MISSOULA -- With an eye on energy costs and conservation, the Montana Department of Administration is closer to adopting a single building standard for all state facilities, and hopes to have a plan in place this spring.

Four years have passed since the 2009 Legislature enacted Senate Bill 49, directing state agencies to adopt high performance building standards guiding the construction of new buildings, or renovations made to older ones.

Tom O’Connell, director of the Architecture and Engineering Division at the Department of Administration, said that while they’ve completed other projects aimed at improved efficiency, the process of adopting new building standards has been slow.

“We were left with a mandate to do this, but no personnel to do it, so it languished for a while,” O’Connell said. “But I was recently able to find the budget to hire a consultant to lead this effort.”

With a consultant now in place, O’Connell said a group of 22 representatives from several state agencies has formed to adopt high performance building standards in accordance with the 2009 legislation.

Members say have met twice to research options, from Leadership in Energy Efficiency and Design (LEED) to competing alternatives, such as the Green Globes standard.

Russ Katherman, a group member and the contract officer with the Architect and Engineering Division, said the team could have a standard in place by May.

“We’re going through a lot of information,” he said. “There’s so much out there with a lot of good, quality sources. We’re also looking at what other standards states have implemented.”

Montana owns roughly 4,500 buildings and facilities valued at $4.7 billion. They add up to around 31 million square feet, with around 65 percent of it belonging to the Montana University System, O’Connell said.

While several recent university projects have won LEED certification, other state projects have not. The benefits of adopting a single standard would guide all state projects, not just some.

“When you have an investment in facilities the size of the state, you just have to do this,” O’Connell said. “As a conscientious administrator, you have to do it or you’re not responding to the interest of the public.”

And the public is watching. The nation spends $400 billion a year to power its homes and buildings, consuming more than 70 percent of all U.S. electricity while contributing nearly 40 percent of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

The issue of energy efficiency and conserving surfaced most recently in November at a Board of Regents meeting in Missoula. Student leaders from the University of Montana and Montana State University expressed frustration that, after four years, a statewide building standard had not been adopted.

Montana has spent around $22 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act on 140 energy upgrades across the state.

While certification wasn’t sought for the projects, Mark Hines, a mechanical engineer with the Architect and Engineer Division, said the upgrades held true to the intent of the 2009 legislation.

“We do try to implement a lot of these sustainable ideas on a lot our projects, even if we don’t submit them for certification,” said Hines. “We’re doing a pretty good job of trying to implement those things. But we still need to get a standard down on paper.”

O’Connell said the projects have included upgrades in lighting, changes to costly heating and cooling systems, and improvements to other mechanical systems. Consultants typically measure the potential payback versus the costs before the upgrades are made.

“We’re in the process of doing exactly what the high performance building standards directed us to do,” said O’Connell. “We’ve needed to have some way to show this is important for us. While I haven’t pushed for LEED on all buildings, I wanted to have some certified because that’s the standard we want to live by.”

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