RMI’s future is now with Innovation Center in Basalt | AspenTimes.com

RMI’s future is now with Innovation Center in Basalt

IF YOU GO

RMI will hold open houses at its new Innovation Center in Basalt on the following days:

Jan. 20 from noon to 2 p.m.

Jan. 27 from 2 to 4 p.m.

Feb. 10 from noon to 2 p.m.

Before the Rocky Mountain Institute broke ground on its Innovation Center in Basalt two years ago, officials stressed they aimed to inspire the public and building industry rather than construct a pie-in-the-sky structure.

Now the institute is delivering on the promise to share the latest information available on achievable and replicable "deep green" construction. The world-renowned sustainability and energy-efficiency nonprofit organization launched public tours last week and will continue to hold them throughout January and February. Once those open houses conclude, the institute will likely hold regular weekly tours for the public, and it will offer virtual tours on its website, said marketing manager Kelly Vaughn. Everyone from the Basalt Boy Scout Troop to the Aspen City Council has tours set up this month.

Several dazzling characteristics pop out as soon as you enter the Innovation Center: 40 percent of the structure is highly insulated glass, plants climb 20 or so feet to create a green wall in the atrium, nature-inspired art hangs on the walls, regal wood beams and local beetle-kill lumber highlight the interior and each work station is furnished with a Hyperchair, an emerging technology that allows an individual to control heating and cooling through mechanisms built into the seat and back.

But for Craig Schiller, an Rocky Mountain Institute associate who works on sustainable buildings, the eye candy isn't the big story of the building. Schiller, who was part of the design team, said so many high-tech strategies were integrated to make the Innovation Center a net-zero structure — one that will produce more energy than it consumes on an annual basis, thanks in large part to a solar photovoltaic system on the roof.

When dividing the energy use by square footage, the building is in rarified air. It is expected to be among the top 20 buildings in the country for energy-use intensity and the most efficient in the coldest climate zone in the U.S. It will use 74 percent less energy than the average building in this climate, according to Energy Star.

Passive measures were put to work on such a high degree that mechanical cooling and central heating were eliminated. Floor-to-ceiling windows line the entire south side of the center. That not only provides great views of the Roaring Fork River but also allows sunlight to flood in for natural lighting and heating. An automated exterior curtain will keep the building cool when the sunlight is intense.

A construction method called cross-laminated timbers allows more conduits to be crammed into a smaller space between the ceiling and floor of the second story, so the ceilings are higher without increasing the overall height. Higher ceilings allow the sunlight to penetrate further.

The only mechanical systems are for ventilation and localized backup heating. On nights during warm spells, the center's windows and ventilation system will flush out the air. The coldest the building will ever be will be mornings of summer days when higher temperatures are anticipated.

Monitors in the floors, in the rooms and even at workstations track and adjust energy consumption.

The center includes an 80-person meeting hall — the White Styer Impact Studio — and space for as many as 50 workers. The Rocky Mountain Institute has completed the transfer of its offices from the Windstar property at Old Snowmass to the Innovation Center. Vaughn said roughly 25 employees are based in Basalt.

The design is intended to increase comfort and productivity among the employees in addition to boosting energy efficiency, Schiller said. A growing body of research over the past 15 years shows the value of factors such as airflow, temperature and connections with green spaces on worker output, he said.

The building cost about 11 percent more to construct than one that would have met LEED Silver designation, Schiller said. The institute's research showed it would cost about $448 per square foot to achieve LEED Silver. The nonprofit added $67 per square foot for wood finishes and features needed for a world-class convening center, Vaughn said. There was another $54 per square foot more to achieve net-zero energy use, which will get paid off in just four years, she said.

"The idea is that as an independent nonprofit, we 'can pay for the learning curve so you don't have to,'" Vaughn said in an email. "Because we are testing this innovative design, the cost can be mitigated as later, similar designs are pursued and the building's design principles and technologies are scaled."

The technology used in the center is available and in use in other structures, but the institute integrated technology to a nearly unparalleled degree. "We weren't prepared for this level of complexity," Schiller said. "This is pushing our boundaries."

The engineers on the project are already getting requests for specific aspects of the structure from other builders. The Rocky Mountain Institute intends for the building to be a leader in green design for a long time to come. If it isn't, it won't be a success, Vaughn said. Schiller concurred.

"This is built to be as leading edge in 50, 100 years from now as it is today," Schiller said.

scondon@aspentimes.com