A New Neighborhood Approach: Meeting Fort Collins’ Affordable Housing Gap


Bruce Hendee, RLA

IBE Advisory Board Member

Affordable housing became an issue in Fort Collins shortly after the end of the Great Recession. At that time, a perfect storm of conditions led to a dramatic decrease in the availability of affordable housing that has continued to this day.

In 2014, Fort Collins Habitat for Humanity’s Board of Directors and Executive Director, Kristin Candella, recognized the need to address this shortage of affordable housing stock. In response, the Board set an aggressive goal to build 50 new affordable homes by the year 2020, more than doubling the homes built by Habitat over the last twenty years—an especially challenging task given that all are built with volunteers. The goal required a new neighborhood approach that would yield more homes in less space to keep individual costs down.


Harmony Cottages perspective.

The Perfect Storm for an Affordable Housing Crisis

As the lingering effects of the Great Recession began to wear off, there were few new housing units on the market. New housing starts had slowed due to the shortage of credit available from lenders in response to tightening legislation from the Federal Reserve. Developers were reluctant to invest in new projects because of the weakened economy and the Construction Defects Law, a new state law that made it easier for builders to be sued in building new condominiums. Construction of new condos came to a halt, putting further pricing pressure on entry-level housing.

At the same time that housing starts were at a dramatic low, Fort Collins was recognized as one of the best places to live and raise a family in America. The city and the Front Range became one of the favored locations to move. Simultaneously, Colorado State University was anticipating significant growth in student enrollment and had over $1 billion in new construction planned over a 10-year period, while Fort Collins-based corporations (such as Woodward and Otterbox) were building major new manufacturing and corporate facilities.

The resulting storm of immigration, lack of housing under construction, and a newly emerging, booming marketplace for jobs created a vacuum in available housing. The shortage caused housing prices to rise and affordability to become an issue.

Cottages and New Urbanism: Maximizing Space & Minimizing Cost

To realize the vision for 50 new affordable homes, Habitat for Humanity decided on a site located at Harmony and Taft Hill Road. But the original land plan contained only 30 lots whereas close to 50 were required to meet the goal. Additionally, the cost of lots would be too high spread over only 30 lots. With a targeted objective of attracting residents making an income in the 35-60% range of area median income, Habitat had to keep site and home costs down in spite of a rapidly escalating residential market.


Harmony Cottages site plan. Image courtesy of Ripley Design, Inc.

To meet this challenge, Habitat teamed up with a local social impact developer and retained a design team that included two IBE Advisory Board members, Bruce Hendee, ASLA, and Greg Fisher, AIA. The team also included local landscape architecture firm Ripley Design, which has significant neighborhood design experience.

The team was given the charge to develop a denser site plan that added more lots while creating a great community. Design began with an intensive charrette and used a blend of New Urbanism and Pocket Neighborhood concepts, which originated from early neighborhood designs begun by Ebeneezer Howard and Frederick Law Olmsted during the Garden City Movement of the 1920’s and 1930’s. This concept evolved around small garden commons surrounded by cottage-style homes. To increase density, Fisher developed a duplex home style with gabled roof lines that made the duplexes appear as though they were two single-family homes. The community court concept, paired with the unique duplex style, enabled the project to expand from 30 to 48 units, a nearly 60% increase in density. An added benefit was the preservation of 40% open space.

A Collaborative Model for Affordable Energy

A key project requirement was to create highly efficient, low-cost homes. For families earning a low to moderate income, paying for heat often falls to the wayside in the interest of other, more critical needs. Therefore, a design that would keep residents comfortable at a very low energy cost was key.

In consultation with the City of Fort Collins Utilities’ Integrated Design Assistance Program (IDAP), Fisher designed homes with an exceptional building envelope and highly efficient electrical systems. IDAP enabled the team to conduct energy modeling of envelopes to further improve performance. The design process is still underway but has already yielded benefits, including analyzing the impact of the insulation. Spurred by a meeting that IBE facilitated early in the design phase, all insulation was donated by Johns Manville, helping bring down costs.

