In the foyer of the Cedar Rapids Public Library, just past the entrance and around a corner on a wood-paneled wall, is an interactive touchscreen television. A bright green background calls attention to the sustainability theme, with a menu giving patrons the options to view real-time and historical building performance information. Each category tab pulls up interactive graphics and charts depicting the sustainability features of the LEED Platinum building, educating users on the effects of the water cistern, history and environmental purpose of the green roof, and day-to-day energy consumption of the building, to delve into a few. The Cedar Rapids Public Library is a landmark building for OPN Architects, and serves as a benchmark for the firm’s future projects.
Completed in 2013, the Cedar Rapids Public Library uses less than 60 percent of the energy of an average library, putting it in the ranks of elite buildings that meet the 2030 Challenge, an initiative to advance the goal of carbon-neutral buildings by 2030. OPN Architects has officially pledged its support to the Challenge.
The 2030 Challenge, founded by architect Edward Mazria in 2002 and widely promoted by the American Institute of Architects (AIA), is an aggressive strategy to reduce the environmental impact of the building sector until it reaches net zero. Research by the 2030 Challenge indicates that approximately 5 billion square feet of buildings is renovated and another 5 billion square feet is built every year, meaning by the year 2035, 75 percent of the built environment will be either renovated or new. The Challenge encourages designers to reduce fossil fuel energy consumption in buildings by setting energy reduction targets of 60 percent better than average energy use in 2010, and gradually ramping up in increments of 10 percent every five years until the goal of carbon-neutrality is met by the year 2030.
The timeline of the 2030 Challenge is aggressive. So aggressive, in fact, that many firms which have signed on won’t be able to meet the carbon-neutral goal by deadline. It’s a bleak finish line, a zealous stretch of the imagination, but it’s a goal well worth aiming to attain.
The building sector accounts for 47.6 percent of energy consumption in the United States; was responsible for 44.6 percent of CO2 emissions in the U.S. in 2010; and requires 75 percent of all energy produced in the U.S. just for the day-to-day operation of buildings, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The building sector has the greatest impact on climate change, and so it’s up to those who design and construct the built environment to enact a change.
“Sustainability is central to everything we do at OPN. Tracking energy use and improving it is something that we’re implementing on every one of our projects, whether it has environmental aspirations, or just wants to save money,” says Tate Walker, AIA, LEEP AP DC+C, architect with a special emphasis in energy and sustainability, and in-house sustainability expert at OPN. “The 2030 Commitment is rigorous. It’s a continuous process that touches all of our projects from their inception. It’s a big challenge, and we can’t do it in one big leap. So we’re incrementally improving over time and tracking those results, and our ultimate goal is to get to zero [fossil fuel energy consumption].”
There are myriad ways to reduce the environmental impact of a building, from design through occupation, and it starts with education and awareness. Thirty seven of OPN’s 92 employees are LEED Accredited Professionals, and 29 projects have been LEED certified or registered, making the firm a region-wide leader in sustainable design. To keep the firm on track for the 2030 Challenge, a sustainability task force was created. This task force provides a tool kit for teams to use throughout the project process, educates employees across all three studios, raises awareness on resources used in practice, and collects data on building performance.
Creating a sustainable building requires acute attention to detail, taking a step back to analyze every decision, from the building massing and orientation to the materials used. A critical component in sustainable design is the early integration of an energy model, which allows the team to test different sustainable strategies and determine the payback period. “Many strategies cost more in terms of initial cost, but pay for themselves rather quickly in terms of energy savings,” says Bradd Brown, AIA, principal at OPN Architects. “We are tracking actual energy use and costs and comparing them against our predictions in the energy model.”
Building utility data is continuously collected and updated in order for OPN to self-assess its progress. In the past, this data has been used to benchmark progress internally, but the Cedar Rapids Public Library is changing how OPN communicates its environmental story to the public.
“[The library board] felt that a public library should set an example for sustainable development. The biggest driver behind the kiosk is the ability to educate library patrons on the sustainable strategies in the building, and hopefully educates and inspires them,” says Brown, who was the lead architect for the Cedar Rapids Public Library.
In 2014, the average logged OPN project reduced energy use intensity (energy use per square foot of space) by 62 percent below the national average, which is 2 percent better than the year’s reduction goal set forth by the 2030 Challenge. With many new exciting works in progress, OPN continues to use existing data to integrate more sustainable technology and practices to stay on track.
“We’re able to use data that we’ve collected from previous projects to inform design for new projects,” Walker says. “It’s something we do on every project because we see value in it. We’ve been able to have a different dialogue with our clients than we have in the past. We’ve been able to show how our old designs are performing and how the new designs are being affected by the new codes, and where the opportunities lie for savvy owners. We’re able to have a discussion about cost and performance at a much deeper level.”