Recapping the USGBC Montana Annual Summit 2017

By: Tyler Mortenson
14 March 2017
The majority of the USGBC Montana board, as well as supporting staff from Idaho, snaps a photo together (L to R): Brett Rosenberg, Scott Moses, Tyler Mortenson, Kris Wilson, Jacob Augenstein, Bonnie Rouse, Thomas Allen, Ronda Carlson, Charlie Woodruff, and Wendy Weaver.

USGBC Montana held its Annual Summit Feb. 8-9, this time in Helena. The 2017 event featured speakers from around the state and region, tours of LEED certified sustainable buildings in Helena, and a celebration of the progress of the green building movement in Montana through the 2016 Building Sustainability Awards. CTA PM/architect Ronda Carlson and I attended the conference for CTA this year, after serving on the USGBC Montana board and helping plan the event.


The conference began Wednesday afternoon with tours of LEED-certified buildings near the conference venue. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend due to some weather-related travel issues, but the group that made it checked out three buildings within easy walking distance, starting with a CTA project, the Pioneer Block Office Building. This project was certified as LEED Silver in 2015 under LEED v2009. The group then moved on to check out the Montana State Fund Building, a v2 LEED Gold project (and one for which CTA provided engineering expertise), and ExplorationWorks, a v2 LEED-certified project.

Following the tours, the group moved on to looking at recent efforts in green building in our state at the sustainability awards dinner. This opened with recognition of some leaders in the sustainability movement, with the first iteration of the USGBC Montana Sustainability Leadership awards. Three individuals were recognized for their contributions to the green building movement in Montana. First was Zach Brown, a legislator working to improve sustainability in the state government. Next was Claire Vlases, an eighth grader at Sacagawea Middle School in Bozeman, who is working to get solar panels installed on her school and raising money for the effort. The last award went to Kath Williams, who has been a tireless advocate for green building, both in Montana and nationally, for almost as long as the modern conception of green building has existed. This includes work on the first prototype for a LEED project, the unconstructed EPICenter project at MSU, which CTA also had a significant role in.

We then moved on to the building sustainability awards. This year’s competition had five winning projects in three categories, including residential, commercial, and products. CTA took one award this year with a Commercial Building Merit Award for work on Underriner Motors in Billings. While it may seem unusual to hear car dealership and green building uttered in the same sentence, Underriner has a deep commitment to sustainability and their latest building is one of only a handful of LEED-certified dealerships in the entire country. This one in particular was noted for the extensive natural daylight throughout the building including the showroom space, and received a special jury award for “Use of Daylighting.” View more about the project in the award submission here.

We then wrapped up the first day of the conference with a few remarks from Dan Lloyd with the Governor’s office, who laid out some of their hopes and plans for green building and sustainability in Montana over the next few years.

  1. Conference attendees met with legislators during the opening reception.
  2. Among the vendor tables was Glo Windows, winners of a sustainability award for products and processes for their D1 Modern Door.
  3. Ronda Carlson accepted the award for the Underriner Motors project on behalf of CTA.


On Thursday, we went through the majority of our presentations and speakers. This began with a panel discussion on financing energy efficiency and renewable energy with speakers Molly McCabe, Ed Gulick, and Robyn Boyle.

McCabe, an advisor and consultant for large real estate developers, looked at re-framing the discussion as one method. She has found the consistent use of simple payback when analyzing green building improvements does not make sense. In fact, it is often at odds with the logic behind how real estate developers operate, and she encouraged a more thorough look at capitalization rates, and the impact on potential tenants and buyers later as examples of arguments that not only would help the case for green building, but often make more sense to these developers.

