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Denver Architects on Cutting Edge of Sustainable Design

Water runs down a glass wall, which doubles as a dry erase board, in the Cactus Building located in the Central Platte Valley of Denver.

The atrium area is filled with sunlight in the Cactus Building in the Central Platte Valley of Denver.

A bank of windows allows a large amount of natural light into the Cactus Building in Central Platte Valley.

One of the buildings at TAXI has a lot of windows, allowing for natural light to illuminate the office spaces in RiNo.

Corrugated metal covers many of the buildings around TAXI in RiNo.

Office space at the TAXI 2 building has plenty of natural lighting in RiNo.

Ray-Ban inspired windows? Water bottle walls? Boxcar flooring? This is how Denver architects are leading clients into sustainable workplaces. 
As solar power, LED lighting and reclaimed materials become the rule rather than the exception, a number of Colorado architecture firms are embracing LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) and other sustainable design concepts whether their clients ask for it or not.

Its really permeated our practice in terms of virtually every project were doing, says Rich Von Luhrte, president of architecture firm RNL. Its becoming a game-changer in the commercial real estate market.
“It’s really permeated our practice in terms of virtually every project we’re doing,” says Rich Von Luhrte, president of architecture firm RNL. “It’s becoming a game-changer in the commercial real estate market.”

RNL recently completed the expansion of the Research Support Facility at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, achieving LEED Platinum certification. The 138,000-square-foot expansion is 70 percent more energy efficient than the original building and cost 10 percent less to build, Von Luhrte said. 

The building is among the first to use RavenBrick windows, adaptive “smart” windows that reflect the sun’s heat outside when it’s hot and lets sunshine in when it’s cool. The technology saves up to 30 percent on heating and cooling year-round without using electricity.

Denver-based RavenBrick recently raised $5 million to enable it to manufacture its own products.

“There’s no excuse for not doing sustainable work because it’s just becoming so much more mainstream,” Von Luhrte says. “The availability of products is extensive and doesn’t have the cost associated with it that it has in the past.”

The recently completed parking structure on NREL’s campus also showcases energy efficiency. RNL used photovoltaics on the roof and walls and installed demand-responsive LED lighting throughout the garage.
Corrugated metal covers many of the buildings around TAXI in RiNo.
From the Garbage Heap to the Office Floor
Tres Birds is another Colorado architecture firm focused on sustainability. The firm, which has designed a number of projects for Denver clients, uses local materials to reduce the amount of energy used during product transport.
 
Take the projects Tres Birds completed for biotech company 3i at Taxi and the redevelopment of Yellow Cab’s former operations on the South Platte River near Brighton Boulevard. The structure, called Bio Diesel, was built with pallet racks and floors from old Santa Fe Railway boxcars. For the project, Tres Birds invented an interior wall system using 20,000 recycled clear, plastic water bottles. 

“We cut the ends off and sandwiched them in a composite,” says Michael Moore, design principal of Tres Birds. “They act as a daylighting thermal wall.”

Kyle Zeppelin, a principal at Denver-based Zeppelin Development, hired Tres Birds because the architecture firm’s innovative and revolutionary work complements what his company is doing at Taxi.

“Mike’s very tuned into energy-modeling and projects,” Zeppelin says. “The bottles became a translucent, cellular-type wall that’s three to four times as efficient as glass. It glows on the inside during the day and glows on the outside at night.”

Water runs down a glass wall, which doubles as a dry erase board, in the Cactus Building located in the Central Platte Valley of Denver.Shed a Little Light
Daylight is a critical component in all projects completed by Tres Birds. The company recently retrofitted a three-story building at 15th and Little Raven Streets for Cactus, a Denver-based advertising agency and marketing consultancy.

Tres Birds gutted the building, installing an atrium that extends from the basement to the top floor and removed dropped ceilings and perimeter offices blocking natural light from employee workspaces. 

“We put a wall of water in the atrium to ionize the air so it has moisture and feels good,” Moore says. “We put in better windows that use less energy, and it’s all daylit now. We used a lot of glass to keep things open.”

In addition to designing projects, Tres Birds serves as general contractor, handling on-site supervision and managing project trade workers. That gives Tres Birds more control of a project, but is only effective if the client is local, Moore says.

Tres Birds doesn’t limit itself to commercial projects. It’s using a rammed earth technique to build an artists’s studio and home in north Boulder as a net-zero energy structure.

“As a city and as a country, we can really reduce our fossil-fuel usage dramatically,” Moore says. “We have to reinvent how we design and build things.” 

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn

Read more articles by Margaret Jackson.

Margaret is a veteran Denver real estate reporter and can be contacted here.
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