Amherst continues its education in zero-energy construction

Staff Writer
Thursday, February 22, 2018

AMHERST — Backers of the bylaw adopted at Town Meeting last fall mandating that all new municipal buildings produce as much energy as they use are continuing to bring experts in zero-energy design and construction to town.

On Tuesday, the Amherst chapter of Mothers Out Front and Climate Action Now sponsored a presentation by Darren Port, buildings and community solutions manager at Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships in Lexington, “Zero Energy Buildings and Communities: The Landscape of the Future.”

It’s part of an educational effort in advance of the town building a new Department of Public Works headquarters, as well as a fire station in South Amherst that would replace the aging Central Fire Station.

Both the Select Board and Town Manager Paul Bockelman expressed concern at Town Meeting about whether the zero-energy bylaw would derail these long-standing building plans.

Last month Ellen Watts, president and co-founder of Architerra in Boston, spoke to an audience of about 70 people at the Hitchcock Center for the Environment.

Lee Jennings, who spearheaded the petition, said she appreciated that Watts discussed recent advances in building technology and renewable energy that have allowed zero-energy projects to be completed without breaking the bank.

“She demonstrated that large zero-energy buildings are practical, affordable and even beautiful,” Jennings said.

Retired architect Christopher Riddle said Watts delivered a positive message that costs can be reduced through sharing space and efficiency in floor plans.

“One message that Ellen emphasized was that zero-energy technology is advancing rapidly, and that, in contrast to conventional energy, systems such as photovoltaics, wind turbines and batteries are rapidly becoming both more efficient and less costly,” Riddle said.

But skepticism remains among those who are charged with actually getting the buildings constructed.

Bockelman, who was able to meet with Watts during a session at Town Hall, said he still doesn’t have a sense of how the bylaw will impact the DPW and fire station projects and whether the estimated 10 percent add-on cost is an accurate.

The first priority, he said, remains identifying sites for both projects and determining whether those sites could support the elements needed for zero energy, such as space for solar arrays.

While he and the Select Board support the concept of zero energy, they remain worried about being able to sign contracts with architects and design companies if there is no flexibility.

“Adjustments to the bylaw could make it more workable,” Bockelman said.

The first project that could be affected, renovations to the North Amherst Library, will be an initial test case, as the bylaw applies to any town project valued at more than $1 million. The town is in the process of getting a design company and executing a contract.

“We’re moving forward on this expeditiously,” Bockelman said.

Lynn Griesemer, chairwoman of the DPW/Fire Station Advisory Committee, attended both the public meeting with Watts and the one held at Town Hall.

“Both presentations and discussions were very informative,” Griesemer said.

Griesemer said she agrees with Bockelman that the immediate task is finding the locations where the two projects can be developed.