Attracting and retaining top talent is a major priority for companies. And increasingly, they’re looking to their buildings as a way to do that. It’s been the focus of massive investment and innovation for tech leaders such Google, as well as environmental organisations who want to ‘practice what they preach’, with buildings that are efficient and environmentally responsible.
Rocky Mountain Institute’s recently completed Innovation Center in Basalt, CO, is a new shining example. It takes the ‘office of the future’ one step further, achieving unprecedented levels of performance thanks to passive, integrative design and careful attention paid to the role that the occupants play in achieving some of the most ambitious energy goals in the country. The Innovation Center is the highest-performing building in the coldest climate zone in the U.S. It uses 74 per cent less energy than the average building in this climate. Plus, thanks to a rooftop solar photovoltaic system, the building generates more renewable electricity than it consumers each given year (plus enough left over to power six electric vehicles).
The building serves as a living lab to demonstrate how high-performance buildings are designed, constructed, and occupied. So in the spirit of sharing, here are a few things we believe make the Innovation Center so, well, innovative.
1. It increases staff productivity, satisfaction, and collaboration
Our energy goals were actually secondary to being a healthy, productive, and aesthetically pleasing office space and world-class convening center. Not coincidentally, the same design principles achieve these two goals.
Staff benefit from an entirely day lit, open office plan. High ceilings maximise views of mountains, aspen trees, and the Roaring Fork River. This helps minimise the energy needed to maintain healthy airflow through spaces, and also makes it easier for staff to engage on a day-to-day basis. A towering green wall on the building’s first floor exemplifies nature-inspired design (or, biophilia) that improves staff alertness, energy levels, and overall mood while absorbing airborne toxins and improving indoor air quality.
2. It gives us, the occupants, control over our personal comfort
Traditional office buildings try to deliver thermal comfort by using a large HVAC system to blast hot or cold air into a space to achieve a certain temperature – usually between 68 to 72 degrees Fahrenheit. But air temperature actually has little to do with how comfortable a person feels in a space, plus it wastes a lot of energy.
For the Innovation Center, the design team leveraged six factors that influence thermal comfort, then focused on how to condition people to feel comfortable, which is far more efficient than conditioning the space they occupy.
We use several personal comfort technologies, including a cutting-edge personal heating and cooling chair (imagine having an adjustable heated car seat as your own personal desk chair, but one that has fans to cool, too!). Meanwhile, a super-efficiency ceiling fan can provide the same cooling effect as an air conditioning system but at the fraction of the cost or energy. But why fan an entire area when you can provide air movement directly to an individual through personal fan? A room doesn’t need to be comfortable – people need to feel comfortable.
3. It saves us from ourselves (to achieve our energy and comfort goals)
When most of us think ‘office building of the future,’ we envision cutting-edge technologies and gadgets. While the Innovation Center does feature some impressive new technologies (like the chairs mentioned above), it’s how various technologies, building materials, and systems work together as an integrated package to maximise performance and comfort that make it cutting-edge.
This level of complexity could easily baffle the average office worker. That’s why we rely on a careful balance of automation and manual controls to ensure the building operates as it was designed. For example, certain windows in the building open and close to control temperature and air movement automatically, managed by the building automation system. Other windows can be opened and closed manually by staff if they need extra cooling and ventilation.
Because the building is heated by thermal mass, staff learned how critical it is to ensure all windows are closed before leaving the building (because cold night temperatures would cool the building to a point that would make it difficult to recover). Another indicator light indicates whether a window has been left open accidentally.
4. It embraces – rather than competes – with the landscape around it
When designing the Innovation Center, RMI cofounder and chief scientist Amory Lovins stated that he ‘wanted the building to look like it grew here.’ If you have ever visited Basalt, CO, just 15 miles outside of Aspen, you’ll know why. In the winter, staff are more likely to commute to work via a nearby cross-country ski path than they are by car. In the summer, gold medal fishing waters provide a backdrop to staff lunches.
Everything from the building’s butterfly roof structure to curved north and south facades to the natural building materials pay homage to the spectacular local landscape. Careful attention was even paid to the spacing and alignment of the red stone exterior facade so as snow fell, it would be collected in a similar pattern as the red stone cliffs just outside of the building.
5. It will continue to evolve
Like a true ‘living lab’ we continue to learn more about how the building operates, how staff interacts with the building, and what results these factors have on our performance goals. Once we completed commissioning, we’ll feature live energy consumption and production data on a dashboard located in our building’s lobby, and on our website at www.rmi.org/innovationcenter.
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