All homes were designed to accommodate three-kilowatt solar panels without charging residents more for their homes or more in energy costs. Fisher ensured the homes were positioned to ensure maximized rooftop orientation of solar panels. The solar provider, Namaste Solar, has generously offered to donate $1,200 of the cost of every solar panel for the first phase. Kyocera, the solar panel manufacturer, is considering providing reduced-cost solar panels. And, the City of Fort Collins is considering matching financing up to $25,000 toward a solar installation for the first phase through an income-qualified solar program.

The total cost of solar per dwelling unit is approximately $12,000. With initial donations of approximately $5,000, the remaining balance is $7,000 per unit. Two approaches are being considered to cover this balance: a Habitat fundraiser and social impact investment. Through the latter, philanthropic investors would purchase the solar panels and be repaid through a 30% solar tax credit combined with capturing the net difference in energy costs through net metering. Once repaid, the money could contribute toward new social impact investments.

A Youth-Designed Playground

A unique detail of the neighborhood plan is a playground designed in large part by Kinard Middle School students. With the landscape architects and school staff, students researched playground design for children with various disabilities and met at a local neighborhood park to draft designs atop sidewalks and picnic tables. The fresh perspectives they generated greatly enhanced the community design.

The Harmony Cottages project site is now under construction with plans to build six to eight homes per year, based on availability of donations and volunteer labor. With home construction beginning in 2017, estimated buildout is 2023-2025.

To learn more, visit the Fort Collins Habitat for Humanity’s website.

About Bruce

Bruce Hendee is the former Chief Sustainability Officer and an Assistant City Manager with the City of Fort Collins. Bruce is also founder and former owner of BHA Design, a landscape architecture and planning firm located in Fort Collins.

He has organized and directed various efforts in the Fort Collins area, including development of a new division within the City called Sustainability Services. While at the City, he led an effort to create a new Climate Action Plan, a new Economic Health Strategic Plan, and development of a Social Sustainability Department. In 2012, the division was recognized with the Robert Havlick Award awarded by the International City/County Managers Association) as one of the most innovative new city management systems.

As the CEO of BHA Design in Fort Collins, he led the firm in numerous projects along the Front Range including master planning and design for University of Colorado Health, PVH, Harmony Campus, and Medical Center of the Rockies. Other notable projects included the master plan for the Downtown River District, Fossil Creek Park, Spring Canyon Park, and projects with the University of Colorado and Colorado State University.


5 Things You Need to Know about Life Cycle Assessments

ellie_colorEllie Troxell
Sustainability Associate, Civil Engineering

There has been discussion for a number of decades about the environmental impacts of materials and processes, but only recently has a tool been developed in an intentional way to measure those impacts.  The newest addition to the life cycle toolbox is the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA).  LCA’s provide valuable information for exploring decisions related to the environmental impacts of buildings, materials, products, and services.

  1. A Life Cycle Assessment is an evaluation of the environmental impacts of products, processes or services through their life cycle.

The International Standard for Organization (ISO), a world-wide federation of standards bodies, has standardized the LCA framework.  ISO-compliant LCA is the most reliable and referenced technique used to verify environmental impacts.  According to ISO 14040 and 14044 standards:

Life cycle is defined as the “consecutive and interlinked stages of a product or service system, from extraction of natural resources to the final disposal.”

lifeLife Cycle Assessment (LCA) is defined as a “systemic set of procedures for compiling and examining the inputs and outputs of materials and energy and the associated environmental impacts directly attributable to the functioning of a product or service system throughout its life cycle.”

In simpler terms, LCA is a systemic evaluation of the environmental impacts of products, processes or services through their life cycle, and—most importantly—provides a tool that supports making sound, considerate environmentally-relevant decisions. It is also worth noting at this juncture that LCA’s do not analyze economic or social impacts—they focus exclusively on the environmental considerations for a product or service.

  1. Life Cycle Assessments are driven by environmental accountability, corporate sustainability, and procurement policies.

In short, pretty much everyone that makes anything has a reason to use LCAs.  LCAs have been conducted on a variety of products and services across a number of sectors—from jeans to jet engines, trash disposal, and computers.  Various factors are driving this new trend.  First, regulations are moving towards “life cycle accountability”, the idea that the manufacturer is not only responsible for the direct production impacts of a product or service, but its inputs, use, transport, and disposal.  For example, the LEED rating system currently has two MR LCA-based credits in LEED v4, following a now-retired LCA pilot credit.  Green Globes, the International Code Council (ICC), the International Green Construction Code (IGCC), ASHRAE, and Calgreen now all provide alternative LCA compliance paths.  Second, business is voluntarily participating in initiatives that involve LCA and other elements of stewardship.  Third, consumer markets and government procurement parameters have started to cite environmental precedence.