Gulick, representing the Northern Plains Resource Council; and Boyle, representing the Montana DEQ; then explored Property Assessed Clean Energy financing (PACE). PACE is a new method for funding renewable energy and energy-efficiency projects that has been introduced in 33 U.S. states, and was just introduced to the Montana state legislature. You can find more information here, but the basics are that PACE is a legal framework for financing energy-efficiency and renewable energy upgrades through cooperation between counties, property owners, and private financiers. Once enabled, property owners in participating counties would be able to apply for private financing for these kinds of upgrades through PACE. The financing would be paid back through a property assessment on the affected property, designed to match the cost savings of the upgrade with a maximum payback of 20 years. This serves to diminish the sometimes substantial up-front costs of these upgrades and make them easier to undertake.

Our next speaker was Rep. Zach Brown, a state representative, who looked at work he has done with the legislature to promote sustainability. One of the major efforts has been the Smart Buildings Initiative, which encourages energy-efficiency in state government buildings. A major hurdle for this issue was the “use-it-or-lose-it” approach of state government budgeting, where cost savings one year would lead to smaller departmental budgets the following year. In the case of energy savings, this would have penalized efforts toward sustainability. The SBI worked to get rid of this penalty, as any budget savings that could be contributed to energy savings would instead go into a separate budget pool; that money would be set aside for further efficiency upgrades, creating a positive feedback loop for government sustainability.

After lunch, Randy Hafer from High Plains Architects presented work on his new home, which he is calling the Urban Frontier House. The house was designed to meet zero net energy and a host of design standards including Passive House, LEED Platinum, and the Living Building Challenge. The presentation looked at lessons learned from the experience of designing and constructing the house, and how these can be used for future building. Hafer faced interesting issues when dealing with the requirements of a zero net water and energy building, especially related to heating as well as water use and reuse, but continuous troubleshooting is bringing this closer and closer to reality.

Following Hafer, Colin Lane with MMW Architects spoke about his work on the Solstice project in Missoula, a LEED Gold affordable housing project. A large portion of the sustainability work here came through the site, as the team took a site that was 80% hardscape and reduced that to 30%, and extensively rehabilitated the riverbank. The project used the first greywater irrigation system permitted in Montana to water a significant portion of the site, and created a park space between the buildings that led to the river and a continuation of Missoula’s Riverfront Trail system

Nick Salmon then presented his work on green schools, focusing on resiliency. Salmon, a former architect at CTA, is now an educational consultant affiliated with the Collaborative Learning Network in Missoula. He shared a number of ideas focused on what makes a school green or resilient, with a focus on new methods and approaches to teaching and learning. Some of the highlights included a look at what makes a good site for a school, with a focus on existing infrastructure, access to transportation, and location relative to housing and services that are often ignored in favor of first cost of land. Salmon also explored space utilization, looking at programs like one that split students into two schedules, which gave them the same amount of time in class, but boosted the utilization of the school building from 75% up to between 100% and 200%.

Finally, the keynote for the conference was Lee Smit, a project manager at McKinstry and formerly the energy manager at Denver’s Douglas County School District. Most of Smit’s presentation focused on his time at the school district, where he started a student-led sustainability program that over six years grew from 11 to 7,000 students, and won the inaugural Green Ribbon for District Sustainability from the U.S. Department of Education.

One of the key takeaways from his presentation was the importance of student involvement in a green school project, as that not only makes green school programs more effective as a whole, but also creates advocates for green buildings in a place where they can have the most impact. As evidence of this, Smit spoke about meetings with a board that was often reluctant if not outright hostile to sustainability. In these meetings, he was able to bring in student advocates, and re-frame the discussion to one about energy-efficiency and waste that eventually won people over. In addition, instead of relying on tracking — that he could do himself — which would never adequately cover a district with tens of thousands of students, Smit again refocused his efforts on the students, setting up school-wide competitions where students would track the sustainability efforts of their classrooms and teachers. This was much more effective at keeping people accountable, as well as getting both students and teachers interested.

Overall, this program was successful not just in its involvement of the entire school ecosystem or national recognition, but also in its actual cost savings as by the end of his eight-year tenure the school district had reduced its annual energy use by 29% without making any mechanical upgrades or building changes.

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