The new Project Place facility, which offers services to homeless men and women, has a geothermal heating system, which has reduced the building's energy expenses.

Boston’s non-profit agency Project Place has a slogan: “Opening doors to opportunity.”

Started in 1967 as a community outreach for runaway teenagers, the agency has evolved over the last 40 years.

By 1980, Project Place started focusing on the adult community, by providing services to homeless men and women. For more than 20 years, the agency has been providing job-placement services and affordable housing to individuals. In 2005, Project Place evolved again. This time the organization focused on the construction of a new building that would not only help the homeless community, but also help the environment and lower the agency’s energy costs in the process.

The geothermal system at Project Place consists of 31 ground-source heat pumps.

The green challenge

With a construction budget of only $11 million from a combination of public and private sources, Project Place had little money for errors. Construction crews broke ground on the project in October 2005, and the new Project Place, to be called GateHouse, was scheduled to open in January 2007.

Not only was the construction project a race against the clock, it also had to be energy efficient. To accomplish the goal, engineers from Trane were called in for the task.

“Project Place was looking to reduce their monthly utility costs with a system that was both energy efficient and had low carbon emissions,” said Greg Anderson, project manager with Trane. “Trane engineers and the mechanical engineers worked together to develop a geothermal heat pump system.”

Trane served as the HVAC systems supplier and geothermal design consultant as well as the mechanical contractor during the construction phase. The Trane team proposed drilling two geothermal wells and installing 31 ground-source heat pumps to efficiently and reliably heat and cool the building. The ground-source system includes the heat pumps, the ground-source loops, and pumps to circulate the heating-cooling fluid.

“By tapping into the constant temperature of the earth below the frost line, geothermal systems heat and cool the building at significant savings - anywhere from 25 to 50 percent,” Anderson said.

In the summer, the heat pump removes heat from the air in the building and transfers it to the underground loop where the heat is absorbed by the cooler ground. In the winter, liquid circulates through the underground loop and absorbs heat from the earth, transferring it to the heat pump, which extracts the heat and transfers it at a higher temperature to the building.

Trane's geothermal heat pump system removes heat from the air in the building and transfers it to an underground loop where the heat is absorbed by the cooler ground.

Boston winters

While the geothermal heat pump system takes advantage of the summer and winter temperatures, it was the winter months that proved to be the most challenging for Trane on the project.

Anderson explained that geothermal systems work best for new-construction projects because the system is located underground. But what if you are working with often-frozen Boston ground?

“Because of the application type and because of the timing on the project, a big challenge was dealing with the cold weather and frozen ground,” Anderson said. “We needed to drill the wells during the middle of the winter in Boston.”

Besides the frigid temperatures, coordination was another challenge for Trane.

“We had to coordinate the project with the city of Boston because it was completed downtown and we needed to use street space in order to complete,” Anderson said. “Overall, the biggest challenges were working with the schedule and drilling the wells to get the building ready for occupancy on time.”

Trane engineers installed a Tracer Summit building automation system to integrate the mechanical and geothermal systems.

Finishing touches

In the end, Project Place was finished on time and on budget. But Trane didn’t just install the ground-source heat pumps with water-side economizers to handle the building’s 60-ton cooling load.

Trane also provided two makeup-air units, exhaust fans, an energy-recovery ventilator, boiler, a plate and frame heat exchanger and a Tracer Summit building automation system to integrate the mechanical and geothermal systems for better efficiency and easier operation.

The Tracer Summit system includes Trane WebOps software that allows remote access to the Tracer Summit system using any computer with Internet access.

“Our old building was too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. This building is very comfortable and is 40 percent more efficient than a similar building with a traditional HVAC system,” said Suzanne Kenney, Project Place’s executive director. “Trane has been very responsive to our needs. They really took the time to study the building, its usage and to make sure everything is operating correctly.”

With all of the energy-saving design elements, building officials think they can earn certification from the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program. Certification is pending.

But while it waits for that certification, Project Place has obtained the American Institute of Architects 2008 Housing Award. According to the group, the award was established to recognize the best in housing design and “promote the importance of good housing as a necessity of life, a sanctuary for the human spirit and a valuable national resource.”

The new Project Place facility is a six-story building that contains 14 units of affordable studio apartments on the top two floors, with program and office space for the agency below. A ground-floor commercial restaurant helps subsidize the rent for the housing units.

This article and related images were provided by Trane.