Walkway — A new pedestrian walkway was constructed over North Campus Drive that connects the building to the rest of the campus to provide a safe crossing.

All told, the building will use nearly 53 percent less energy than a standard compliant building, and it is expected to receive a LEED Gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.

“From where we took this building to where it is now, the swing is immense,” said Derrick Larm, the project’s chief architect. “We improved it in every way. It is definitely one of the most energy-efficient buildings on campus.”

The University of Utah’s mechanical engineering department, one of seven disciplines in the College of Engineering, has more than doubled in size in the last 15 years and is the college’s largest department.

“Mechanical engineering has always been an attractive field in one way or another. It’s such a broad discipline,” said Mechanical Engineering Department Chairman Tim Ameel. “There’s a lot of interest in robotics. We’re also tackling a lot of environmental problems. We’re working on a lot of alternative energy systems as well as conservation. There are a lot of things at the forefront.”

Media Contacts

Tim Ameeldepartment chairman, mechanical engineering
Office: 801-585-7925

Deb Williamsadministrative program coordinator, mechanical engineering
Office: 801-581-3605

Vincent Horiuchipublic relations associate, College of Engineering
Office: (801) 585-7499 Mobile: (801) 556-5187


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