Letter from Dijon: In a place known for wine and mustard, Elithis Tower shows fine taste for energy conservation

To minimize energy use, the roof of the $10 million Elithis Tower in Dijon was covered with solar panels. Lavatories are designed to minimize use of water and electricity.
To minimize energy use, the roof of the $10 million Elithis Tower in Dijon was covered with solar panels. Lavatories are designed to minimize use of water and electricity. (Elithis)
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By Edward Cody
Sunday, October 25, 2009

DIJON, FRANCE -- The Elithis Tower, its builder says, is an office building like no other, an oval-shaped showcase for how to help save the planet on a reasonable budget.

According to Thierry Bièvre, the 10-story tower in the eastern city of Dijon has the potential to become the world's first commercially priced office building that produces more energy than it consumes. Already, he boasts, it is the most "environmentally sober" such tower in operation, using an average of 20 kilowatts per square meter, or 11 square feet, a year -- 400 is the average in France -- to heat, cool, light and otherwise occupy its 54,000 square feet of office space.

Getting the rest of the way, from 20 to zero and beyond, Bièvre adds, will entail cooperation from the people who work in the building -- turning off their computers at night, using low-consumption bulbs at their desks or walking down the stairs at quitting time rather than automatically taking the elevator.

"To get the best results, you have to change your behavior," he said, shortly before heading from his ninth-floor office down the brightly painted staircase to where his hybrid car awaited outside.

Bièvre, 49, who heads the Elithis engineering firm, said in an interview that he did not start out as an environmental missionary, but as a businessman who wanted to make money. The tower's main purpose, he specified, is to make a profit from rents and sales and, over time, attract clients from around France and abroad to hire his firm to build more such energy-saving towers.

With that in mind, the building was designed and constructed over three years for about $10 million, which Bièvre said was a standard commercial price for such structures. The difference, he said, was that his team of architects and engineers focused relentlessly on energy conservation, making it a priority in every decision and employing every known trick to cut back consumption of electricity, fuel and water.

The roof was covered with solar panels, and the tower's south side was shrouded in a "light shield," a grille that controls heat-producing sunshine without cutting off the natural light flowing in through windows that make up 75 percent of the building's surface. Water, collected from rain, turns off automatically in the lavatories when users walk away, as do the overhead lamps.

Carefully controlled ventilation means that 85 percent of the time there is no need for air conditioning to maintain an average of 68 degrees. At above 39 degrees outside, the building gets all the heat it needs from sunshine. When it is needed, heating comes from a biomass system that provides enough for a year with the equivalent of 86 square feet of wood.

"This building says who we are, and with this we want to develop our business," said Bièvre, a native of the celebrated Burgundy wine country that surrounds Dijon, about 190 miles southeast of Paris. "We don't just make mustard," he added, referring to the city's fame as a producer of the spicy condiment.

Dijon has long been known as a capital of conservation -- mostly of the kind of ageless traditions that make Burgundy's wine great and that local mustard a world favorite. Until only eight years ago, for instance, cafes here were barred from opening terraces because the then-mayor, Robert Poujade, a Gaullist conservative who ran the city for 30 years, thought customers might get rowdy and disturb the cosseted tranquillity of nearby residents.

But in 2001, Poujade was succeeded by François Rebsamen, a Socialist and champion of ecology, who has set out to make the city a center for a different kind of conservation. The new mayor welcomed Bièvre's crusade.

"This building is an example of what the world will have to do in the future," Rebsamen said in a conversation with foreign reporters. "We encouraged him. We helped him. And now I am happy to see that people are coming from around the world to visit it."

Rebsamen said some of the techniques fine-tuned by Bièvre will be put into use in "eco-neighborhoods" that the city and its suburbs plan to build in the next several years. The neighborhoods will have low-energy buildings throughout, he said, and will be serviced by public transportation with the goal of making cars unnecessary for people who live and work there.

In general, France has been slow to alter its energy consumption habits, particularly compared with Germany or the Scandinavian countries. But despite its late start, it has wakened in recent years to the appeal of conservation, turning it into a political issue that pays. President Nicolas Sarkozy, a conservative, has made the environment a major theme of his administration.

Sarkozy pushed hard last winter to get the European Union to adopt ambitious goals for the reduction of greenhouse gases and has prodded the Obama administration to do the same at the environmental summit scheduled for December in Copenhagen. His enthusiasm for the cause redoubled in June, when France's Green parties scored well in European Parliament elections, creating an opening for Sarkozy to attract votes from the Socialists, his main opposition.

Bièvre, however, emphasized that individual decisions, multiplied across society, remain the most effective way to reduce human pressure on the environment. Driving his hybrid the same way he used to drive his high-powered German cars, he found, meant he still used a lot of gasoline. To get the best results, he recalled, he had to train himself to accelerate slowly and hold down the speed.

"It's the little actions that will change things," he said.

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