February 2024

Rocky Mountain Institute Innovation Center – How JE Dunn Builds for Net-Zero

Nestled in the mountains of Basalt, Colorado is the highest-performing building in the coldest climate zone in the U.S.  

The Rocky Mountain Institute’s (RMI) Innovation Center produces more clean energy than it uses on an annual basis, along with enough excess energy to power six electric vehicles. One of only 200 net-zero commercial buildings in the country as of 2016, RMI’s Innovation Center is a leading example of buildings that can potentially solve the climate crisis.  

JE Dunn Construction worked as the general contractor for the 15,610-square-foot office building and convening center alongside a number of core team members, construction trade partners, and additional project partners.  

The building, while emitting far less carbon, is constructed to be comfortable, pleasing, and productive, with the comfort of the occupants as the top priority. Passive features include extraordinary insulation from the SIPS elements; solar heat gain in the winter; shading strategies from architectural elements to prevent solar gain in the summer; natural ventilation; temperature control via thermal mass elements; daylighting as the primary light source; glare control; air tightness; solar electricity generation; and maximized views.  

In addition, occupants of the building can individualize their comfort through an integrative design that eliminates mechanical cooling and reduces the heating system to a small, distributed electric-resistance system. Occupants can deliver the amount of heat they need, when and where they need it, instead of heating the entire volume of air within the building.  

Intended to serve as a groundbreaking model to push boundaries of what’s possible with integrative, passive design and the business case for net-zero energy, the Innovation Center building is similar in size to 90% of commercial offices in the U.S.  Advanced automation systems, metering, and controls are included demonstrating where market gaps exist and how the industry can move forward.  

The Innovation Center is a true example of a grid asset. Thanks to high levels of efficiency and on-site energy production and storage, it not only generates all the energy used over the course of a year, but it also controls the load profile throughout the course of the day. This helps utilities avoid firing up dirty peak power plants when energy demand on the grid is greatest. 

Thanks to a dynamic interface between the Innovation Center rooftop solar photovoltaic panels, on-site battery storage, and electric vehicles (which are fitted with conduit to allow for future bidirectional charging once it becomes available), shedding of building loads during peak times is possible, and clean electricity is sent back to the grid when it is most needed. 

RMI’s Innovation Center building is LEED Platinum certified, along with International Living Futures Institute Zero Energy Certification, PHIUS+ Source Net Zero certified, Architecture 2023 Challenge target exceeded, Energy Star targeting score of 100, and International Living Futures Institute petal certified. The project also received numerous awards.  

The building is less expensive to operate, emits less carbon, is more reliable, and is a case study for what can be accomplished through integrated design methods and utilizing collaboration across all disciplines.