Apartment developer aims for new, energy-smart way

Elliot Flats consists of 40 units in Denver. Developer Brice Leconte says he aims to revolutionize how apartments are made in the United States. Photo/Allen Best

How apartments of the future may be built differently with energy in mind

by Allen Best

The simple math of energy explains why we need to focus on buildings. Nearly half of all energy gets used for building operations, compared to 28 percent for transportation and 24 percent for industry.

Those statistics come from Brice Leconte, the founder of a company called iUnit. It’s a Denver-based company that is starting to do significant real estate projects. He has one three-story project called Eliot Flats located west of downtown Denver, at 32nd and Eliot. Another residential project, to be 13 stories, is planned just north of downtown Denver, on Champa Street just off Park Avenue West.

In these projects, both of them small apartments, Leconte is trying to recreate how residential building units are created in the United States and how they are operated. He wants to drive energy consumption down.

This matters because roughly 38 million people in the United States live in buildings that contain five or more units.

Leconte spoke at an event at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory sponsored by the Colorado CleanTech Industries Association. NREL was originally created in 1977 as the Solar Energy Research Institute then scrapped by President Ronald Reagan. In 1991, it was recreated, this time as NREL. It has the world’s largest net-zero building, where 1,300 people work.

Several years ago, NREL also opened the Energy Systems Integration Facility. Here, NREL engineers are trying to put it all together: energy efficiency, renewable energy, and new ways of meshing them to reduce carbon emissions

Leconte’s units are part of the lab’s giant science experiment. A 380-square-foot studio apartment produced for him is currently being tested. It’s plain and small. But NREL engineers don’t pass judgment on the aesthetics. Instead, they are conducting tests such as to determine how well the units will withstand temperature extremes.

One such test will produce heat of 95 degrees Fahrenheit in the interior. “Hopefully we won’t crack any windows or anything,” said Ron Judkoff, NREL’s principal program manager for buildings research and development.

The iUnits are built in factories, instead of on-site, as there’s far greater efficiency in a factory setting and attention to quality control, said Leconte. The goal is to maximize energy efficiency of the building envelope and the mechanical system, but to integrate the technologies into a microgrid of the building. The buildings are to have solar but also battery storage.

The units will have what Leconte describes as a dashboard, a way for residents to compare their energy use against that of their neighbors. He said the “gamification” of utility consumption results in less use.

One goal is to maximize use of renewable energy. The United States now has 80,000 megawatts of wind capacity and 40,000 megawatts of solar. As the saying goes, the wind doesn’t always blow, and the sun doesn’t always shine. One challenge is to flatten demand to best take advantage of the renewable generation. While technical issues remain to be solved, once this is accomplished, there’s no real argument for not putting renewables on the grid, said Shanti Pless, section supervisor for the Whole Buildings Integration.

Another challenge is to capture heat from hot water that goes down the drain. This means capturing the heat from a shower, instead of allowing it to be mixed with the water from a toilet, for example. One installation in Vancouver is already doing that, but it’s among the tasks the must be done to allow buildings to become net-zero in their energy use.

We want to change the industry,” said Leconte. “We want to showcase what is possible.”

Chuck Kutscher, center director for buildings and thermal systems at NREL, said he has been working in renewable energy for 40 years—and now, what had seemed impossible has finally arrived. Renewable energy has become relatively inexpensive, costing less than retrofitting buildings to improve energy efficiency.

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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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