Bente Torjusen stands in front of AVA Gallery and Art Center's 104-panel rooftop solar arrayThe nonprofit Alliance for the Visual Arts (AVA) Gallery and Art Center is a fixture of the Upper Valley’s arts community. Like most nonprofits, they’re deeply connected to their local area and must be mindful about operating costs. When it came time for them to build a new facility, they partnered with Energy Emporium (now ReVision Energy Upper Valley) to use a combination of net-zero and solar-powered buildings to annihilate energy bills and reduce their impact on the planet.

Renovations + Solar Construction

In 2004, the AVA board of directors began plans for renovating their recently acquired 11 Bank Street building in Lebanon, the former H.W. Carter & Sons overall factory. (Following the renovation, the building was re-named the Carter-Kelsey Building.) Their architect Stuart White introduced them to LEED standards and sustainable building. “We all simply felt that this was the way to go, that this was the right thing to do,” says Bente Torjusen West, AVA’s director from 1986 through 2016.

The LEED Gold-rated gallery’s rooftops were unfortunately not well suited for solar at the time, so when they began plans for constructing a new sculptural studies building, incorporating a renewable energy source was not just an opportunity but a priority. “A solar array on the south-facing part of the roof was an integral part of the building’s design,” says Bente, whose name the building now carries. With Stu at the helm once more, they aimed to make the new building not just efficient, but net-zero.

Rooftop solar array at AVA Gallery and Art Center

Photo credit: Gary Hall Photography

Figuring how to exactly offset their usage would be difficult however – the new sculptural studio would make use of significant heavy machinery, such as electric kilns, woodworking tools, stone carving and grinding equipment, and more. “We decided we needed to maximize the solar because we couldn’t pin down how heavily it would be used,” says Stu. The resulting 104-panel solar array, Stu says, became a “dynamic design element” – extending thirty feet past the edge of the rooftop on a metal frame support, and sheltering part of the parking area.

Local Solar Partner

AVA partnered with Energy Emporium (ReVision Energy Upper Valley) for their solar installations during the Solarize Enfield and Lebanon campaign. Bente says that it was a logical choice to participate, knowing that it would benefit others in their community by lowering costs for everyone. By incorporating the solar array directly into design and construction of the building itself, they were able to maximize not just efficiency of solar production but efficiency of construction for the two projects. “It was a genuine pleasure to work with Kim Quirk and ReVision Energy Upper Valley,” Bente says. They were able to help AVA find a viable roof on the Carter-Kelsey building for an additional 36 panels. Both solar arrays were financed through the generosity of local donors.

Net-Zero Studio

Inside AVA's solar-powered sculptural studies buildingThe Bente Torjusen West Sculptural Studies Building – known as the Bente Building – has been net-zero since its completion in early 2017. On days when it produces more power than is being used within the building, it routes the excess to the Carter-Kelsey building to help offset that load. “We’ve got over a year’s confirmation now that we are performing beyond expectations,” says Stu. Not only does the solar array cover all of the usual electrical loads plus the additional load from the equipment in the building, it’s powering air source heat pumps for both heating and cooling. “There’s no combustion in the building,” he says.

The AVA Gallery makes a commitment to be environmentally responsible in every area possible, including using non-toxic art supplies, lighting the gallery space with efficient LEDs, and even installing a rooftop garden above the sculpture studio to reduce rainwater runoff and provide habitat for birds and insects. The response from their students and visitors has only been positive. “People are delighted,” says Bente.

With more than 1,000 students of all ages in disciplines ranging from wood sculpture and metal working to painting and even writing, supporting the environment meshes with AVA’s mission to nurture and support New England artists. For Stu, it fits perfectly with the DNA of the art gallery. “I think of this project as the marriage of art and science,” he says. “It is truly inspirational to work with the artists. They are tremendously supportive of everything we’re doing in the way of green building.”

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