The REC Conference Center's cutting edge

New zero-emissions venue provides ongoing lessons about green technology

January 13, 2010 | By Zsolt Bauer

According to one version of events, uncomfortably hot summer temperatures during a 2005 REC board-member meeting led to the first serious discussions about how best to renovate/refit the organisation's on-site conference facility. Subsequent discussions and plans for reconstruction and financing bore fruit, and the REC Conference Center reopened its doors on June 27, 2008 as one of the region's brightest examples of green building technology.

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BRIGHT FUTURE: In just its second year of operation, the REC Conference Centre is setting regional energy standards. Photos: Gabor Bodo

Open now for just over a year and a half, the REC Conference Center serves as a venue for many REC-related events, is home to several REC staff members (including REC Country Office Hungary), and is rented out with increasing frequency to outside parties for conferences and other group events. The building also serves as a useful and challenging test model for achieving maximum energy efficiency, and the REC's experience with using and managing such a building can provide instructive lessons for institutions and private individuals looking to learn more about green-tech installation.

The building, which served originally as a demonstration building for the Ministry of Environment and Water, was constructed in 1971-72. It then served as a conference venue when the REC headquarters relocated from Budapest to its present location in Szentendre, Hungary in 1996. But the original building had two significant drawbacks, according to Ferenc Andras, head of the REC's Technical Service Department. First, the walls were not insulated, which led to overheating in summer; second, large, unused spaces were not properly closed off, which caused massive losses of heat and energy in cooler months.

OldEventually, the decision was made to convert the conference facility into a zero-emissions building -- a decision made possible through majority funding from the Italian government, along with additional financial support from the governments of Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway. A budget of EUR 2 million covered the entire project, including design, labour, equipment and the necessary permits.The originator of the redesign concept and eventual project head was Federico M. Butera from the Politecnico di Milano, while Gabor Kruppa from Kima Studio in Budapest provided valuable assistance.

In the end, there were several reasons to renovate the existing building rather than to build from scratch. "There was no reason to destroy a sound structure and to build an entirely new foundation, which is not only very expensive, but noisy and dirty as well," Andras explains.

The ins and outs of efficiency

In addition to now being properly insulated, the rebuilt REC Conference Center features an integrated network of three different energy systems: a solar-thermal system, a heat-pump system and a photovoltaic system. According to Andras, the goal for the first year of operation was to become familiar with the new systems and to get them all working properly together; this year's goal is to fine-tune the system network for enhanced energy efficiency.

The solar-thermal system uses sunlight to heat water inside a large tank on the roof, which is then carried as warm/hot water for use inside the building. The system works primarily during the summer months, but is also somewhat effective in late spring and early autumn.

The heat-pump system, which provides heat in winter and acts as a cooling system in summer, is more complicated. Pipes are sunk into 12 holes dug as deep as 100 metres into the ground near the REC's main office building. Water travels up and down through the pipes, taking on warmth from the ground before travelling back into the building to provide energy. One of the difficulties of such a system, according to Andras, is that it needs to be installed with great care. Furthermore, the engineers were sceptical that such a system, lacking valves, could even work. There were hitches and difficulties at first, and the system filters needed cleaning up to three times a week; but operation is smoother now, and the filters now require only a monthly cleaning.

The system's performance coefficient has also improved noticeably in the past year - producing nearly three kilowatt-hours of heat energy for every kilowatt-hour of electric energy put in via energy extraction from the soil. As the maximum coefficient ratio of the REC Conference Center heat pumps is 4/1, there is still room for improvement, which could come from padding the pipes in the ground with more insulation, as well as optimising the automation system on the roof of the building.

On the really bright side, the installation of 140 photovoltaic panels on the REC Conference Center roof -- the largest such installation in Hungary at the time of completion -- has been a resounding success. The panels, which harness 19 percent of sun-ray capacity (a very high figure), produce up to 29 kilowatts of electricity during the summer months, producing a surplus that flows into the local power grid - and a corresponding rebate from the local operator when the days turn darker and colder. Furthermore, the panels have operated maintenance-free from the day they were switched on.

CeilingInside the renovated conference facility, one notices a few differences from a typical building. First of all, there are no light switches. Light is adjusted automatically, though may be dimmed or brightened if necessary by a special remote device. Natural light is distributed evenly throughout the main conference room via undulations in the ceiling, which catch light from a narrow ridge at the top of the windows. This means that the window blinds can remain almost entirely closed without any loss of light, thus serving the dual purpose of keeping the room cooler in summer and warmer in winter. Finally, there is a large dividing wall separating the main conference areas and office space. This prevents heat and energy loss when the conference room is not in use.

In the end, however, the building's many marvellous energy-saving features don't produce results all by themselves. "Users and occupants of green buildings still need to practice energy-saving habits to maximise efficiency," says Andras.

Setting an example?

Many groups, companies and individuals around the world are interested in finding ways to reduce energy consumption and costs. The greatest obstacle to widespread installation and use of green building technology is, however, cost. Equipment and installation is very expensive, and is likely to remain so as long as there is suppressed demand and little market competition. Meanwhile, the only way to forcibly reduce costs would be for governments to provide incentives and/or subsidies for those willing to invest in greener, more energy-efficient technology.

OverheadHopefully, continued operation and monitoring of the REC Conference Center will produce results that will prove influential in helping to pave the way for easier access and affordability of green energy technology.