The Retrofit Project - The Living Classroom
First of all, a little background about who we are and what we do. The Learning Source in Lakewood, Colorado operates one of the largest nonprofit adult literacy programs in the United States in addition to a large GED program in Colorado. Over 3,500 low income students receive various types of training each year as they pursue improved job skills. This year nearly 1000 people will take GED tests at their testing centers. The Learning Source participates in 10 schools sprinkled throughout Aurora public schools and Cherry Creek Schools. Over the years many businesses have come to see The Learning Source in their community as reliable resource to help improve the skills of their workers.
The Learning Source flagship center is an 11,600 square foot building that was originally a Lakewood library build in the 1960s. It is an all brick construction with three large sections on the main floor, a partial basement and an upper level in the north section, and with vaulted ceilings throughout. The roof still consisted of the original concrete tiles and an old membrane flat roof.
Little did we know two years ago where we would be today with this small commercial building in Lakewood. We knew we wanted to be more energy efficient but truly had no idea where to begin.
By the winter and spring of 2009, the Learning Source was experiencing high enough energy costs that equaled those of a 50 unit multi family structure and merited a thorough business analysis of how to reduce operating expenses and maintain a comfortable work environment for employees, children, and parents who populated the building daily. Heating and cooling costs exceeded $35,000 per year. In addition, repair costs reached $15,000 last year.
The traditional approach to solve the problem was to replace the existing HVAC system which would make the building more comfortable in both summer and winter, with an estimated 10% reduction in energy costs as a result of the more efficient HVAC system. Thus, a very large capital investment would have only reduced repair and maintenance costs with minimal reduction in operating costs. Initially, the cost to complete the HVAC and roof replacement project was estimated at $650K.
Due to The Learning Source's income and budget constraints, other means of solving the problem had to be explored. Some donors are willing to pay for capital upgrades, while others only pay for specific programs that serve children and families. The organization faced the challenge of accumulating enough funds from new sources to cover the replacement costs. Reality was that the project would have to be canceled or postponed while absorbing the steadily increasing operating and repair costs to operate the building. As a non-profit, it is always a goal to put as much of our money as possible into programs rather than utility bills.
As a non-profit, we took the opportunity to apply to Namaste Solar for a PV Solar installation grant thinking that this single installation would make us a model of energy efficiency. As we worked with them through the application process, we learned how truly inefficient our building really was – a mid-60s, brick building with almost no insulation was about as efficient as our old windows – R-3.
Armed with this information about the building, the logical place for us to begin was with Red Rocks Community College (RRCC) and Joan Smith, Dean and Executive Director, Rocky Mountain Education Center. The question, “where do we start?â€ Six months later their first class of commercial energy auditing students were onsite using our building as a “Living Classroomâ€ to do a comprehensive analysis of the building and prepare a report of recommendations for us. The entire audit process was developed and supervised by leading professionals currently working the field of commercial energy auditing. What was different and exciting about their approach was that they looked at the building as an organic system where all the parts impact each other and, if looked at in this way, could result in some creative and affordable options for significant energy savings. Using this systemic approach proved to be much more effective than simply adding a shopping list of new technologies and equipment.
As all aspects of the planning process to retrofit the building came together, The Learning Source board and management wisely sought advice from some of their education partners and the Alameda Gateway Association. As a result, their consortium of local energy efficiency businesses, Red Rocks Community College with its renowned energy efficiency training programs, and local city government, the Learning Source was able to develop a forward thinking plan of action.
In the effort to execute the project from a business and ROI approach, rather than the original band aid approach, the Learning Source staff capitalized on their connection with RRCC's continuing education division, Rocky Mountain Education Center (RMEC). The RMEC brought the right mix of experienced instructors from the energy efficiency industry to the table.
The RMEC and its business partners introduced the staff to proven technologies and suppliers. The Learning Source partnered with Sholar Architecture and Construction to bring a strategically selected team together. The team recognized early in the process that the recommended retrofit could result in a Silver LEED certified and Energy Star rated facility. Currently, as we reach final stages, the building may qualify for Gold LEED certification.
Recommendations included exterior building insulation, a multistage boiler system, more efficient condensing unit, upgrades to the air handler, an Energy Management System, solar lighting, photovoltaic and thermal solar panels on two sections of the roof.
