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Nonprofit shows the way with new innovation center

The Rocky Mountain Institute's (RMI) Innovation Center in Basalt, Colo., is the new flagship building of the independent, nonprofit that advances market-based solutions that transform global energy use to create a clean, prosperous and secure future. The state-of-the-art building is the physical manifestation of the organization's work and values. Serving as a demonstration site for the industry, the building maximizes energy and resource efficiency while creating a structure that complements and strengthens the local community.


Located on a 38-acre site on the north shore of the Roaring Fork River in Basalt, the facility takes its design inspiration from its surroundings, which includes unobstructed views, natural light, and a palette of stone, wood and zinc to reflect its textured landscape. The building has a rectangular form that is punctuated by curvilinear protrusions that reflect the landscape, i.e., the bend of the river and the site topography, and mark public spaces such as the entry, convening space and conference spaces.

"The exterior palette was selected from regional materials to blend into the native environment, while meeting the project's durability goals," says Kathy Shaloo Berg, partner at ZGF Architects LLP, Portland, Ore., the design architect. "Rough-hewn Colorado sandstone walls are battered, mimicking the rocky cliffs beyond, and zinc shingles [from Jarden Zinc Products LLC, Greeneville, Tenn.] echo the mountain silhouette. Natural juniper, a rot-resistant wood species, was harvested from areas of invasive overgrowth and will obtain a silver patina over time."

The designers chose zinc for its natural patina and richness. "The panels' aesthetic effect breaksdown the building scale and provides a rich texture that interacts with the site's changing light conditions," Berg says. "This variation in hue, shade and shadow over the course of the day and seasons adds to a visually interesting façade, balancing the need to have significant areas of opaque wall to meet our building performance goals-particularly on the east, west and north elevations-with our desire to create visual interest and a compelling composition."


Rocky Mountain Institute Innovation Center

Berg notes the Innovation Center was intended to be a display for the design and construction industry of what is possible when designers hold themselves to the highest standards of quality and sustainability. "The project illuminates the steps to meet that commitment; that the building has achieved so many sustainability goals helps further validate the project and the process," she says.

The Innovation Center has already achieved LEED Platinum certification, having earned all 19 LEED energy points, and Passive House Institute (PHIUS) 2015+ certification. The project also exceeds Architecture 2030 Challenge goals, meeting the goal of a 70 percent energy reduction. And, in May 2017, the center earned the Living Building Challenge's Petal Certification, which validates the team's efforts to create a model for design, construction, contracting and operation for net zero energy buildings.


Challenging Climate

Basalt's climate has long, harsh winters and warm, dry summers, along with wet springs characterized by thunderstorms and temperate autumns. The building design considers the local climate as a key driver in developing the experience of the building. "The harsh mountain climate challenged the team to find ways to meet thermal comfort and load reduction needs, as occupant comfort measures impacted the ability to reduce energy use," Berg explains. "Through careful analysis and collaborative design efforts, however, the team found opportunities in that difficult climate, including harnessing the area's ample sunlight, and siting the building to meet the critical design criteria."

The Innovation Center redefines how its occupants experience and control their individual comfort by focusing on heating and cooling people, and not the air around them. A passive design strategy addresses the key factors that affect a person's thermal comfort, allowing the design team to eliminate the need for a central air conditioning system and reduce the heating to a small, distributed system--the equivalent to roughly 16 hairdryers--used only on the coldest days. "We also paid careful attention to minimizing mechanical systems, relying on passive strategies in an effort to reduce energy consumption and create a comfortable and productive environment," Berg says.

In addition to sustainability being a key driver, cost was also a factor to keep the project budget in line with other high-performance buildings that may be located in more forgiving climates. "The project utilized a specialized cost-model approach, identifying and prioritizing elements-such as the structure and envelope-with the greatest life span and impact to building performance," Berg adds.


Rocky Mountain Institute Innovation Center

Insulated Building Envelope

The building is sealed and wrapped in a highly insulated "warm coat" of structurally insulated panels (SIPs) to protect it from the cold temperatures. The highly insulated building envelope includes R-50 walls and R-67 roof, which acts as a down-filled jacket. The northern side of the building is more massive, while the southern quad-paned glazed façade invites natural light and provides expansive views. "Achieving a rich and compelling composition was balanced against the project's high-performance requirements," Berg explains. "To meet performance goals, the exterior envelope's detailing was simplified as much as possible."

The construction of the SIPs creates the skin's tight inner box, Berg says, allowing for a simple installation of an air and vapor barrier, window systems, trim and flashing. Before the installation of the exterior finishes, air and water tightness testing was done, which allowed for easy access to make any necessary modifications. "Exterior materials were applied as a rainscreen; the team carefully considered attachments to the airtight inner box to reduce bridging, and water-management strategies took the difficult climate and challenging freeze thaw cycles and snow buildup into account," Berg says.

The inner SIPs box allowed the designers to be more playful in some of the exterior application materials. For example, Berg notes that the Colorado sandstone walls are gently battered to catch a thin dusting of snow on the ledges in the winter, which references the natural beauty of the stone outcroppings in the area. "A balanced look at performance and aesthetics led to a beautiful façade that fits naturally into its environment, while performing at the highest possible level," she says.

RMI learned a lot over the course of designing and building their Innovation Center, with the goal of being able to replicate the process. "RMI's experience can serve as a practical model to inform thousands of buildings that would otherwise contribute significantly to the climate crisis," Berg says.

Photos: Tim Griffith

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RMI Innovation Center