Net-zero energy for small office building

rmiic-8Rocky Mountain Institute rethinks energy use in small office buildings 

New headquarters in aims to become national model

BASALT, Colo. – Amory Lovins has been bragging for years about his banana production near Aspen, so there are high expectations at Rocky Mountain Institute’s new office complex.

Not surprisingly, the RMI team expects to deliver. The team has spent the last two years designing the 15,610-square-foot Innovation Center, and it will be different from any small office building you’ve ever been in. Here’s just one hint: there will be no mechanical room, no centralized heating or cooling.

Amory Lovins

Amory Lovins

“The building will create delight when entered, health and productivity when occupied, and regret when departed,” said Lovins, who now wears the title of “chief scientist” at RMI.

Lovins gained national and international fame in 1976 for his blockbuster essay in Foreign Affairs in which he made the case for what he called the ‘soft path” of energy. Instead of building ever-bigger coal-fired power plants to meet ever-expanding demand, he made the case for energy efficiency and localized renewable production.

In 1982, he and his ex-wife, Hunter Lovins, did what he preached, building a home and office along Capitol Creek, a few miles from Aspen and Snowmass Village using the principles of passive solar to dramatically suppress demand for outside fossil fuels. The building could even support production by a resident banana tree. This has been Amory Lovins’s proof-of-the-pudding argument for years as he has led visiting journalists from the Washington Post, the New Yorker, and other periodicals.

Now comes the new office complex at Basalt, down-valley from Aspen, which RMI hopes will become a model for small office buildings across the United States as well as “among the highest-performing buildings in the world.”

How can a building in Basalt, elevation 6,610 feet, get along without central heating? Cara Carmichael, a manager in RMI’s building practices, explains that part of it is designing a building for its setting. “People should not build our exact building anywhere in the world, because it’s tailored to our precise site and environment.”

That design team was assembled early in the planning process. RMI was at the table, as was the architect and the building contractor. It’s important to have the contractor there, to get cost calculations as designs are considered, says Carmichael.

One cardinal rule is to orient the building in such a way as to maximize advantage of sunlight for winter heating but also to reduce need for artificial lighting. There will be other traditional methods incorporated, including maximum insulation and thermal massing.

An automated exterior shading system will be used to control the heat gain. Windows can be employed during summer nights for cooling.

But there are two other concepts that RMI’s design team believes will enable this office building to operate with less than one-fourth the energy costs of even the most economical buildings.

One is recognition that ambient air temperature is only one factor that affects the comfort of an inhabitant of a building. If you’ve ever lived in a drafty old house, you understand this intuitively.

Emerging building science finds that there are six factors. Surfaces, walls, the ceilings – the temperatures of those surroundings also affect comfort. Accordingly, RMI’s building will employ materials that can absorb excess heat when it’s not wanted and give it off as temperatures decline, what are called phase-change materials. Fans for conductive cooling are also a piece of this strategy.


The Hyperchair, a technology developed by the University of California Berkeley’s Center for the Built Environment, is a crucial part of the building’s goals. The chair integrates heating and fans into the seat and back, at very low wattage, for individual comfort control. Think of your cars seats, says RMI.

Instead of heating or cooling for a comfort level of 70 to 76 degrees F, says RMI, the Hyperchair and other strategies will allow a wider range of 64 to 82 degrees F. This cuts energy use in half.

“It’s a dynamic relationship,” says Carmichael. “It’s not just people occupying a space. We are creating a space in which people can control their own space in the Hyperchair.”

With this new design, instead of heating the space four feet above people’s heads, the design seeks to heat and cool the people by looking at the air temperature, wind speed, humidity, clothing level, activity levels, and temperature of the surrounding surfaces.

There will be some heating in the building, but it will be very localized.

One revealing aspect of this undertaking to warm or cool the person, instead of the space, is the effort now underway by a graduate student to create a mouse pad for computers that can warm the wrist of a user.

Water is also a consideration. The building will employ a gray-water reuse system, so that no toilet is flushed with potable water.

South Rendering-highresCarmichael emphasizes that this is an on-going design. “It’s all about being adaptive,” she says. “We are going to continue to refine the approach once we are in the building, to find out what our needs are. It won’t be perfect from day one.”

Part of this on-going invention will be the original team of architects and contractors. “So often you hand over the keys on day one and they’re gone, but really, they’re the ones who understand best the operations,” says Carmichael.

The contracts have built-in incentives for the full team to drive down energy use and costs. “If they bring it in under budget and with our goals, they share in some of the cost savings. For example, if the building comes in $100,000 below budget, half that goes back to the architects and contractors.

An incentive pool has also been established for energy use. A year and a half after occupancy, if energy use is within the design target, the architects and builders will also be rewarded.

In this, RMI hopes to become a national model for owners of “hundreds, perhaps thousands, of buildings that would otherwise contribute significantly to the climate crisis,” according to the non-profit’s announcement. The office building is comparable in size to 90 percent of U.S. commercial offices. Over half of all commercial buildings are owner-occupied, and ‘office’ is the largest use type, says RM

An outside view

What do outsiders think of RMI’s efforts so far? Jim Meyers, director of the buildings efficiency program at the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, an advocacy organization based in Boulder, Colo., says that while stiffened building codes have increased energy efficiency dramatically in recent years, RMI’s building will nonetheless set the bar in the commercial sector.

“We don’t have a good net-zero energy building example for commercial buildings,” he says.

In the West, several other net-zero buildings have been built, notably the Hewlett-Packard Foundation’s office in Palo Alto, Calif., DPR Construction’s office in Phoenix, and the Bullitt Center in Seattle. But RMI will “help industry replicate this building,” he says.

Net-zero building is advancing more rapidly in the residential sector. “It’s happening right before our eyes,” he says.

Even production builders are starting to engage in energy reduction. Meyers cites New Town Builders, which now offers net-zero homes as an option in Denver’s Stapleton Neighborhood. KB Homes, a national builder, is offering net-zero in Southern California.

But Meyers is perhaps even more taken by the effort to reduce water use at the RMI’s office in Basalt.

“I know we can fix the energy, but water is a rough one,” he says. He points to the energy intensity of purifying water for human use and then wastewater treatment.



About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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