Breaking Ground on RMI’s Groundbreaking Building

Next week on October 15, Rocky Mountain Institute breaks ground on the exciting construction of our new building—the RMI Innovation Center—in Basalt, Colorado. The downtown Basalt location is just down the road from where RMI was founded over 32 years ago and where our co-founder and chief scientist, Amory Lovins, lives in his legendary energy-efficient home known as the Lovins GreenHome.

Continuing RMI’s presence in the Roaring Fork Valley near Aspen is an important ingredient in our ability to reach our audience and the global leaders we hope to collaborate with in our work. RMI’s market-driven, business-led approach to shifting from fossil fuels to efficiency and renewables requires collaboration with a diverse set of stakeholders. Our new building, with its convening center—the White Steyer Impact Studio—will provide an amazing venue to do just that.

Building on 32 years of RMI inspiring change in efficiency, this project will be the pinnacle of energy-efficient design, requiring no fossil fuels. Our dedicated and innovative design team, selected in early 2013, has been an extraordinary partner—and we’re all very excited to see the building take shape.

The project originated with four main goals:

  • Create a building that exemplifies and amplifies RMI’s mission and program—taking RMI to its “next generation”
  • Create the highest-performing building possible
  • Create a replicable process and business case
  • Create a beautiful structure focused on community outreach and occupant experience

The building, nearly 16,000 square feet in total, includes 7,750 square feet of workspace, 4,420 square feet of convening and collaboration spaces, and 3,440 square feet of amenities and support space. It is planned for 50 employees and convening events with up to 80 people, with space for breakout sessions. The building is designed with growth in mind and the site has been approved for 4,000 square feet of future expansion.

We believe this building will become a highly replicable and scalable model of excellent, cost-effective, integrative design. This 100-year building is one RMI will be proud of for generations to come.

And we hope to influence the industry with our approach. Like ours, 90 percent of commercial buildings are less than 25,000 square feet. Offices are the largest use of commercial buildings of this size, many of which are owner occupied. Many of the principles can also be applied to existing buildings, of which three-fourths will be retrofitted by 2035. In the building industry, we have experienced over and over that truly innovative case studies are game changers. It is an industry of followers, and as a leader in that industry, we are setting a strong example.

There are several things that set our building apart, including an integrated project delivery process, ultra-low energy use, substantial on-site renewable energy generation, and a pioneering graywater system.

Integrated Project Delivery

Integrated project delivery (IPD) is a compelling business construct that organizes the owner, architect, and general contractor in a tri-party agreement, breaking down the traditional hierarchy that disintegrates projects and creates suboptimal design solutions. In this multiparty agreement, we are all working towards a common goal, with skin in the game—there is a financial risk/reward pool that motivates all players to bring innovative ideas to the table to meet the very aggressive project goals while delivering the project on budget. This model has been used frequently on large-scale buildings but on only a handful of smaller buildings. The model has great potential but needs some simplification to make it more easily applied to small projects. RMI has been documenting our findings and lessons learned, including those from the architect and general contractor. We will release an honest summary of those findings once construction is complete and we finalize our project costs (and hopeful savings). Stay tuned…

Ultra-low energy use

With our roof-mounted solar photovoltaics, we will be net positive, producing more energy than we use on an annual basis. Energy use intensity (EUI) is to buildings what MPG is to cars. And our building has an exceptional EUI—four times less than the average energy use intensity for office buildings in the U.S., even before renewables are factored in. This building will have one of the lowest EUIs for commercial buildings in the U.S. at 16 kBtu/ft2, and will be one of less than 200 buildings that have achieved net-zero energy.

One of the major reasons our energy use is so low is that we are shifting the way comfort is provided to the occupants by putting it where they need it most: on their body. Most buildings condition the entire volume of air (including the top four feet of air above people’s heads). Instead we are heating and cooling the people, not the space, by looking at all six factors that affect a person’s thermal comfort—air temperature, wind speed, humidity, clothing level, activity level, and the temperature of the surrounding surfaces. This is a relatively new development in buildings science and we are applying it as has never been done before.

Besides incorporating thermal mass using phase-change material and a highly insulating envelope, we will be using Hyperchairs. The Hyperchair, developed by UC Berkeley’s Center for the Built Environment, is one of the only “high-tech” pieces of equipment in the building but a critical one. It is a chair that integrates heating and fans into the seat and back, at very low wattage, for individual comfort control (think of your car seats).

The combination of these strategies enables us to expand our air temperature set points from the typical 70 to 76 degrees F to a wider range of 64 to 82 degrees F. This cuts our energy use in half and enables us to entirely eliminate a central air conditioning system and minimize heating to a small, distributed system.

Renewable Energy

The south-facing solar photovoltaic system (approximately 80 kW) will enable the building to generate over 100 percent of its electricity on-site. Several electric vehicle (EV) charging stations will allow EV drivers to charge their cars with renewable electricity when parked at the Innovation Center. Eventually, when bidirectional EV chargers are available, the building will use the EV batteries to store energy and power the building during peak times.

Since RMI is a nonprofit, we cannot take advantage of the tax credits available for our PV system. We are working with CollectiveSun, a group out of California, to set up a power purchase agreement (PPA) between RMI and a third party that will give RMI an overall lower cost of solar than we would have if we purchased it outright. Plus, we will have a fixed cost for electricity for the next period of time, between 15 and 25 years, depending on how the contract is finalized. The solar is owned and maintained by the third party, who pays the initial costs for the system and sells us the power we need.

Graywater in Colorado

Colorado is lagging behind many states in legally implementing graywater reuse systems. This issue has been making headway at a state level and next year the necessary state agencies will hopefully pass regulations allowing legal implementation. It will then be up to local jurisdictions to adopt regulations. We are working closely with our jurisdiction and are planning ahead for when we can fully engage our graywater system. We will have dual plumbing in the walls and space in our mechanical room to easily add the required treatment and storage and hook up to our existing infrastructure. This system will eventually enable the building to use no potable water for toilet flushing. Once legal, our building will be one of the first to implement a graywater system, setting a precedent in Colorado. The building’s landscape is specifically designed to minimize irrigation needs, maximize rainwater use, and utilize 100 percent non-potable water, which will be provided by runoff water collected in a nearby pond.

If all these achievements—and more that you can read about on our website—aren’t enough to convince someone of possible energy savings, our building will achieve USGBC LEED Platinum, Living Building Challenge petal certification, LIFI Net Zero Energy certification, an anticipated Energy Star score of 100, and exceed the Architecture 2030 Challenge.

We intend to share what we have learned on this building through presentations, white papers, and blog posts during construction and operation. Once we’re in the building gin late 2015, we would be delighted to show you around.

Come visit and join us in our excitement for this breakthrough building!

“This building will create delight when entered, health and productivity when occupied, and regret when departed.” Amory Lovins, RMI Co-Founder and Chief Scientist

We are grateful to the many long-time friends and donors who have stepped up with early capital gifts to help make this building a reality. And to our talented team of experts —thank you for your passion and expertise to make this building the best it can be.

  • ZGF Architects (architect of record)
  • JE Dunn (general contractor)
  • Graybeal Architects (local architect)
  • Architectural Applications (high-performance design consultant)
  • PAE Consulting Engineers, INC (mechanical, electrical, plumbing, IT)
  • DHM Design (landscape architect)
  • David Nelson & Associates, LLC (lighting designer)
  • True North Management (owners representative)
  • Sopris Engineering, LLC (civil engineer)
  • KPFF Consulting Engineers (structural engineers)
  • TG Malloy (land planner)
  • Resource Engineering Group (commissioning)