Home on the Range set standard for energy efficiency


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

In the parking lot at Home on the Range, headquarters of the Northern Plains Resource Council, Sam Haraldson of On Site Energy connects some wiring on a new solar array.

When the Northern Plains Resource Council opened its Home on the Range building in 2006, it wanted to make a point about the importance of sustainable, energy-efficient building practices. It also wanted to save money.

When NPRC celebrates the 10th anniversary of the building at 220 S. 27th St. on Saturday, it will argue that it has done both. The event, from 10 a.m. to noon, will include the dedication of a new solar array that is designed to offset all of the building’s electricity costs. Breakfast pastries and coffee will be served. Tours will be offered, and speakers will give brief talks.

NPRC is a member of the Western Organization of Resource Councils, which also has its headquarters in the building. Both organizations emphasize sustainable environmental and agricultural practices.

Thanks to declining costs of solar power, the new 24-watt photovoltaic array will more than triple the building’s solar capacity for about $85,000, just about 40 percent more than the original 10-watt array.

The building already used 50 percent less energy than the typical U.S. office building, according to a case study by the New Buildings Institute. The institute said that NPRC’s renovation of an old grocery store also cost about $325,000 less than a new building would have cost.

“It was a really sound decision financially, as well as being mission based,” said Ed Gulick of High Plains Architects. Gulick was project manager for the renovation, and he is a past chairman of the NPRC who now serves as chairman of its Clean Energy Task Force.

Home on the Range was the first building in Montana to achieve LEED Platinum certification. LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is the most widely used way to certify environmentally friendly buildings. Platinum is the highest and most demanding of its four rating levels.

The program was developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, a nonprofit organization that promotes sustainability in building design, construction and operation.

Now, High Plains has done 11 LEED Platinum buildings in Montana and Wyoming, and Billings has seven LEED Platinum buildings, including the new Billings Public Library. The Home on the Range project showed that such buildings could be not only good for the environment but also financially viable.

“It set the standard early, and it set the standard high,” Gulick said.

The 8,500-square-feet renovation of the derelict building cost $1.4 million. NPRC bought the property and building for $182,808. Hardy Construction Co. was the contractor.

Home on the Range was not only an early success story, Gulick said, but it also posed its own set of problems. The old building, built in 1940, lacked insulation and was nearly windowless.

When the interior of the old building was gutted, it turned out that the floor wasn’t level. So workers demolished a concrete block wall, broke it into pieces with a sledgehammer and used the pieces to level the floor and build a boulder pond to improve drainage.

The renovation also used a lot of salvaged materials, including original doors from the previous headquarters in the 112-year-old Stapleton Building. Insulation was added, along with good daylighting and an evaporative cooling system, which is cheaper than air conditioning in this semi-arid climate.


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

The solar array, as seen from the roof of Home on the Range.

A two-flush toilet system uses a half-flush for liquid wastes and a full flush for solids. Crushed recycled glass was used to build a parking lot. Through careful renovation, construction and demolition costs were cut 92 percent, Gulick said.

The result was a building 50 percent more efficient than average U.S. building. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gave Home on the Range its Energy Star award in 2007, placing the building in the top 1 percent of U.S. office buildings in terms of energy efficiency.

Even though old buildings were not designed for energy efficiency, they actually can be easier to convert to LEED status, Gulick said. Without air conditioning, building designers in those days emphasized good lighting and ventilation.

Not all projects turn out as well as Home on the Range, Gulick said.

“The industry’s still going through a learning curve,” he said. “We’re still going through a learning curve.”

In some cases, businesses may just throw money at a building project or engage in “green washing,” which means they make superficial changes that don’t amount to much. But the presumption that energy efficient buildings must cost more is inaccurate, Gulick said.

Studies have shown that lower levels of LEED certification can be obtained with little or no increase in building or renovation costs, and Platinum status can be achieved with only a little more expense.

“A smartly designed building does not need to cost more,” Gulick said.

Gulick traces his own interest in environmentally sound work to early exposure to Dr. Seuss’ “The Lorax,” a children’s book with a pro-environment message. He was reached by phone on Wednesday in Dickinson, N.D., where he was looking over a six-story downtown hotel for High Plains Architects. The building, built in 1951 or ’52, could be converted into apartments, Gulick said, finding another way to give an old building a new and sustainable life.

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