  1. Life Cycle Assessments follow a 4-phase process.

So now you know what an LCA is, and why they are useful.  But how might you go about actually doing a Life Cycle Assessment?  The following four main phases briefly define the LCA process:

Goals & Scoping – Identifies the purpose of the LCA, determines which environmental concerns will be included in the study, and notes all assumptions based on the goal definition.

Inventory – Quantifies the life-cycle for all environmental inputs and outputs of the parts of the building, material, service, or product system involved in the LCA.

Impact Assessment – The assessment takes inventory data given the inputs and converts the information to indicators for a given category. Typically, LCA reports on these environmental effects due to a product, building or service:

  • Fossil fuel depletion
  • Other non-renewable resource use
  • Water use
  • Global warming potential
  • Stratospheric ozone depletion
  • Ground level ozone (smog) creation
  • Eutrophication of water bodies
  • Acidification and acid deposition (dry and wet)
  • Toxic releases to air, water and land

Interpretation – This last step is an analysis of the data evaluating opportunities to reduce waste at each step of the product life-cycle and defines whether the conditions of the goal and scope have been met.

For a typical product, the environmental life cycle impacts (commonly known as “cradle-to-grave” impacts) include the extraction of raw materials, the processing, manufacturing, and fabrication; the transportation or distribution of the product to the consumer; and the disposal or recovery of the product after its useful life.  It is worth keeping in mind, however, that these may not be applicable to every product; there may be instances where one or more are not of particular environmental concern.

  1. There are a wealth of tools to make Life Cycle Assessments easier and faster to conduct.

There are a few tools already available for anyone interested in conducting an LCA.  The following tools differ due to the purpose of the LCA.  Explore which might be the best fit for your purpose:

  1. The two-sides to Life Cycle Assessments: Benefits & Pitfalls.

While LCAs highlight important considerations in the development of a product, they are not yet a silver bullet for environmental concerns.  Thus, it is worth keeping in mind both the benefits of LCAs, as well as those areas where they may fall short.

Benefits Pitfalls
• Pragmatic standard for green design (performance-based)

• Ability to evaluate opportunities to affect environmental improvements

• Introduces the notion of calculating the environmental footprint of a product/service/building

• Greater awareness of environmental implications

• Creates common metrics that can be shared and compared to help choosing one path over another

• Improve product/ corporate image

• Reduce environmental impact & waste

• Difficulty in assessing the environmental effects of resource extraction (biodiversity, water quality, soil stability not easily measured and only minimally addressed in LCA)

• Can be costly and time-consuming limiting their use as analysis techniques

• Quantity of assumptions (all rough estimates)

• Limited ability to account for land-use impacts



Athena Institute (2016). About LCA. Retrieved from http://www.athenasmi.org/resources/about-lca/who-does-lca-why/

Williams, Aida S. (2009). Life Cycle Analysis: A Step by Step Approach. ISTC Reports. http://www.istc.illinois.edu/info/library_docs/tr/tr40.pdf

District-Scale Health and Wellness

katie_colorKatherine Vega 
Sustainability Associate, Public Health

In the Unites States, 75% of our health expenditures are attributed to chronic diseases . This realization has prompted a shift toward preventative health measures for individuals and entire communities. Still, it is important to understand that active living is influenced by much more than personal behavioral choice. The built environment plays a significant role in human health to either support a healthy lifestyle or serve as a barrier to health for individuals. Research has continually found connections between built environments that emphasize safe and healthy communities with better human health and wellbeing. A spectrum of Millennials to Baby Boomers who want to age in place, have begun exploring and seeking opportunities to be healthy in their homes, workplaces, schools, public spaces, and communities. This demand has triggered built environment designers and planners to enlist healthy community design that can positively affect physical and mental health.

