New NREL efficient building features beetle kill pine

When it comes to designing an interior decorative feature for one of the most energy efficient office buildings in the world, very few would consider bringing in a beetle to do the job. But that's what happened at the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Research Support Facility (RSF) located on the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) campus.

In June, the RSF will become home to more than 800 workers from DOE and NREL and building visitors will be greeted with a soaring, two-story high wall entirely covered with wood harvested from the bark beetle infestation that has killed millions of pine trees in the Western U.S.

But, the use of beetle kill wood is just one example of the resources being leveraged to make the RSF a model for sustainability and one more step toward NREL's goal to be a net zero energy campus.

Beetles Bring Destruction and Beauty

The swath of devastation brought about by the little black bark beetles began in Colorado in the mid-1990s. Since then, bark beetles have killed pine trees on more than 3.5 million acres in Colorado. The beetle invasion also plagues pine forests from Wyoming to South Dakota.

But, for the architects and designers working on the RSF, the bark beetle infestation meant an abundant source of wood close to the construction site that fit numerous project constraints.

"The designers specifically looked for regional materials that allowed for creative expression within the RSF and were within the budget of this project," Philip Macey, RSF project manager for Haselden Construction, said.

Harvested within 500 miles of the RSF, the 19,000 linear feet of beetle kill wood covers an entire side of the RSF atrium. But this is no ordinary wall. As it climbs through the lobby space, the wall tilts in and out giving it a 3-D look all its own. Architectural firm RNL "designed it as a wood wall," Macey said. "But the subcontractors made a piece of art. It's arguably the best wood working that I've ever seen on a project."

Although the unique wood graining found in beetle kill pine brings a slice of Rocky Mountain beauty indoors, it also brings another real concern — fire danger.

"The wood was a point of apprehension from a safety perspective," Macey said. "DOE gives safety a high priority. Contractors had to prove to DOE that the wood could be fire treated and finished in an environmentally friendly way."

Contractors for the RSF went so far as to take a sample of the finished, fire-treated wood to the lab to have it tested with a live flame. They even videotaped the process to demonstrate the safety of the pine wall.

To make the wall even more fire resistant, the bottom four feet is covered in a rugged cement board. "What you see isn't just beautiful, but also very safe," Macey said. "The bottom four feet is essentially non-flammable. If there was ever a bad day and a fire started along the bottom of the wall or the floor, the chances it would ignite the wall are practically zero."