DJC Oregon
April 11, 2012 | Lindsey O’Brien

Painters Hall is an 80-year-old building quietly tucked within a 32-acre sustainable-living community on the outskirts of Salem, but it recently joined an office building in California on the international stage.

Less than one year after the International Living Building Institute launched its Net Zero Energy Building Certification, Painters Hall in Salem and the IDeAs Z2 Design Facility in San Jose, Calif., this month became the first two buildings to earn the third-party verification.

Net-zero energy use means that a building meets its own energy needs by coupling on-site energy generation with conservation and efficiency measures. More projects are claiming net-zero status in recent years, but most buildings’ energy-use data is not verified after they are occupied. The lack of third-party certification has led many design professionals to argue that the claims are often exaggerated, even if unintentionally.

“Most folks really needed to say ‘near net-zero,’ ” said James Meyer, partner at Opsis Architecture and designer of the Painters Hall renovation. “Actual energy use was really all over the map – having a certification process is just a good application of rigor.”

Painters Hall is now the first building in Oregon that can substantiate its claims with more than 12 months of data verified by a third party.

Painters Hall is the centerpiece of the Pringle Creek Community, a growing neighborhood designed around highly-efficient homes and 12 acres of parks and open space. The 1930s-built industrial building was transformed into a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design platinum community center through an extensive remodel that wrapped up a couple of years ago.

The 3,400-square-foot building, which houses a café, an office, an art gallery and an event venue, is operated so efficiently that the 20.2-kilowatt rooftop solar system actually produces more energy than the building needs. Through aggregate metering, excess electricity generated by the photovoltaic system pumps well water through the community’s geothermal loop.

But deep energy conservation was the first step toward achieving net-zero energy use at Painters Hall, according to James Santana, who has been a part of the Pringle Creek development team since the property was purchased in 2005 and now lives in the community with his wife.

“A lot of buildings can be net-zero energy if they put up a ton of (solar) panels, but that was not our strategy,” he said. “We spent all our efforts on reducing energy consumption first.”

Opsis Architecture’s design called for maximizing natural light, installing efficient light fixtures and establishing real-time energy monitoring equipment.

In addition, the community is committed to a zero-waste program in Painters Hall, which means no plastic bottles and lots of composting. For all of 2010 and 2011, activities held in Painters Hall generated less than 200 pounds of garbage, according to Santana.

The project had its challenges, though. The foundation and walls were made of concrete without any insulation, which is not ideal in terms of energy efficiency. Local builder Phil Klaus, president of Spectra Construction, was up for the test, however.

“Insulating a concrete floor is not easy, but where this building limited us we found special ways to get everything done,” said Klaus, who has built nine homes within the Pringle Creek Community over the past several years.

Achieving water efficiency goals required some creativity. Klaus worked with a plumbing contractor and the plumbing inspector to devise a system that could carry rainwater from the roof into six storage tanks in the ground, and then back up into two toilet facilities.

“We did all of that by scratch,” Klaus said. “Nobody had a system that we could just copy.”

Then the contractors had to figure out how to trigger the city’s water system when there wasn’t enough rainwater to fill toilets. They decided to add a float, similar to the one in toilet tanks, which activates the municipal water system when rain catchment tanks dry up.

“After a couple of false starts it’s now working perfectly, which is really gratifying,” Klaus said.

Construction costs for Painters Hall totaled approximately $300,000, but Klaus said the work at Pringle Creek has been enough to keep his small contracting company afloat.

“The economy hasn’t been very friendly to contractors, and these projects provided a lot of work for me during hard times,” he said. “I’ve been blessed – I’d say most of the work I’ve done in the past four years has been out here.”

Don Myers, president of Sustainable Development Inc., the company that developed the sustainable community, said that 10 more people are trying to unload their homes in order to build new ones at Pringle Creek.

The homes range from 1,100 to 3,000 square feet and cost $250,000 to $500,000, Myers said.

“It’s a tough time for selling homes, but the market for green homes is increasing,” he said. “That’s the future.”