HealthyIntegrating Health into the Built Environment

A healthy built environment includes more than hospitals, and medical facilities to treat illness. It is an environment that promotes health at a district-scale by incorporating energy efficient buildings, promoting effective resource use, establishing quality control of air and water, and creating regenerative social, economic, and environmental systems. In a sense, it is the creation of a healthy ecosystem that integrates health into various aspects of building construction, land use, city governance, resource provision, and community development. For example, induction of a policy for ‘complete streets’ in a city Master Plan can promote multi-modal transportation use among citizens ultimately increasing pedestrian physical activity and reducing harmful emissions from car use. Support of urban agriculture in the form of community gardens and living walls not only provides the neighborhood with local fresh foods but also stimulates social cohesion among community members. The creation of more walkable neighborhoods with features that accommodate citizens of all abilities offers residents easy, close access to amenities and essential services to live their daily lives. Focusing on health at a district scale has the ability to accelerate urban regeneration starting with small innovations that grow to leverage long-term investment and public policy .

Planning for Health

District-scale solutions that address health in the built environment are best created by transdisciplinary teams who aim to promote population health, economic growth, and social sustainability. These teams consist of researchers, private developers, planners, city officials, business owners, community-based organizations, and other key members of the community who bring their expertise to the table in order to explore various determinants of health in the built environment. These diverse individuals have the insight and experience to discuss current conditions within the community, decide on a common agenda and key priorities, and set sustainability goals that will benefit the physical, financial, and environmental health of the community. The creation of a healthy district-scale built environment proves to be a complex process but has incredible potential to promote the health of an entire population. With the rapid growth of urban populations, sustained healthy built environments can serve as a formidable defense against environmental threats, changing lifestyle patterns, and increased demand for resources. The healthy choice becomes the easy choice when health is integrated into the very infrastructure and culture of a community.


[1] Urban Land Institute. Intersections: Health and the Built Environment. Washington, D.C.: Urban Land Institute, 2013.

[2] EcoDistricts. The EcoDistricts Protocol version 1.0. Portland, OR: EcoDistricts, 2016.

Expanding your Knowledge and your Network One Conference at a Time

amelia_colorBy Amelia Howe
Sustainability Associate, Environmental Communications

There are many benefits that come from attending an educational conference. As a student in particular, you will have much to gain from these events. You are taking your first introductory steps into an industry, and in these beginning stages will be able to absorb knew knowledge, be inspired by your peers, and meet people who have the potential to change your future for the better.


Attending a large international conference like Greenbuild as a student is an eye-opening experience. It introduces you to new concepts and ideas; from industries you never knew existed, to having the first look into this year’s newest technology being showcased in the exhibition hall. Not only are you introduced to these new exciting things, but the leaders of industry are teaching your educational sessions, and the technological innovators are standing next to their exhibit ready to answer questions and enlighten you further.


Through each educational session, and conversation held with a new acquaintance, the knowledge being absorbed will be sure to inspire new ideas within yourself. Many attendees you meet around tables during sessions or grabbing a bite to eat, are creative minds full of ideas of how to move the green building industry closer to success. Being surrounded by people with similar passions working within your industry is a powerful thing. The conversations had with these newfound acquaintances will offer an unconventional kind of educational session. It will move you to become the next genius innovator, builder or educator of your generation. The whole experience will leave you feeling inspired to say the least, and ready to take your fresh ideas back to the office or the classroom.


Not only will you leave the conference feeling inspired, but you will leave with a handful of business cards. Small, 3 ½ by 2 inch pieces of cardstock that could possibly lead you to an open door full of opportunity. These cards may have been handed to you across the table of an educational session or over a cup of coffee in the lobby; with a proper follow-up email, that card may have solidified your next internship. The job market is extremely competitive, and every contact matters when it comes to building your network, you never know, the man or woman sitting next to you at lunch may be able to help you find the job you are looking for. Not only could a potential job opportunity arise from expanding your network, but it opens additional lines of communication with potential mentors and colleagues who could share information regarding what particular companies are looking for, and if they know of an employer looking for someone with your skill set.

Everyone attending university has heard the phrase “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” a thousand times over. It is extremely important to build your network in a competitive job market, and attending a conference is an opportune time to do so. As a student, you will leave the doors of an educational conference with a brain full of new, exciting knowledge, armed with passion-driven inspiration, and a handful of new contacts. All that you are certain to gain attending a conference will push you that much closer to the career you are searching for.

