Aspinall project to save energy, history

Workers install solar panels on the roof of the Wayne N. Aspinall Federal Building and Courthouse, which was built in 1918.The federal agency that manages the facility is trumpeting the project in downtown Grand Junction as a groundbreaking effort to make historic buildings produce as much energy as they consume.

If Grand Junction seems an unlikely home for the nation’s first historic building that produces as much energy as it consumes on an annual basis, consider these quick facts about the local environment: a high number of sunny days, low humidity and few buildings more than four stories tall.

Add to that list the fact the building in question, the Wayne N. Aspinall Federal Building and Courthouse, has large windows that provide natural daylight to about 90 percent of the interior, and you have a recipe for a net-zero-energy building. When the building’s renovation is completed around the end of the year, contractors and officials hope that is exactly what they will have.

Those factors mean plenty of unobstructed sunlight for rooftop solar panels to absorb and fairly straightforward options for efficient heating and cooling systems, said Jason Sielcken, regional project manager for the General Services Administration, which helps manage federal buildings, among other support functions.

But making a building that was built in 1918 more modern, in many respects, than most modern buildings was sure to ruffle some feathers.

When architects proposed taking advantage of a scheduled renovation to turn the Aspinall Building into a model of efficiency and sustainability, GSA officials initially balked at the idea, according to Mitchell Lyles, an engineer with Westlake Reed Leskosky, which has led the renovation along with The Beck Group.

“As soon as the net-zero idea was presented, the GSA started fighting it,” he said. “Their initial reaction was, ‘No, you can’t do that to one of our historic buildings.’ And others said, ‘That’s exactly what we need to do.’ “

The GSA eventually was convinced the project could be done without impairing the historical character of the structure, and the agency now is trumpeting the project.

“The result will be something special that the entire country can look to as a model of innovation and efficiency,” said the GSA’s then-administrator, Martha Johnson, when the plans were unveiled in February 2011.

Geothermal system

The renovation is set to be completed in January 2013. If all of the estimates are correct and plans fulfilled, the efficiency measures, solar panels and geothermal system installed as part of the project will result in the downtown Grand Junction building putting as much or more electricity back onto the grid as it takes off over the course of 2013.

The geothermal system ­— an underground field of wells and pipes that utilizes the constant temperature of the ground to heat the building in the winter and cool it in the summer — has been installed under the parking lot. The old boiler room, complete with a now-archaic coal chute, has been turned into an ordered tangle of high-tech insulated pipes regulating air and water temperatures.

The solar panels are being installed now.

Meanwhile, several murals have been taken down and shipped to Washington, D.C., for cleaning. That work is part of a seemingly incongruous aspect of the same renovation; though in many ways the renovation is a modernization, it is also a restoration.

Some details, such as light fixtures and even paint colors, are being restored based on historic photos.

And restoring many of the other historical features that were painted, plastered or drywalled over in the past century actually will increase the building’s energy efficiency, said Lyles. Suspended ceilings installed in the 1970s, for example, block not only the building’s ornamental details, but the top few feet of its windows, which would otherwise help provide natural lighting.

Removing updates such as those ceilings and drywall partitioning the historic lobby are helping the project increase the building’s efficiency, which means fewer solar panels will be needed to generate new electricity.

Automatic shut-offs

Originally, the design team proposed a 140-kilowatt solar array to meet the structure’s electricity needs, but this array was so big that it slightly overhung the building’s roof, creating what Lyles described as a something “like an eyebrow” over the south entrance.

The GSA worried this would interfere with the historical character of the structure, so the team made plans to increase the building’s efficiency.

Adding a spray-foam insulation, storm windows with a reflective film, and advanced metering and monitoring systems that track when people leave rooms and automatically dim lights and turn off appliances accordingly, among other improvements, are expected to reduce the building’s energy use by 64 percent from 2007 baseline levels. That, in turn, reduced the needed solar array from 140 kw to a much more manageable 123 kw.

“The technology is unbelievable,” said Lyles, who is working on his first net-zero project. “This a project we’re really excited about.”

Only a handful of buildings nationwide have attained net-zero energy usage, but that number is expected to increase significantly during the next several years and decades. The GSA is trying to lead that effort, for both publicly and privately owned buildings.

Stimulus funds

By 2030, all new federal buildings are supposed to be designed to be net-zero, according to an executive order. In terms of existing buildings, the GSA has only two projects in the works: the Aspinall Building and the port of entry at the world’s busiest land border crossing in San Diego, by 2014.

As for other efforts locally, Mike Mossburg, Mesa County’s chief building official, said he is not aware of other net-zero buildings in the county, but “some single-family residences do pretty well. Most do not have the funds to develop that type of building.”

The Aspinall Building renovation is funded by $15 million in stimulus money from 2009’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The payoff? The U.S. Department of Energy says American homes and buildings consume 70 percent of the country’s electricity and 40 percent of its energy bill each year, while also contributing nearly 40 percent of the country’s carbon emissions. Americans also spend $400 billion each year to power their homes and buildings. But at least 20 percent of that energy and expense is wasted, on average.

Projects like the Aspinall Building renovation could serve as models for ways even unlikely buildings, such as those preserved as historic, could significantly reduce their energy consumption.

And Lyles pointed out further government-funded projects could help drive down the costs of solar and efficiency technologies.

“GSA is striving to use this project as a case study not only for the agency, but for the industry,” agency spokeswoman Sally Mayberry said.

This article is part of a grant-funded project in cooperation with Colorado Mesa University to report on issues of environmental concern.


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