Rocky Mountain Institute prepares to break ground on Basalt Innovation Center | AspenTimes.com

Rocky Mountain Institute prepares to break ground on Basalt Innovation Center

An architect's drawing shows Rocky Mountain Institute's Innovation Center in a view from Two Rivers Road.

The revitalization of downtown Basalt will start with the turn of a few spades Wednesday afternoon.

Rocky Mountain Institute will officially break ground at 4:30 p.m. on a 15,610-square-foot Innovation Center that will feature offices for as many as 50 workers and meeting space for business and government leaders from around the world who come to study energy efficiency and sustainability. What really has the nonprofit organization's leaders excited is that they will be able to demonstrate through construction and operation of the Innovation Center the principles they promote. They will show instead of just tell.

"It will be one of the most efficient buildings in the world," said Amory Lovins, co-founder, chief scientist and chairman emeritus of the Rocky Mountain Institute.

The Innovation Center will be built on land where Taqueria el Nopal was located near the banks of the Roaring Fork River. The town government sold the site to the nonprofit. The institute has the ability to expand to 20,000 square feet if needed.

“It will be one of the most efficient buildings in the world.”
Amory Lovins, RMI cofounder and chief scientist

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The architect, engineers, builders and the Rocky Mountain Institute are using a collaborative planning and construction process called Integrated Project Delivery that has rarely been used for a commercial building so small. Institute officials said they aim to inspire builders to follow the model, which will save time and money over the life of the building.

The institute has budgeted $7.5 million to construct the building with a tenant finish comparable to what an owner-occupier would undertake, said Marty Pickett, a managing director of the Rocky Mountain Institute and a member of its executive leadership team. It is estimated that 90 percent of the commercial office buildings in the U.S. are less than 25,000 square feet, according to the institute's research. More than half are owner occupied. The institute's priority was to undertake a replicable process and educate builders that their investments in energy efficiency will pay off in the long run.

The Innovation Center will generate more energy than it uses and it will use less water than the precipitation that falls on it, Lovins said. It will be one of the first commercial buildings in Colorado to take advantage of a new state law allowing use of gray water. Rainfall and melting snow will be captured, filtered and reused. No potable water will be used to flush toilets or water the landscaping.

The construction team is aiming to get Living Building Challenge Net Zero Energy Building certification and the LEED Platinum certification for new construction — high benchmarks for green building.

"It will make a statement about our future," Pickett said. "We're making this a 100-year building."

The building doesn't use a lot of a "gee-whiz" technological gizmos, Rocky Mountain Institute researcher Michael Kinsley said. Instead it's designed as a business-case demonstration of what can be achieved today.

"We can make significant progress with existing technology," he said.

That said, the institute is experimenting with an emerging technology called Hyperchair, which retrofits standard office chairs with individual heating and cooling systems — helping eliminate the need for large mechanical systems.

The Rocky Mountain Institute is hosting a public reception and presentation at the Basalt Regional Library at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday to outline all the innovative aspects of the building.

Institute officials said finding the right site was critical for the success of the Innovation Center. Locating to a spectacular setting on the Roaring Fork River and to a site easily accessible to bus service were important factors, officials said.

It was vital to retain a presence in the Roaring Fork Valley, where the nonprofit was founded 32 years ago, according to Pickett. However, the Innovation Center won't be considered the institute's headquarters, she said.

Currently, about one-third of the organization's 100 staff members work in Basalt and two-thirds work in Boulder. Once the Rocky Mountain Institute opens its Basalt office by December 2015, it will have the capacity for as many as 50 workers. It won't grow that fast all at once but will expand the staff steadily over the years, Pickett said.

The Innovation Center also will allow the institute to regularly host 25 to 30 "stakeholders" for workshops on renewable energy and efficiency issues. Its facilities in Snowmass rarely allow it to convene such workshops.

Basalt's proximity to Aspen also gave it an edge when the institute looked for a new place to call home. "We think a lot of our audiences comes to this valley," Kinsley said. When they come, they are often on vacation.

Jon Creyts, managing director for research and collaboration at the institute, said he has experienced firsthand that officials in government and industry find more time to absorb and confer on issues when they visit Aspen as opposed to when they are on the job in their home areas. For that reason, the Innovation Center is likely to be a popular destination with clients.

Kinsley said the Innovation Center has the potential to "really change Basalt in a positive way." It promotes business without encouraging sprawl and drastic, unwanted changes. The center will attract people who will spend time in Basalt's restaurants and shops, he said. Some of Basalt's civic leaders have said they hope to see a more upscale lodging property to accommodate people traveling to Basalt.

The Innovation Center also will help form Basalt's identity, Kinsley said. Roaring Fork Conservancy, a nonprofit that works on water quality and quantity issues, aims to build a river center next to the institute's building. That's spurred talk of a possible nonprofit center in Basalt.

Kinsley said he doesn't think it's a reach to imagine that the nonprofit centers could help shape Basalt's identify just as the Aspen Institute's establishment helped define Aspen's identity in the 1940s and '50s.

"The myth is Basalt is a real pain to go through the land-use process," Kinsley said. While town officials did their jobs and posed some tough questions about RMI's development, he said, they also worked with the nonprofit. "They helped us find solutions."

scondon@aspentimes.com