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Idaho Design Lab Models Green

Interest in green building grows in Idaho

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A lot has changed in energy efficiency and environmental awareness since architect Kevin Van Den Wymelenberg came to Boise in 2004 to run the University of Idaho's Integrated Design Lab. His staff tripled, his projects got bigger and the demand for energy efficiency projects increased.

Even in Twin Falls, where the College of Southern Idaho's Health Sciences and Human Services building is potentially the most energy-efficient public building in Idaho, the change is palpable.

"The truth is in the pudding, so it's too early to say," Van Den Wymelenberg said, but modeling shows its more energy efficient than U.S. Department of Energy recommendations.

The IDL is a team of students, home owners, designers and builders dedicated to the development of high-performance energy-efficient buildings in Idaho and eastern Oregon. IDL was involved with the energy modeling, goal setting and daylight modeling of CSI's Health Sciences building, which opened last month. It was the second project IDL had worked on with CTA, a group of architect-engineers, after the success of building a geothermally heated student recreation building.

"For this building, we applied a lot of strategies that aren't typical for standard building," said Bryan Hallowell, architect at CTA.

Built according to the energy-saving LEED standards, the building's key features include daylighting, use of recycled materials, a dedicated fresh air mechanical system, a sun-reflecting roof and geothermal heating.

The Health Sciences building models a hospital, with mock operating rooms, patient rooms, a fake dental practice, labs and other rooms that typically require lots of technical lighting, specific temperatures and high-energy-using equipment. But they managed to use technology in the right way to reduce the amount of energy the building uses.

The building is designed around a massive skylight and sensors automatically dim the lights near windows, which minimizes the energy used and evens the light at the desk level. They also turn off lights when occupants leave the room. Hallowell said that working on this building has modified the approach CTA takes to designing buildings.

"We use this as a major stepping stone to learn how to use recycled materials, daylighting, energy-efficient methods, and sustainable and health-conscious products. It was a learning process for all of us," he said.

The U.S. Department of Energy has a goal that all new commercial buildings be designed with net zero energy use by 2030. While a groundbreaking report released by a team of researchers at Boise State recently shows that there's a lack of consumer demand for green building due to preconceived notions of costs, Van Den Wymelenberg said there's actually a large group of homeowners who look into energy-saving projects as a means to cut expenses.

"It's all a matter of perspective," Van Den Wymelenberg said. "Compared to Seattle or Portland, perhaps, there's less demand for green building, but compared to Idaho a few years ago, the demand has skyrocketed in the last six years I have been here."

"It's a good idea to capture savings and reinvest in property. With the public awareness about sustainability, those investments will be a selling point to help you sell your house quicker," Van Den Wymelenberg continued.

He explained that up until now, what made a house sell was the location, the number of bedrooms, granite countertops, etc. "But granite countertops don't pay you back," he said. "Retrofitting does, and everyone wants to see payback."

With an older home, one can start with insulation and lighting--swapping out incandescent lights and glazing the windows, he said.

But the foundation of any construction project is rooted in the concept and design stages. When it comes to energy usage, a building's windows, its shape and orientation, the insulation and natural air flow, all play a big part.

"We want the energy models to be used as a design tool rather than use it to validate a design," said Gunnar Gladics, research scientist at IDL. This way, the building's orientation and shape can be optimized before it is built.

The concept of sustainable architecture is simple--to build sensibly by relying less on electricity to heat and cool our homes. But those wary of the green hype are quick to criticize the look, comfort and cost of an energy efficient home or office.

Today's green spaces, however, are sleek, urban and welcoming. One such building is the office of Insight Architects on Broadway in Boise. IDL and Insight have worked together on several projects since 2003. BW visited the Insight offices recently with IDL's Gladics to see what an optimal energy-efficient office space looks like.

Built in 2003, this 1,600-square-foot office building is optimized for daylighting. The building, a slanted square facing south, has a high ceiling, large high windows on the southern wall and Kalwall Panels that let in light through the east and west walls. At 3:30 in the afternoon, not a single lamp is on in the office.

"We rarely use lights in here," said Robert TeBeau, architect at Insight. "In the morning, we'll have them on until 9 or 9:30 a.m., but for the rest of the day, it's all natural light."

The high windows are slightly tinted and dual shading devices can move up or down to diminish the glare. The high ceiling varies in shades of white, which gives a sense of volume. The walls inside the office have earth tones--sand, olive green and dark red.

If this were a home, compromises would have to be made: "Some people like dark colors but dark colors not only soak up the light but in contrast to the skylight, it would be visually uncomfortable," Gladics said.

For TeBeau, saving energy is the "conscious thing to do."

"That, and to save money," Gladics added.