Indiana's first zero-net energy library 

click to enlarge The building's entryway. Submitted Photo.
  • The building's entryway. Submitted Photo.

A small library in rural Indiana may be a glimpse into the future of sustainable design.

The Chrisney Public Library is the first zero-net energy library in the state, meaning it produces at least as much energy as it consumes. A bank of solar panels generates electricity for the 2,400 square-foot facility. A geothermal system heats and cools the building, with help from some ingenious design choices by architect William Brown.

During the four years the library has been open, it's never paid a utility bill, Brown claims, adding the building actually produced 1,861 more kilowatt-hours in its first year of operation than it consumed.

Brown will discuss the Chrisney Library and other green energy projects during his 5 p.m. talk Nov. 28, in Butler University's Johnson Board Room in Robertson Hall, 4600 Sunset Avenue, Indianapolis, Ind.

When Chrisney residents first proposed the idea of the new facility in 2006, they weren't thinking about creating a new model of sustainable design; they just wanted a library. At the time, Chrisney residents needed to drive 30 minutes round trip to Dale, Ind., in order to check out a book or DVD. When residents petitioned the Lincoln Heritage library board for help, they were refused, with budgetary reasons being the chief concern. Likewise, the town government couldn't afford to take on the costs of constructing a library.

Chrisney residents refused to be defeated.

Around this time, Brown entered the picture. Brown specialized in designing libraries and had considerable experience with sustainable design, chairing the Indiana chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council for five years and serving on the Greening of the White House national task group while a student at Ball State University.

click to enlarge William Brown
  • William Brown


Brown says he was motivated by the passion of Chrisney's citizens.

"About 540 people live there, and 125 of them would show up at the meetings (for the project)," Brown said. "There was so much energy there, we knew we had a find a solution to their (money) problem."

A grant magnet

Going with a net-zero energy building accomplished two things that helped get the project off the ground, Brown said. The library board agreed to move forward with the project with the understanding it wouldn't have to pay for a building or utilities. Perhaps more importantly, the project became a grant magnet, attracting nearly a half-million dollars from the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs.

Others helped out as well. The local school district agreed to donate a wooded, one-acre plot behind Chrisney Elementary School, and the town government promised free sewer and water service and site maintenance. Residents raised $88,000 in donations to cover various shortfalls and purchase books, and more than 100 volunteered to help with the library's front desk.

Seemingly small details made a huge difference in the building's energy efficiency. The adjacent woods were utilized to help cool the building in the summer, while at the same time allowing enough sunlight in to illuminate the building and charge the nearby solar panels. More reflective building materials were used inside the library to reduce the need for daytime lighting. Sunlight also heats a thermal slab floor during the winter, with help from a geothermal heat pump when needed.

"The perception is the equipment is so expensive, but you need to think long-term," Brown said. "Energy prices aren't going down; if anything they'll continue to rise in the future. A public building will be there for years; it makes sense to be as energy efficient as possible."

Brown now serves as Indiana University's Director of Sustainability, spearheading the university's efforts to reduce campus energy consumption by 30 percent and its carbon footprint by more than half as it upgrades its buildings and infrastructure. All new buildings must be at least Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified silver, but Brown says he expects up to five buildings to receive the higher gold-level within the next year.

Brown believes the Chrisney Library could be a blueprint for not only municipal buildings, but Hoosiers' homes as well. Brown admits a 10-year payback for green upgrades can be a hard sell for most people.

"No one asks what the payback is for a $10,000 home theater room or an in-ground pool, but everyone wants to know how long it will take to pay off solar panels," Brown said. "Energy independence is the ultimate luxury. ... Ask the people in New Jersey affected by Hurricane Sandy how much they would pay to be able to create their own electricity.

"If you're building a new home from scratch, you can include the solar-panel costs into your mortgage," Brown continued. "Monthly, that can be less than the cost of utilities. ... If you're doing solar in your home, add a few more panels so you can charge an electric vehicle. You'll save $1,300 a year, meaning you can pay off (the extra panels) in about two years. Over the life of the car, you'll likely save $37,000 in electricity costs."

As more builders begin incorporating sustainable features into their homes, Brown expects the prices of those green upgrades to drop significantly.

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