New Garfield County building pushing the net-zero envelope

Rifle, already on the map as a Western Slope hot spot for solar energy, continues to push the envelope. The planned Garfield County Education Center, due to break ground this summer near the Rifle fairgrounds, is demonstrating how designing energy efficiency and clean energy into a project from the start can produce an affordable, nearly-net-zero building.

A joint project of Garfield County and Colorado State University Extension, the 12,000-square-foot facility will provide space for cooking classes, cottage foods training sessions and catered events. It will include a flexible learning/event space, a teaching kitchen and two learning kitchen portals.

Efficiency and renewable energy entered the project’s design early – in fact, from the get-go. Garfield County gets much of the credit for that, as it had the foresight to require the project architect to work with an energy-efficiency consultant to incorporate best practices into the design. And being a member of Garfield Clean Energy, the county was able to get consulting for free from CLEER (Clean Energy Economy for the Region), which manages GCE’s programs. CSU Extension, which will have a rental agreement with the county to use the facilities, also pushed for strong efficiency measures.

The design process is close to completion, and it has resulted in a building that’s affordably efficient – advanced, but not bleeding-edge. “This project is doing everything it can without being super extreme,” says architect Andrea Korber of Land+Shelter. “It’s doing absolutely the best you can with public dollars.”

Korber explains that LED lighting, high insulation and good windows are now standard in new buildings of this type, so for clients looking to go further on efficiency the focus is shifting to mechanical systems. That’s where the education center went from pretty good to great.

Initially, Garfield County was assuming that the building would get its heat and hot water from natural gas, and its electricity from a 30-kilowatt solar awning. CLEER and Land+Shelter made the case for going all-electric: replace the natural gas boiler and water heater with an air-source heat pump and electric on-demand water-heating units, and beef up the solar to a 70-kW array that would take up the entire roof.

Lively discussions ensued. What about the extra cost of the mechanical systems? CLEER renewable energy program director Katharine Rushton pointed out that some of the cost can be offset by Xcel Energy rebates for efficiency measures in new commercial construction. What about the additional steel reinforcement needed to support the solar array? That was hard to quantify, but Korber says most of the extra steel will be needed anyway, since the project entails redeveloping an existing one-story warehouse and adding a second floor.

And the cost of the solar array? That also wasn’t straightforward. The upfront investment will eventually pay for itself in saved electricity costs, though perhaps not quickly enough for a conventional building owner. But for Garfield County, energy independence, combined with overall cost savings achieved through a whole-systems design approach, made it worthwhile.

“From the beginning we were always seeking a net-zero facility,” says Garfield County facilities director Frank Coberly. “We wanted a facility that our children and grandchildren could be proud of. We wanted to make a difference.

“When the numbers came back from the engineers and the cost of electricity was within a few dollars of gas, the decision was an easy one. Now include the rebates and no monthly charges; the scale easily tipped in the direction of electricity. I was actually awed by the fact that the costs were within pennies of each other. The thirty years’ savings was exponential.”

Designing with high-efficiency, all-electric systems paves the way to use renewable energy to power the building. Garfield County will work with CLEER to install building monitoring systems that will collect data on the energy consumption of the building and the production of the solar array. The hope is that the solar array will produce close to 100% of the energy consumption.

That achievement comes with an asterisk, however, because the building will still need gas service to supply a gas range required for certain cooking classes. Nobody said the transition to a clean energy economy would be without compromises!

“We feel pretty good” about the design process that led to such an efficient building, says CLEER energy consultant Pete Waller, who advised on the project. “By being part of the team up front, we were able to make that conversation occur.”

Korber credits Garfield Clean Energy and CLEER for its envelope-pushing advice. “CLEER was totally critical,” she says. “Garfield County was supportive and open to going for the best building we could, but we needed CLEER to be in the room.”