Iowa catching on to green revolution
When the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities decided in 1997 to construct a new office and training site in Ankeny, energy efficiency was a top priority. The organization spent an additional $20,000 to $30,000 on energy-efficient features, but was able to pay off those added expenditures within five years through energy savings alone, with a building that uses 45 percent of the energy used by an average code-compliant building of the same size in the state of Iowa.
Executive Director Bob Haug said the building, which won an American Institute of Architects’ Top 10 Green Buildings Award in 2002, has met or exceeded the association’s expectations for energy performance and cost savings, and energy-saving techniques have helped create a comfortable work environment for the IAMU’s 25 employees.
But Haug still finds room for disappointment.
“Our building is getting attention as a model for efficiency,” he said. “We would hope that we would have been left in the dust by now. But unfortunately, a lot of folks don’t seem to be able to make the connection between a slightly higher upfront investment and long-term energy savings.”
Floyd Barwig, director of the Iowa Energy Center, said sustainable design has garnered more attention in some cities and states than others. However, it is still an emerging subject across the entire nation, though he believes it will become more mainstream in the coming years.
“The real expense for businesses isn’t the structure, but the people inside,” he said. “And the real opportunity is to make those people more productive and satisfied with their work. That’s a good investment, and that’s why I believe that eventually this will become a very widespread trend.”
Sustainable design has been a hot topic nationally and internationally for more than a decade, according to Kevin Nordmeyer, architect for RDG Planning & Design and chair of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Iowa chapter. Nordmeyer said interest has peaked in recent years due to the seemingly constant flood of information on sustainability and its benefits.
Yet sustainable design, he said, brings back centuries-old techniques of dealing the environment in terms of lighting, heating and cooling. Techniques such as daylighting, using sunlight to illuminate a space, as well as the use of low-energy materials have been incorporated with technology, such as lighting controls and mechanical systems, to create “green” buildings.
“With gas prices going really high, people are realizing more and more that they have choices when it comes to designing,” Nordmeyer said. “They’re beginning to question if a building is efficient and done responsibly. We’re getting people to demand it.”
The state government has been a leader in promoting sustainability, starting in the late 1990s with the adoption of a 20-year Capitol complex master plan that incorporated green building design, according to Jeff Geerts, a program planner for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Geerts said that with green buildings such as the Iowa Laboratories Facility in Ankeny, the state has the opportunity to provide businesses with examples of the benefits of green buildings, and further promote it as a design standard statewide.
Through the Iowa Sustainable Design Initiative, launched in 1999, the state has provided architects, engineers and others in the construction industry with training and monthly lectures on the subject. The DNR has developed an online sustainable design guide and green buyers’ guide that evaluates the sustainability of commonly used building materials.
Less than two years ago, Geerts said, there were five to seven buildings statewide registered as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design projects. Today, there are 14 registered projects. The state has accredited more than 60 LEED professionals, compared with just over 12 a few years ago.
“We really wanted to educate and increase knowledge and let the industry run with it, and it has,” Geerts said.
The city of Des Moines received a $45,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2003 to develop a sustainable design model for businesses interested in building within the Agrimergent Park, according to Elly Walkowiak, the city’s economic development coordinator. She said the city is in the “perfection stage” of developing the model, which is designed to cover issues related to building design, operations, maintenance and site selection.
The intention is to provide suggestions that are not cost-prohibitive, allowing for businesses of all sizes to work with their designers to incorporate environmentally friendly techniques and design elements. But Walkowiak said it would likely take another EPA grant in order to develop a sustainable design model for other parts of the city.
A visible green project in Des Moines is under construction downtown. The Des Moines Public Library’s central library will feature a green roof that Nordmeyer said was not included for its insulation value, but rather its ability to reduce the amount of water that ends up in the storm sewer system. Eighty percent of the water that falls on the library’s rooftop will be consumed by plants or will evaporate.
Green building studies and surveys have provided encouraging results for those promoting it as a design standard. Daylighting is believed to increase productivity and create a healthier environment, thus reducing employees’ sick days. In California schools that have incorporated daylighting techniques, math and verbal test scores increased by as much as 25 percent. Nordmeyer said big-box retail chains have begun to incorporate more windows in their new stores due to studies that have found that sales increase considerably in well-illuminated stores.
During the energy crisis of the 1970s, the immediate reaction was to reduce the amount of windows on buildings to keep them warmer, Nordmeyer said. “But glazing technology has increased, and by providing the appropriate amount of windows in the right places, it allows me to not have electric lights on, which create heat and force the air conditioner to run longer. Commercial buildings can save 30 to 40 percent (in energy costs) through daylighting alone.”
At the IAMU, Haug said, “we don’t have any more glass on our building, but we have the glass in the right places to let in a lot of natural light.” Sensors detect the amount of natural light flowing into the building and automatically turn down overhead lights, which has lowered lighting and cooling costs.
Nordmeyer said some buildings in Iowa have added windows to make effective use of daylight, but extensive renovations often are unnecessary. Businesses can analyze where the majority of work is being done, and move lesser-used spaces, such as conference rooms, to the interior of the building, thus maximizing daylight potential in frequently used office spaces.
A considerable amount of the IAMU’s added expenditures went into a ground source heat pump system to provide more efficient heating and cooling. Building materials were analyzed to determine which would perform better relative to manufacturing costs and which could be safely disposed of years from now.
Sustainability went beyond the 13,000-square-foot office and training building and onto the entire 25-acre site. The association worked with the Polk County Conservation Board and other experts to install a wetland area for energy-efficient wastewater treatment, and to restore an 11-acre prairie that would reduce the need for mowing, watering and chemical use.
“Once we had this site, we knew that we wanted to make a minimal impact,” said Haug, adding that the IAMU has served as an example to its 550 member communities of the benefits of going green.
But the simple fact that an office building is built according to green standards is not enough, Barwig said. A study by the Center for the Built Environment ranked a variety of buildings based on occupant satisfaction, and the rankings were hardly dominated by LEED buildings.
Many building owners have turned system operations over to computer control systems. But Barwig said the potential of a green building is lost if the computer system doesn’t run well. The Iowa Energy Center has collaborated with other organizations to develop resources intended to educate building owners and operators and mitigate problems associated with those systems.
“Following LEED can be a guide, like following a checklist,” he said. “But it’s not an automatic determinant of a really good building.”