Technology Is Transforming the Built Environment

austin_colorBy Austin Good | Sustainable Building Associate

It’s no secret technology has made great advancements over the past couple decades. It was only 8 years ago that Apple introduced the iPhone which kick-started the mobile computing revolution. Now, only a few years later, mobile technology is ubiquitous. Just as the rise of mobile computing occurred so quickly we are beginning to see technical advances make their way into the DNA of our built environment. Buildings and systems are being outfitted with sensors and computers allowing them to make their own calculated decisions based on the surrounding environment.
Smart-Home-graphic.jpgSmart buildings support sustainable behavior.

People are becoming more aware and more in control of the built environment through real time information about everything from energy use to bus schedules. The USGBC recently came out with their LEED Dynamic Plaque which shows building occupants updated information about a building’s energy and water use along with other metrics in an attractive easy to read display. Technology like this helps people see buildings as real time systems, with real time benefits and consequences associated with how the building is used. As real time building metrics develop, maybe these dynamic displays will show more than just a building’s environmental impact, they could also display metrics for another building down the street, entire block, or a city creating friendly competitions around reducing resource use. In the future, every home could be outfitted with dynamic information measurements, allowing homeowners to monitor their resource consumption in real time.

Smart buildings can diagnose and fix problems real-time.
Using smart building data to support good behavior is one piece of the puzzle, but another important one that this technology enables is the ability for our buildings and their systems to troubleshoot issues in real time, quickly solving problems and saving resources. A great example are the new thermostats like Nest that enable better control over a buildings heating and cooling. Not only are these thermostats easy to install in existing buildings, but because they are connected they are adaptable. Nest, a leader in the smart thermostat field, recently pushed out an automatic software update to existing Nest thermostats that included energy efficiency improvements. This software update enables these smart thermostats to more efficiently control a home’s temperature by taking into account more factors, like weather, how drafty your home is, and what your personal schedule is like. This software update, that happened overnight for thousands of users, increased home energy efficiency gains of between 3.8-6.5 percent. Imagine if every building was outfitted with a smart thermostat and all of our cities saw those gains overnight.

Smart buildings learn.
Because of integrated, connected software, smart building systems can continually evolve and learn, allowing them to be more efficient without waiting for consumer to adopt the next generation technology. Instead of having to wait to buy an entirely new car to gain efficiency, software updates can enable us to make gains using what we already have. Sure, there will still be need for physical improvements to technology, but software updates may enable us to use products and systems for longer, extending product cycles.
These examples only scratch the surface. In a time where we desperately need to reduce our resource use these advances are critical. 30 years ago, no one could have predicted the technological advancements that we have made. As we continue to develop a connected world it’s exciting to imagine what lies ahead in the next 30 years.


GB_2015_graphicIn November, four IBE staff attended the Greenbuild International Conference & Expo in Washington, DC. Read on to hear their “Best of Greenbuild” experiences and to tap into new resources—whether you attended the conference or not.



Healthy air in green buildings doubled cognitive function in Harvard study.

A recent study led by Harvard’s Center for Global Health & Environment shows conclusive evidence of the positive effect of healthy indoor environments on cognitive functions. Using a controlled, double-blind experiment, the team saw a 61% increase in cognitive function in green building conditions and a 101% increase in enhanced green building conditions. This level of certainty has never been reached due to the confounding variables present in buildings; hence, a controlled experiment was required. It’s exciting to know this effect to justify better ventilation for office buildings. And since 90% of business expenses are connected to people, not utilities, healthy building design is a critical focus.

What this means for the industry: We now have the science to definitively back up the need for healthy indoor air. Improved ventilation, filtration, and non-toxic materials should no longer be debated. Let’s move on to more important issues.

The Investor Confidence Project provides an underwriting certification for energy audits to ensure energy efficiency projects are investor-ready.

We know that existing building stock is ripe with energy efficiency opportunities that can yield significant returns. However, how can investors be confident that their funds will be spent wisely and well-managed? Financial executives are unlikely to be engineers, so they are unable to review process and assumptions to ensure an audit’s financial analytics are sound. As well, long-term savings are heavily dependent on those operating the building. Therefore, the Investor Confidence Project provides an underwriting certification that makes energy efficiency a more viable investment product.

