The Earth Simulation Lab and the renovation of a concrete colossus

Alex en Hetty bij het Earth Simulation Lab

The brand-new Earth Simulation Lab (ESL) is located in a wooded corner of the Utrecht Science Park. The building was completed at the end of 2018. Not a new building, but the thorough renovation of a laboratory specially built in 1958 for a particle accelerator. The sixties building was in a dilapidated state, but the sturdy concrete structure was perfect for the needs of the Faculty of Geosciences.

The building is home to several labs where scientists investigate the activity of tectonic plates, currents and tides and the influence of high pressure and temperatures. In the basement there is a freezer (reaching temperatures as low as -80 degrees!) for storing samples of ice from the polar region.

With its Excellent BREEAM status (a method for measuring the sustainability of new and existing buildings), it is one of the most sustainable buildings at the Utrecht Science Park. “It’s actually a sneak preview,” says Alex Ziegler, sustainability advisor for the Corporate Real Estate & Campus department, “at the beginning of 2019, Utrecht University decided that all new university buildings and renovations would be circular, healthy and energy-generating, just like the ESL is now.”

This is a crucial step in the transition to a sustainable university. There are currently still many university buildings that use too much, and inefficient, energy. This puts pressure on the carbon footprint. Making the real estate stock more sustainable is one of the key strategies for achieving carbon neutrality by 2030.

Earth Simulation Lab

A climate façade

“In addition to LED lighting, the 125 solar panels on the roof and the connection to the thermal energy storage network, the climate façade is a major sustainable component of this building,” says Hetty Eikelboom, the University’s coordinator for the entire project. “The building has a double façade. An ordinary wall with windows and an extra wall of glass, with 40 centimetres in between the two. The air in the shaft between the two façades acts as a layer of protection and regulates the temperature in the building without consuming extra energy. In the summer, the space in between absorbs the warm sunlight, and the heat in the shaft automatically rises. In winter, the space acts as a layer of insulation between the cold outside and the heat inside.”



“The building is a box. By adding internal windows and skylights, we have ensured that the rooms in the middle also get a good amount of daylight. This is good for both the researchers and sustainability. More daylight means fewer light bulbs,” says Hetty.

Not all sustainability measures are equally visible. “For the BREEAM certification, you can also score points for making it more attractive to leave your car at home,” says Alex. “That’s why we didn’t put any parking spaces around the building and why there’s a screen in the hall showing the departure times at the nearest public transport stops.”

Birds and bats

Anyone walking around the building would be forgiven for thinking that the builders had forgotten to complete a section of tiling in three places. But in fact, these are nesting boxes for bats. On the roof there are nesting boxes for wagtails and next to the building there is an insect hotel. These may seem trivial measures, but they are an integral part of improving and protecting the natural value of the surroundings.