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A sphere of influence

Summit Daily/Reid Williams Don and Besty Sather both drive hybrid cars: His is a Toyota Prius (their third), and hers a Ford Escape.

SILVERTHORNE – On a warm, sunny spring morning, Summit County business owner Don Sather makes the rounds through the pleasantly cool spaces of the BigHorn Home Improvement Center on the north end of Silverthorne.The reserved, friendly 60-year-old chats with employees, answers calls on his cell phone and bends down to give an affectionate tousle to a customer’s dog inside the BigHorn Home Improvement Center, where sunlight streams down from high-up banks of windows – not from glaring lights shoppers have become accustomed to in retail environments. “This light level here is half of what retailers recommend,” Sather says. “When you look around and think about it, it doesn’t seem to be well-lit. But we have never had a customer come in and say, ‘Hey, we need some more light here.’ And it saves energy.”Sather’s lighting concept isn’t the only thing saving energy at the BigHorn Center.In fact, as Sather goes about his daily life, he’s always trying to minimize energy use as compared to the average American.Whether he’s running errands in his Toyota Prius gas-electric hybrid, sharing tips with customers on green building design or gathering signatures for a statewide renewable energy ballot measure, Sather is living proof that, when it comes to environmental protection, one person’s potential goes far beyond the recycling bin.Acting locally – and globally”Our interest in energy issues began back in the 1970s, at the time of the oil embargo and the long fuel lines,” Sather said of he and his wife Betsy’s many years of environmental work. “There’s a finite amount of fossil fuels that, sooner or later, is going to be used up.”Demand is increasing internationally; growth and consumption in China and India are double-digit annually. We’re on a collision course,” he said.In the wake of the fuel crunch of the ’70s, the Sathers became principals of a Denver-based solar energy company that produced domestic hot water systems throughout the West.

When the crisis waned and federal and state tax credits for the systems disappeared, the industry couldn’t survive.But the Sathers kept their eyes on developments in the renewable energy field and, when they began designing the BigHorn Center in 1997, they determined to break new ground, literally and figuratively.”We studied what current technologies were available, and we put a design team together,” Sather said. “We asked, ‘What can we introduce here that’s affordable and fits our architectural standards?'”While envisioning a profitable, multistore, home-improvement “lifestyle center,” Sather’s team members stretched their minds in the realms of energy efficiency, renewable energy, daylighting strategies, heating and ventilation systems and the relative environmental impacts of building materials – often heading into uncharted territories and questioning long-held mores of engineers and corporate retailers.”We went beyond what we would consider leading-edge and into ideas not yet proven. For a number of things, we weren’t certain what the outcome would be. In some cases, we were right on. In other cases, we ended up better or worse than we expected,” Sather said.And the risks paid off – environmentally and financially, locally and globally.”As far as the impact of the skylight system in the warehouse, the reduction in the need for artificial light was 90 percent. We would have been happy at 50 percent.”To date, the BigHorn Center’s energy costs have been roughly half those of a standard retail commercial building of similar size, offering a 10 percent annual rate of return on Sather’s initial investments in energy-saving technologies.The building is recognized in Summit County as a model of green design, but it has attracted even more attention from designers and renewable energy experts the world over.The American Institute of Architects named the BigHorn Center to its top-10 list of green projects in the U.S. in 2001. The center has twice won the top honor from the Colorado Renewable Energy Society for sustainable design of a commercial building.And in 2002, the U.S. Department of Energy selected the BigHorn Center as one of five American buildings to represent the U.S. in the International Green Building Challenge in Oslo, Norway.Today, the center is one of 74 buildings listed on the Department of Energy’s High Performance Buildings Database, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory regularly dials up to the building’s computer systems to collect data on its natural gas and energy use in order to study some of the more cutting-edge and experimental features.

“His and Betsy’s emphasis on energy consciousness is really praiseworthy,” said architect Jerry Dokken, who worked on the BigHorn project. “Don’s got that Minnesota modesty, but he’s been resolute and consistent about what he’s doing. I don’t know any buildings that have gone the distance the BigHorn Center has.”Off the clockSather’s environmental efforts don’t stop when he punches out at the end of the day.He and Betsy climb into his-and-hers hybrid vehicles for a low-emissions drive home. The Prius gets about 45 miles per gallon around town, and Betsy’s brand-new Ford Escape hybrid SUV lands somewhere in the high 20s. The vehicles produce 90 percent fewer emissions pollution than standard automobiles.

They’re planning for a major remodel of their Frisco home that may incorporate solar or geothermal energy sources as well as major improvements to insulation and lighting.”I don’t think we’re radical,” Sather said. “Between the tax credit and the cost of fuel, it costs us less to own a hybrid. And the basics for homeowners are simple when it comes to caulking, weather-stripping, insulation – affordable ways to cut back on your utility bills.”It’s pretty easy to make decisions like that that seem obvious.”Sather’s zeal brings him into the political arena as well.Last spring and summer, he helped gather the signatures necessary to place Amendment 37 on the statewide ballot.

In November, voters approved the measure, which ups the amount of renewable energy major utilities must provide for Colorado customers.Locally, Sather helped create the newly formed Summit County Green Building Group, which examines ways to foster sustainable building practices. And his presentations on energy-efficient design to local groups like the Rotary and Optimist clubs have inspired others to pursue green projects of their own.”He definitely walks the talk,” said Carly Wier of Summit Recycling Project. “He’s always supportive of our recycling programs both personally and through BigHorn. He’s a shining star in our community.”The power of one personWhile environmental problems such as global climate change and disappearing wilderness may seem daunting to the average American, Sather contends that individuals really do have the power to effect change.Sather urges people to take “a lot of small steps” that, in the end, add up to significant gains.”Think about how easily you can recycle glass, paper and cardboard. Look at the vehicle you’re driving. Do you need a vehicle that size?”We each have a sphere of influence – our families, our neighbors and friends, the organizations we belong to,” Sather said. “We’re all using it in our own way with our own special interests, and our special interest happens to be the environment.”Julie Sutor can be reached at (970) 668-3998 ext. 203 or jsutor@summitdaily.com.