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October 21, 2014
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Thinking Locally, Acting Globally

Plan One/Architects’ work with the INL reverberates from Driggs to distant destinations

These days, discussions about Teton Valley’s economic future can take on a resigned tone. Plummeted property values, job scarcity, and struggling retail shops sometimes dominate the dialogue. How will this beautiful but isolated high-country basin ever attract new business and create new employment?
Should we go all-in for tourism? Maybe. Will another land rush come to the rescue? Perhaps. More likely, our community will need to think outside the box—and the valley—to create a sustainable economy less vulnerable to market volatility.

Throughout the recent boom and bust, one local firm, Plan One/Architects, quietly and successfully marketed itself throughout the region. They have set a forward-looking example for business people who seek a Teton-region quality of life but don’t want to sacrifice financial success. More recently, the architects of Plan One designed a major, cutting-edge facility that will be employed in solving some of humankind’s most daunting challenges. This in turn could bring an increasingly global economy one step closer to Teton Valley’s door, perhaps creating new and previously unconsidered opportunities.

Plan One

Plan One might not be a household name, but their work is familiar to most locals. The firm’s designs include the new Teton Middle School and Teton County Courthouse, as well as the distinctive U.S. Bank building in Driggs. Plan One is also behind renovations at  Teton Valley Hospital, Teton High School, and the Driggs City Center. Additionally, they are currently working with The Development Company, based in Rexburg, toward redesigning the former Ford dealership in Driggs as a commercial center.

Though a larger city might be a more convenient base of operations than Driggs, Plan One Vice President and architect Bob Heneage says they stay here because of the beauty, recreation, and open spaces. “We’re here because we want to live here,” Heneage says.

However, Plan One’s reach also extends across the West, with project locations ranging from Arizona to northern Idaho.

Heneage says Plan One was founded in the 1980s in Jackson, and moved to Driggs a decade ago. The firm, with seven local employees, also maintains offices in Cody and Rock Springs, Wyoming. Specializing in institutional and commercial design—with an extensive list of schools, hospitals, banks, and government offices in its portfolio—Plan One has worked on projects as large as the Wyoming State Penitentiary.

Energy-efficient green design is the goal of many Plan One projects, and a number of their buildings have been awarded prestigious LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification. Because Plan One did not pursue work in the saturated second-home building market, they weathered the real estate bust fairly well.

“At the time the firm was in its major growth phase, no one else was doing major commercial [design],” Heneage explains.

Design/Build: Aiming High

Plan One has partnered with Idaho Falls-based Ormond Builders on a number of major projects, utilizing what is known in the industry as a “design/build” delivery system. By sharing responsibility, and closely integrating architectural and construction efforts, risk is minimized for the client, and completion time and cost are reduced. Heneage says Plan One and Ormond have together secured over $100 million worth of construction contracts using this approach.
Four years ago, they responded to a request for proposals from Battelle Energy Alliance, the primary contractor at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL), for a huge new lab facility in Idaho Falls. Developing a detailed conceptual design for a complex, $18 million facility was a gamble, given they would be bidding against big firms from Salt Lake City and Boise.

The risk paid off. The Plan One/Ormond bid was accepted for what will soon be INL’s Energy Systems Laboratory (ESL), an 87,000-square-foot facility devoted to developing new energy technologies. Subsequent to the ESL contract, the Plan One/Ormond partnership won the bid for an even larger INL project. The $48 million Research and Education Laboratory (REL) will enable collaboration among scientists and engineers from government, academia, and industry, and will complement research at the ESL and other ongoing projects at INL.

“These are probably the two biggest construction projects in East Idaho since the recession,” Heneage says.

INL’s Mission: EBR-1 to Alternative Energy

The Idaho National Laboratory, sprawling across 890 square miles of the Snake River Plain in East Idaho, is widely known as a nuclear facility. However, the emphasis of the lab’s scientific mission has evolved over the decades, pushed and pulled by geopolitical, resource, and environmental realities.

Established in 1949 on a former artillery range, the National Reactor Testing Station (as it was then known) was the site of the world’s first electricity-generating breeder reactor: EBR-1. As Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union escalated, the lab’s mission included the development of nuclear submarine propulsion systems. Events like the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor accident in 1979 led to an increased focus on nuclear waste cleanup and safety. The increasing scarcity of fossil fuels, as well as the threat of carbon-induced climate change, brought about more recent research into alternative energy technology.

Dr. David Miller, Director of Science and Engineering at INL, says that while the lab’s research emphasis has shifted over the years, its current mission has stabilized into three overlapping categories: nuclear energy research, national security, and energy and environment.

Ongoing nuclear work is aimed at creating safer and more efficient “next-generation” reactors, as well as improved radioactive fuel recycling and handling methods.