Once the recommended upgrades were assembled the next critical step, and often a show-stopper for building retrofits, had to be addressed - financing. The Learning Source staff and members of the technical team prepared a thorough analysis from a business efficiency perspective. They approached a bank with an ROI proposal to demonstrate that financially a complete energy retrofit was the most cost effective approach toward solving the building's problems. Payback on the investment would take conservatively 12 years. The net result is a near net zero building with an impressive return on investment. The cost estimate for a better designed approach to retrofit the building increased from $650K to $700K. This incremental increase in project cost will have a payback in approximately one year.
Due to the new direction the project took, the bank did a rigorous and thorough analysis of the proposed project. Once the local bank completed its assessment of the project, the return on investment, and the appraisal; the loan was approved. The building value actually increased from $495K to $1 million.
Planning, audits, negotiations, and preliminary design took 10 months. Construction is expected to take approximately 5 months and is nearing the final stage on the exterior. Having gone through this extensive learning curve, we are in a much better position to facilitate a project of this magnitude much more quickly. With a comparable team, this would likely take three months for preliminary planning and design process.
Throughout the project everyone – students, contractors, architects, engineers, consultants, and subcontractors – were encouraged to contribute ideas toward the success of the final project. This synergy of multiple ideas and perspectives brought a new level of innovation out of everyone. The group’s ownership of the project continues to this day as the construction nears completion and planning continues for the next phase of the project.
Under the leadership of Sholar Construction, contractors were compelled to think outside the box and create plans to follow their normal course of action, but with strong attention to the sustainability criteria defined by the LEED Credit Scorecard:
· Materials needed to be available locally whenever possible
· All eligible construction waste had to be recycled
· Colors and finishes had to contribute to the overall energy efficiency of the building
· Reuse as much of the existing building
· Overall indoor air quality that included low emitting materials, improved ventilation
· Automation of sub-systems that contribute to the automation of the entire building
The R-value increased from R-3 to R-30 for the building.
Subontractors were selected and an interesting thing happened as the retrofit progressed over the summer – subcontractors shared that they didn’t understand what the bother was all about when they started, but came to see very quickly what a special project this was. Many of them shared that it changed their thinking about how to do their jobs in the future and expressed their thanks for the opportunity to be involved. Several discussions ensued around how much construction waste had gone to landfills in their prior projects. Everyone was shocked that 41 tons of construction waste from this project was recycled and less than 2 tons went to the landfill.
Overall, the entire project has been a platform for teamwork, ingenuity among partners, and a model for other small businesses (and single family homes, apartment buildings, etc.) that need to reduce operating costs while improving employee comfort and productivity. An added benefit of the project is that the building itself conforms with more contemporary aesthetics and better complements the award-winning Belmar neighborhood adjacent to the property.
One outcome of the successful project is The Learning Preserve which will communicate energy efficiency via a working model to residential and small business in the Denver metro region. Residents, business owners, landlords, and others can visit the site to get ideas and information for their proposed energy efficiency projects.
As a literacy organization it is natural for us to take our lessons learned from this project and incorporate them into our curriculum for skills development of Colorado's workforce. To date, the team has been approached to work with two Housing Authorities to educate residents in energy efficiency and the demand for jobs in this career path. This training will be used as a platform for soft skills development to increase the employability of targeted residents in Housing Authority developments.
Another outcome of this project has been the development of Greening Lakewood Business, a partnership between RRCC, the Alameda Gateway Unity Association, and The Learning Source to encourage and coach additional small businesses regarding the increased productivity, financial, and other related benefits of becoming more energy efficient. The team is expected to sit on at least two panel discussions next year to answer questions about this project. Greening Lakewood Business is currently working with a nonprofit in Aurora to help coach their board and staff through a similar process.
As most of you know, nearly 75% of energy usage by businesses is consumed by buildings under 200,000 square feet. The Learning Source working model with its sensible ROI, lessons learned, and experienced team will continue to educate and advise others in the metro area. The Learning Preserve and Greening Lakewood Business is always open to visitors who wish to see a working model. Call 303-937-1980 to set an appointment. For more information please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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