Split opinion on Amherst’s move to zero-energy buildings

  • A group of people who are members of Mothers Out Front Amherst greet people as they arrive for an Amherst Town Meeting in November. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 13, 2017

AMHERST — Amherst may become a laboratory to find out whether it can be a pioneer in building a new fire station and new Department of Public Works headquarters that produce as much energy as they consume each year.

While supporters of the zero-energy bylaw successfully had it adopted by Town Meeting last month, and garnered support from local architects and builders, critics suggest the bylaw is so stringent that it will keep new municipal buildings from rising in town.

“What the present bylaw says could, in fact, prevent us from being able to build,” said Lynn Griesemer, chairwoman of the DPW/Fire Station Study Committee.

Griesemer said she doesn’t want to see the town get to the point where it is ready to construct and then find out it will not be able to move forward with plans.

Even a month after Town Meeting’s action, Town Manager Paul Bockelman said he remains worried about the consequences of the bylaw, noting that he shouldn’t sign a contract with a builder who can’t pledge that a building will meet the terms of the bylaw.

The bylaw offers no appeal or variance procedure, Bockelman said, and doesn’t offer a specific way to calculate total project costs, which could be important for an addition and renovation of the North Amherst Library, which may exceed $1 million and trigger the zero-energy requirement.

In addition, while getting to zero energy might be possible, and a bit more expensive, certifying that a building will be zero energy in advance, as the bylaw requires, is near impossible, Bockelman said.

“With this bylaw, Paul and officials can’t sign off unless architects and the construction company say that you will meet the standard,” Griesemer said.

But those in the construction field who signed onto a letter of support for the bylaw argue that zero energy is becoming much easier and doable, and that the worries don’t match reality.

Bruce Coldham, a retired Amherst architect, said skeptics have been challenging him since he built his first zero energy project 15 years ago.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to turn wishful thinking into real achievement,” Coldham said. “This is a watershed moment.”

Coldham said there is a small additional cost because of the need for new technology, but that complexities can be worked through by competent design teams, no matter the size and scope of the building.

Like any project, it’s a matter of understanding the energy load a building will use.

“Once you know what loads are, you design the power generations system to meet that load,” Coldham said. “There’s no difference, fundamentally.”

Mark Ledwell, president of Wright Builders in Northampton, agrees that it shouldn’t make a difference whether building a small residential building or a larger one for institutional use.

Ledwell said he understands that the perception is buildings with overhead doors where fleets of vehicles are stored may be perceived as energy hogs, where energy is let in and out. But bays can be designed so they are mostly isolated from the rest of a building and that the energy loss from opening doors will not be significant.

“If a building is really designed for net zero, a lot of other things come into it besides heating and cooling,” Ledwell said.

The bylaw specifically states that the town can’t use fossil fuels on-site for the building, and can’t just buy renewable energy credits, or RECS, to meet the energy demands, a sort of cap-and-trade method. It also calls for both a design standard and a performance standard for zero energy, and that one year after a building is occupied it has to prove it meets the standards.

Coldham acknowledged there could be major challenges for a building on a small site. Typically, photovoltaics placed on the roof are used to meet some of the load, with others elsewhere on-site. This could be problematic if the site is small, such as in downtown Amherst, though a new fire station and DPW are likely to be on larger tracts.

Still, he said he is more concerned about development patterns that lead to continued reliance on fossil fuels. “It’s a challenge pushing people to think about these things,” Coldham said.

Bockelman said he and other officials are still identifying challenges with the bylaw and hope to have dialogue with proponents on how much flexibility can be permitted.

“There’s a lot of room to have conversations with that,” Bockelman said.

Griesemer said regardless of what happened with the bylaw, her committee is committed to energy conservation and sustainability.

The added cost, which supporters say would be paid back over a 15-year period, seems to be the least concern.

With zero-energy projects becoming more commonplace, solar panels and other equipment for the heating and cooling are becoming cheaper and more efficient.

“It is true, when you look at it with any long-term perspective, it is not any more expensive,” Ledwell said.

“I do think it’s not just the future, it’s now,” Ledwell added.

Codlham said a bylaw gives everyone a more specific stake.

“We’re on the verge of moving beyond good intentions here,” Coldham said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.