What this means for the industry: There will continue to be more private capital available for energy retrofits. Building owners will quickly get on board since this usually requires zero capital investment and immediate positive cash flow. Many large investor groups are interested in entering this market (e.g., Deutsche Bank) because if performed correctly, this is s a low-risk investment with high environmental and social impact.



Pushing Materials Transparency: Tips for Tackling LEEDv4’s Game-Changing Materials + Resources Credits

Before delving into LEEDv4’s Building Product Disclosure & Optimization (BPDO) credits consider these three product rules—shared by material experts Jennifer Atlee, Anne Harney, Paula Melton, and Kirsten Ritchie—that struck a chord with me:

  1. Compare with care: The intention of the BPDO credits is to encourage transparency. The more consumers ask for Environmental Product Declarations (EPD), Health Product Declarations (HPD), and Corporate Sustainability Reports (CSR), the more commonplace these will become. There’s still work to be done to standardize the information and methodology used in these reports. Until then, compare products with care and understand that just knowing the information is half the battle…for now.
  1. Let someone else do the work: There are numerous resources available to project teams to understand which products and organizations have EPDs, HPDs, and CSRs. Before getting lost in a rabbit hole, check out this Materials Mind Map for a comprehensive list of resources.
  1. Perfection is the enemy: More information brings more choices. This is great for the materials transparency movement, but can be overwhelming when trying to decide which material to use. Should you choose the carpet with low global warming potential but manufactured in China, or the one that’s local but contains toxic substances? There might not be a one-product-has-it-all option, so do your research and make the best informed decision for that particular project.

What this means for the industry: Achieving LEED BPDO credits may be difficult for now since the concepts are new to many product manufacturers and suppliers. However, the more the green building community shares its methods, challenges, and resources for achieving these credits, the faster we’ll see market adoption and the easier it will become to achieve these credits. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and work together to bring transparency to materials!

Josie_colorJOSIE PLAUT

Creating Living, Regenerative Environments Workshop Sold Out

Brian Dunbar and I, along with Stacy McMahan of Koch Hazard Architects and Max Zahniser of Praxis Building Solutions, presented LENSES to a sold-out room of 200 building professionals during a special 2-hour session. LENSES (Living Environments in Natural, Social, and Economic Systems) is a structured process for regenerative development. During the session, participants interacted with the concepts and process of the LENSES framework through hands-on activities. From the sold-out attendance, number of questions, and input from participants who approached us afterward to share how they could integrate LENSES into their work, this session was a strong confirmation that this is just the beginning of market adoption of this fairly new regenerative development framework. Learn more about LENSES.

DamNation: A study in the shift from conquering nature to recognizing nature within us

I was fortunate to see Greenbuild’s showing of the documentary “DamNation.” This film offers an inspiring look at the movement to remove dams from rivers, restore salmon and other fish populations, and bring back ecological health, all while honoring native peoples. I highly recommend having a watch yourself. Learn more here.


brian_colorBRIAN DUNBAR

The Best of 14 Greenbuilds

Having attended all but one Greenbuild, I’m struck by many recent reflections. Here are a few.

CSU and IBE are always well-represented by students and staff at this international conference that annually attracts 20,000 to 25,000 planning, design, construction, and facilities professionals. IBE has coordinated receptions and lunches at many Greenbuilds to bring students, alumni, and partners together. This year, Roberto Mesa, former IBE intern and CSU grad student, brought three Costa Rican colleagues to join us. Because of the teacher in me, I always ask the assembled group to quickly share their “Best of Greenbuild”—either a great session or a big “a-ha.” From this year’s shares, we learned of ground-breaking community engagement in Pittsburgh, new water conservation strategies, the next evolution of LEED, health research breakthroughs in school design, and new building innovations. Those who have been part of a previous lunch always plan time to join the next year’s gathering because it’s a great way to put a seal on another inspiring Greenbuild.

Another reflection takes me back to the first Greenbuild in Austin in 2002. One of the keynotes was a confident young architect from South Africa, Chrisna de Plessis, who proclaimed that sustainable building does not go far enough. While I appreciated her brash sentiments, I couldn’t have imagined that nine years later, she would contact IBE and ask to study our LENSES framework. Chrisna and University of Melbourne’s Dominique Hes integrated LENSES into their co-authored 2015 book, Designing for Hope, which focuses on the promise of regenerative design and development. The book encourages the use of LENSES and showcases our work on the Children’s Discovery Village at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens. We often credit Chrisna with inspiring many of us at IBE, so to be included in her positive, forward-looking book is a great boomerang, as they would say down under!