National Security efforts include cyber-security research, nuclear non-proliferation initiatives, and defense applications, such as the production of uranium-depleted armor for the Army’s M-1 Abrams tank.

Yet new energy and environment research may be the most groundbreaking of all, as it explores new ways to generate, store, and effectively implement a variety of energy sources on a large scale. The new, state-of-the-art labs designed by Plan One will be integral to this area of INL’s mission.

 

The Energy Systems Lab: Biomass, Batteries, and Hybrid Energy

INL’s new Energy Systems Lab should be in full operation sometime in 2013. “The ESL is a critical component of [INL’s] future,” says Dr. Steve Aumeier, INL’s Associate Director for Energy & Environment. He explains that the lab will take a comprehensive, more holistic approach to addressing national and global energy challenges, since ever-increasing demand will almost certainly require the simultaneous use of fossil, renewable, and nuclear energy.

Dr. Aumeier says researchers and engineers at the ESL hope to better understand the interplay between various energy sources, developing hybrid delivery systems that leverage the advantages of each while reducing environmental impacts.

For example, solar panels and wind turbines produce clean, renewable energy—but intermittently, and not necessarily during peak demand. Existing power grids are not designed to draw from these power sources on a big scale.

On the other hand, fossil fuels and nuclear produce more steady power, but both have environmental and safety drawbacks. Successfully integrating each of these into a common grid system could produce an efficient, stable power supply while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and prolonging non-renewable energy supplies.

“We’re trying to be leaders in putting these things together,” says Dr. Miller. “I think people have to shift their perspective. There is no single-point [energy] solution.”

The ESL will also focus on overcoming technical obstacles in bio-fuel production and advanced energy storage. While corn is currently used to produce bio-fuel, non-food-crop sources of biomass (like grasses, forest by-products, and agricultural plant waste) represent a huge potential fuel source, without adverse impacts on food prices and prime agricultural land. ESL researchers hope to develop better systems for compacting, transporting, and processing bulky biomass feedstock. Advanced energy storage research is all about producing better batteries, a key component in developing more practical electric cars.

More than just an academic research lab, the ESL will build and demonstrate applicable, real-world technologies in these areas. And, according to Dr. Aumeier, ESL employees will range from well-trained technicians to Ph.D.-level engineers and research scientists. “You’re going to see very high-quality people attracted to the lab,” he says.

The new Research and Education Lab  will also be “a really good recruiting tool” for INL, according to Dr. Miller. The Plan One/Architects-designed, 131,000-square-foot complex—to be completed by August  2013—will house up to two hundred staff members. It will represent a much-needed modernization of INL’s existing research facilities, which were largely built in the pre-Internet era.

The REL will employ  scientists to perform chemistry and materials research in support of ESL’s engineering efforts as well as for the nuclear program. Dr. Miller explains that chemical-separation research is at the heart of modern manufacturing processes and many of the alternative technologies to be developed by ESL.

One mission of the REL is to reduce dependence on scarce, rare-earth elements necessary for modern manufacturing by developing substitutes and methods of recycling existing resources. Given that China is known to possess the lion’s share of many key elements, this work will take on strategic importance as that country’s economy increasingly rivals our own.

From Local to Global and Back

The story of Plan One’s involvement with the new INL labs is a prime example of the ever-dwindling degrees of separation between the local and global in a twenty-first century world: a local company designs a regional facility for a national research lab addressing global energy issues. Teton Valley is no longer as isolated as it once seemed.

Scientists at INL already have a long-standing relationship with Teton Valley. Many who work at the site regularly recreate here on  weekends, volunteer on the Grand Targhee ski patrol, and/or own local property. “There are a significant number of people from the lab that have places over there,” affirms Dr. Miller, who owns a home in Teton Valley himself. With the opening of the huge new energy and research labs at INL, a new wave of educated, well-employed people will no doubt discover the wonders of Wydaho.

Dr. Miller says research and development at the new labs may spin off local consulting firms, suppliers, and other businesses. He believes modern connectivity would easily enable such firms to locate in Teton Valley. They may well want to; some INL contract employees already telecommute from the valley.
In fact, the proximity of the Tetons is a selling point for INL.

“The quality-of-life issue is one of the things we use to recruit people,” Dr. Miller says. As such, and in view of the recent and coming developments at INL, it may behoove Teton Valley leaders to actively woo new INL recruits.

So, okay, a new high-tech lab complex in Idaho Falls won’t save the day for Teton Valley, economically speaking. As with energy development, there is no single silver-bullet solution. But it is one more project that helps put the region on the map. If it results in a few more local businesses (like Plan One, for instance), ones that can thrive in a national economy and generate good local jobs, then it seems like a step in the right direction.

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