A Deeper Shade of Green: Michigan Energy Options unveils renovated demonstration center

Michigan Energy Options (MEO) was working toward sustainability before working toward sustainability was cool. In fact, they were doing it before most people had even heard of the concept. Now, holding with their pattern of blazing energy efficient trails through Michigan, the nonprofit is about to receive an elite green certification at its newly renovated energy demonstration center and headquarters in East Lansing.
“Getting LEED certification is deepening our shade of green,” says John Kinch, executive director of MEO. “LEED is the gold standard of green building. It’s a very rigorous process. Because we’re a demonstration center for energy and sustainability we wanted to get as high up on that rung of levels as we could.”
Specifically, MEO is aiming to be the first energy demonstration center in Michigan to be LEED certified in the category of “Existing Buildings: Operations & Maintenance.” Heightening the excitement is the fact that even when planning for their September 21 House Party where they will reveal their level of LEED certification, the MEO board and staff didn’t know what level they had achieved.
“We’re all hoping we’ll make platinum,” says MEO member Gavin Gardi, who volunteered to assist MEO staff learn how to become LEED-certified. “We have submitted it for review.”
The journey that led the locally based, but now statewide organization to the brink of such an achievement began well before MEO staff started their recent round of renovations on their building on Grove Street.
“Way back in the late ‘70s, a group of people got together and wanted to have an energy demonstration house,” says Kinch. “They introduced some really radical things like new insulation techniques and solar options.”
At that time the organization was called Urban Options. A few decades later, the
nonprofit has offices in both East Lansing and Marquette, as well as staff in Traverse City. The 25-person team administers such services as the BetterBuildings for Michigan program, CFL recycling, Lansing Home Energy Fitness, and commercial and residential energy services – many of which reach statewide.
Even with all that experience facilitating energy programs and educating Michiganders on sustainability, it was no easy task for the MEO staff to tackle LEED certification. Good thing they had an ally in Gardi.
Gardi is not only a longtime member and former board member of MEO, he’s also the sustainable programs manager for The Christman Company, the Lansing-based developers behind the nation’s first LEED certified transit facility, first full-service LEED certified hospital, as well as their own headquarters, which is the world's first Triple Platinum LEED Certified Building. So… he knows what he’s doing.
And as it turned out, the MEO staff were pretty good students.
“They had a leg up already,” Gardi says. “They understood the theory of why you do certain things. But there’s always a big educational component for what LEED requires. You either do it and you get the credit, or you don’t do it and you don’t get the credit.”
With Gardi’s help, the MEO staff made a number of improvements to their headquarters, including a 3.1kW solar panel system and storm water management and gardening system. What does all that mean?
For one, it means that there are months when the MEO office is actually putting energy back onto the electric grid because of their solar panels. And its rain garden, which includes tomatoes and cantaloupe, is busy capturing about 80 percent of the office’s runoff. LEED certification requires 20 percent.
MEO has also developed a comprehensive recycling system, created a white roof and converted all of their purchases to sustainable content.
“One of the reasons we did this is to go through the experience ourselves,” says Kinch. “It was a great work experience, but we really did it so we’d have the competency to go out there and be experts on becoming a green building.”
But for now, they’re waiting. While waiting, one might ask, “What makes the LEED certification so exciting for MEO anyway?”
Well, unlike many other LEED-certified buildings that are privately owned and typically bustling with workers or residents, the MEO Headquarters is a public building that exists to show off energy efficiency technology. In addition to the new energy efficiency upgrades, the MEO office has also updated its exhibits.
“We are so accessible to the public,” Kinch says. “We’re open so people can come by and find out how they can adopt some of the improvements themselves.”
Meaning a LEED-certified building isn’t just a feather in MEO’s cap, but an actual resource for the community. The big reveal happens this Friday from 4-7p.m. at the MEO Demonstration Center located at 405 Grove Street.
Oh – and by the way – as of last week Kinch is no longer in the dark about their LEED certification level. But don’t bother trying to get it out of him.
"We are keeping the level a secret until we reveal it at our party" he says. "Only a few of us on staff even know the level. And so far we’ve resisted all bribes to tell." 
So the rest of us will just have to wait and see. Not a bad excuse to go to a party.

Natalie Burg is the news editor at Capital Gains.

Photos © Dave Trumpie

Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.

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