14 May 2011

Everything Old is New Again

My visit with my grandmother in Oregon seems like forever ago now, but things have been so chaotic lately that I'm just getting to writing about the green building measures her fantastic continuing care retirement community, Rogue Valley Manor, has incorporated into their facilities.

Thinking that energy-efficiency and related issues would be a selling point for future residents, I started my research by checking out the Manor's website before my trip, but I came up empty. A Google search found a reference to green projects by an architecture firm that has done work at the Manor, so I was hopeful that the community had, in fact, made energy-efficiency and sustainability a priority. I just needed to find the right person to talk to on-site. Since I can't help thinking about the Manor in terms of a college campus, I inquired at what I think of as their "admissions" office and was put in touch with the facilities director, Jim, who was full of information and definitely on top of opportunities to reduce both energy use and utility bills at the Manor.

They have all of the expected stuff covered -- when they re-roofed one of the buildings recently, they took the opportunity to add more insulation. About two years ago, they replaced more than 500 light bulbs in public areas with CFLs, and they are currently exploring the possibility of LED bulbs (which are still super-pricey, but the cost is coming down, and their energy savings are huge). They choose Energy Star and WaterSense when replacing appliances and plumbing fixtures. Instead of hauling off cut tree branches and trucking in mulch for landscaping, they make their own mulch on-site from tree trimmings:



The Manor consists of three apartment buildings (in addition to the various neighborhoods of cottages...read more about the community's amazing range of living arrangements here). The newest building is the Terrace (where my grandmother lives):



When it was built, they put 60 solar panels on the roof to supply hot water (not to be confused with photovoltaic solar panels, which use the sun to generate electricity...more on that in a bit). When they built the Terrace, they also replaced the 125-ton air cooler on one of the other buildings, and the savings from the new unit offset the entire new building's energy needs. That's right -- the Manor's overall utility bill didn't increase with the addition of the Terrace, an apartment building of about 70 units combined with a mini-hospital.

The next building, the Plaza, was only built about ten years ago.



However, Jim's team is always looking for opportunities to save energy. He spoke about the savings from various improvements with such ease that I got the sense he's constantly calculating savings figures...and that's probably how it was determined that new windows at the Plaza were a wise investment, leading to the recent replacement of all of the windows with the most efficient model currently available.

And then there's the oldest building (which they call "the Manor"):



Not only is that aqua sheathing pretty much totally uninsulated (and totally, um, retro), but the building is still sporting single-pane glass:



They are currently moving toward replacing the windows with triple-paned glass and that aqua sheathing with something much more insulating (and, hopefully, attractive). Jim estimated that the project would cost $2.3 million (including about a million in subsidies of some sort) and would yield energy savings of about $100,000/year. (I wish I had asked him what their total annual energy expenditure is to better put these savings figures in context.)

I'm pretty conversant in green building, but as Jim told me about some of the Manor's recent projects, I realized that my knowledge is limited in a couple of ways. First, residential building involves different types of systems than commercial (although the Manor is obviously a residential facility, both the high-rise structures and the scale of the community -- somewhere on the order of 1,000 residents, I think -- mean that, from a facilities management perspective, it's decidedly commercial). So when he told me that the Manor is saving $12,000/year from replacing all of the dryer vent fans in the three main buildings and rerouting them in such a way that they no longer need to run all the time, I was impressed but a bit baffled. (Why did the vent fans ever have to run 24 hours a day?)

Vents are actually providing a surprising number of energy-savings opportunities at the Manor. (Who knew?) While I was visiting, the main kitchen was undergoing renovations. The range vent fans were being replaced with slower fans that wouldn't suck so much conditioned air out of the buildings. Jim estimated that replacing 27 of these exhaust fans would save $63,000/year (between electricity to power the fans and heating/cooling energy to replace the exhausted air...mostly the latter, I would imagine). He also told me this tidbit about vents on the side of one of the buildings: during the summer, when it can get up to 90 degrees during the day but falls to the 50s at night, the vents open so the building's innards (and especially the chilling system's pipes) can cool off so the air conditioning doesn't have to work as hard to supply cool air to the buildings. (So smart!)

And then there's the second way in which my green IQ is limited: pretty much everything I know is geared toward warm climates, where winters are mild and the primary goal is to keep the summer heat at bay, but the techniques and products are different in areas where summers are mild and the focus is on keeping heat in during the winter. Likewise, I asked Jim about sealed attics (where the insulation is along the underside of the roof instead of the top of the ceiling), but that warm-climate concept was foreign to him.

The Manor has recently replaced old steam boilers with hot water boilers. (I frankly have no idea what the difference is between a steam boiler and a hot water boiler. I barely even know what a boiler is, but eHow.com tells me that hot water boilers are more efficient -- and safer.) I asked about geothermal heating/cooling, which works equally well for commercial applications, but apparently the terrain is too rocky up there to feasibly drill for geothermal lines.

Another regional difference is that, in order to save water, Jim's facilities guys are working toward changing out the rye grass on the property for fescue. (Drought-tolerance is a hugely important consideration with grass down here, too -- hence our recent choice of palisades zoysia for our yard -- but in Austin, rye grass is only for overseeding in the winter, and I don't think I've ever seen fescue around these here parts.)

And speaking of grass...they're even working toward putting a photovoltaic solar farm on some golf course land the Manor owns. Apparently the Manor doesn't qualify for all of the usual tax breaks (because of its not-for-profit status, I think), so they aren't eligible for the usual solar and other rebates, but they are looking into partnering with another organization to capture some of the tax benefits.

Whew. That's a lot of energy-efficiency talk. Under Jim's competent leadership, the Manor is obviously committed to identifying and implementing green features into its facilities. And although many (perhaps most) of the residents are oblivious to such issues, there is a group of old hippies who are actively supporting the cause. On the floor of Jim's office when I met with him (but probably hanging on a wall by now) was this plaque honoring those residents who contributed to the Rogue Valley Manor Foundation Green Fund and last year's solar panel project:



Steve and I joke about putting down our deposit to move to the Manor -- only half-joking, really -- so maybe our names will be on a similar plaque someday. (You know, when robots will dress us and make our breakfast, and the plaque will be whatever is six generations fancier than a giant iPad....)

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