Columbia University Facilities and Operations Behind the Scenes - The Central Plant

The Columbia University campus is like a small city in looking at the diversity of activities taking place, from offices to research labs, housing to food venues, and more.

How does the university provide temperature control and humidity in sensitive lab settings and maintain comfortable temperatures in classrooms, offices and residence halls on the Morningside campus - reliably, sustainably and cost effectively?

To the average person, the question may sound like a riddle. The actual answer is not far from one, either.

The complicated solutions and inherent challenges in meeting the diverse and demanding utility needs of a 120 year-old campus spread across 32 acres and covering 63 buildings and more than 6.5 million square feet energizes the engineers and professionals in Facilities and Operations responsible for this often forgotten but critical part of supporting a leading research university.

Central Plant

The original Morningside campus design in 1896 included a district energy system. The system, which was advanced for its time, built infrastructure able to deliver low-pressure steam produced at a central plant for heating across campus while cogenerating electricity.

As technology advances and new concepts arise - such as air conditioning and chilled water becoming more mainstream in the middle of the 20th Century and the focus on sustainability in recent history - so too does the need to reexamine the campus infrastructure plan.

By 2007, aging equipment, inefficient systems, additional capacity requirements, new NYC compliance laws, and new sustainability goals all contributed to a need to reassess the campus's utility needs and objectives, and evaluate how the current system and equipment was meeting them.

Born from there was the development of a central energy plant master plan.

Updates in FY15

Changes and investments since then have aligned with the objectives and strategies of the master plan - including work undertaken in FY15. Highlights of work done in FY15 for multi-year projects related to the district energy system were:

The Future

Looking ahead beyond these multi-year projects, the plant engineering team is developing plans and assessing feasibility to deliver chilled water to the southeast side of campus, and is also developing plans for a cogeneration plant (combined heat and power). The cogeneration plant would be located in the CEPSR sub-basement.

"The efficient and reliable operation of the campus's district energy system is an often forgotten but vital service supporting the university's core research mission," said Frank Martino, vice president of Facilities Operations for Columbia University Facilities and Operations. "The Facilities and Operations team is excited about the improvements that we are making to the central plant, not only because the engineering challenges require us to develop innovative solutions, but also because we know that we're making a positive impact for the faculty, students, and staff."