Like the previous 13 for me, this Greenbuild did not disappoint. I look forward to growing and re-connecting with IBE’s growing family again at Greenbuild 2016!


DC Microgrids

6610b-austinBy Austin Good | Sustainable Building Associate

The Institute for the Built Environment (IBE), in partnership with the Center for Energy and Behavior, the Energy Institute, Positive Energies (PosEn), the Colorado Clean Energy Cluster (CCEC), and Schneider Electric have come together to research the use and benefits of DC microgrids. The proposed collaboration includes construction of a new DC microgrid laboratory facility at CSU’s PowerHouse Energy campus and the initiation of new research directions in social science, built environments and DC microgrids.

What is AC & DC Power?

There are two types of electricity, Alternating Current (AC) and Direct Current (DC). These two types of electricity describe the types of electric current that flow through circuits. Each type of current has benefits and limitations. AC power, the power that flows through our current power grid, was chosen as the main form of electricity over 100 years ago. AC became the current of choice because of the ability to transmit power long distances without losing much energy to heat.  AC power is also able to be transmitted at high voltages then put through a transformer to reduce the voltage for the end use of the customer. DC voltage on the other hand cannot be scaled and was much more costly to transmit over distances.

Why DC power?

So why are we talking about DC power? AC power is becoming extremely inefficient for today’s uses. Our world has moved toward increasingly higher uses of semiconductors. Semiconductors are essential components in the electric circuits many devices, including computers, smartphones, televisions, and electric vehicles.  And semiconductors require the use of DC power. Because the power coming into our homes and offices is in the form of AC, conversion is required. During this conversion excessive power is lost to heat making conversion inefficient.

This problem is becoming more pragmatic today as people begin to generate their own power close to home through solar or other renewable means. These renewable sources output electricity in the form of DC power. However, because of the way our infrastructure is built, the power generated by renewables must be converted to AC power, transmitted through the current power grid, and then converted back to DC power within the device that is using the electricity, making the power subject to two inefficient conversions before reaching its end use.


Via recool.com

Enter DC microgrids. The idea behind DC microgrids is that we can begin embracing power that is generated nearby instead of the power generated at far away central power plants. These DC microgrids could optimize our systems to accept DC power directly, from generation to use, without going through two conversions. Other DC microgrid projects have demonstrated energy savings in the double digits, ranging from 10%-42% (Nextek Power 2010). One such system, called a MEG (Modular Electric Generator), is a truly next-generation DC power generation and distribution system. By coupling sources and loads using DC, the MEG improves efficiency and reduces the cost and complexity of power conversion systems. It utilizes PV power generation and battery storage to reduce grid coupling to an absolute minimum.

What is IBE studying?

Studies on green building technologies have identified three primary barriers to the adoption of innovative strategies: individual, organizational, and institutional (Hoffman and Henn 2008).  Additionally, many promising energy technologies, including DC microgrids, are not scalable. Initial user reactions and/or slow adoption prevent technical solutions from achieving their design goals. For example, often times building owners and clients are not aware of up-to-date research or the potential benefits of deploying these systems at scale. When it comes to DC microgrids, user expectations, building codes, and utility interconnections have been identified as the primary barriers to widespread adoption.

This study aims to understand barriers to the adoption of DC power systems in commercial buildings by creating an interdisciplinary team of academics, practitioners, industry professionals, and non-profit leaders to examine the technical issues and social barriers. The research that IBE conducts will be done in concert with the development of new laboratory facilities at the CSU Powerhouse Campus, which will test a MEG DC microgrid system. The resulting white paper will provide valuable information on the development, deployment, and acceptance of large scale DC microgrid technologies.


Fortenbery, B., EPRI, E. C., & Tschudi, W. (2008). DC power for improved data center efficiency.

Hoffman, A. J. and R. Henn (2008). “Overcoming the social and psychological barriers to green building.” Organization & Environment 21(4): 390.

Nextek Power. “AC vs DC Power?” YouTube. YouTube, 15 Sept. 2010. Web. 30 Aug. 2015.