Rocky Mountain Institute aims to inspire energy efficiency with Basalt building |

Rocky Mountain Institute aims to inspire energy efficiency with Basalt building

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Architects on a tour of Rocky Mountain Institute's Innovation Center in Basalt investigate creative aspects of the construction.
Jeremy Wallace/The Aspen Times |

The Rocky Mountain Institute isn’t waiting until its new office and Innovation Center in Basalt is completed to try to use the super-efficient building as an education tool.

Twenty-five architects and building officials were invited on a private tour of the partially constructed facility Thursday to showcase innovative approaches and uses of materials. It was the first professional tour of the building, according to Senior Consultant Michael Kinsley.

Kinsley was upfront with the building professionals that the institute hoped they would be inspired enough by the energy-efficient design of the 15,600-square-foot building that they would encourage clients to try the techniques and products used for the Innovation Center.

“The story of the building is as important as the building itself,” he said.

The Rocky Mountain Institute’s mantra is that energy-efficient construction should be pursued not because it’s “green” but because it “makes sense.” Kinsley said once the construction is completed, the institute would share its costs and the savings it expects to reap from features such as a highly insulating envelope wrapping the building. The exterior is currently wrapped like a cocoon in a blue air-and-weather barrier that’s integrated into the foundation.

The goal is to build a net-zero energy usage building at a price comparable to what it would cost for a more conventional building.

“We’re pushing real hard to make the numbers work on this thing,” Kinsley said.

Once savings are factored in from lower energy use, the institute hopes to show the extra effort to go net zero is well worth the effort.

“This is not a building for greenies. It’s a building for normal people,” Kinsley said.

The Rocky Mountain Institute’s website said the Innovation Center will be the most efficient building in the coldest climate zone in the U.S.

“Including solar PV, our building will be net zero, producing as much or more energy than it uses on an annual basis,” the website said. “There are under 200 net-zero or emerging net-zero buildings in the U.S.”

Windows will open at night to cool the building. Much of the heating will be achieved through passive solar gain via the massive windows facing south. Venetian blinds that automatically open and close depending on temperature will be used on the exterior of the south-side windows. No fossil fuels will be used in the building.

More information about features of the Innovation Center can be found at

Doug Graybeal, Rocky Mountain Institute’s local architect, and representatives of general contractor J.E. Dunn led the visit by the professionals last week and answered numerous questions about materials and techniques. ZGF Architects LLP of Portland, Oregon, is the lead architect.

The use of cross-laminated timbers captured the attention of the architects. The unique structural-flooring system utilizes beetle-kill lumber from British Columbia. It is strong without taking up a lot of space, so there is more room between the ceilings and floors. That allows daylight to penetrate farther into the structure.

After the meeting, Kinsley said architects tend to be creative, but they often get “pounded down to dust” by clients. The institute hopes its tours and the economics of the building will let them answer affirmatively the question, “Do I want to take on this additional challenge?”

It’s a big question. The institute estimates that its building is similar in size to 90 percent of U.S. commercial offices. Therefore it wants a project that is replicable.

At least one and possibly two more tours will be conducted for building professionals. The general public will be invited to tour the Innovation Center once construction is further along and safety isn’t an issue.

The institute’s goal is to move its Roaring Fork Valley workers from offices from the Windstar property in Old Snowmass to Basalt in January.