Sustainable Construction and Design

Tatooine on Earth

Tataouine 1Remember that scene from Star Wars at Tatooine?  Adobe-like buildings with odd pinnacles.  Well, on our planet that place is called Earthship.  Started by Michael Reynolds in the 1970’s, it looked like nothing I have seen.

Michael was on a quest to build a different type of home that would do three things.  First, homes would be built from natural or recycled materials.  Second, would use natural energy sources and be off the “grid” whenever possible.  Third, could be economically constructed by the typical home owner.

Tataouine 2Earthship Biotecture is the company that designs and builds homes around the globe.  One of the trademarks of the buildings is the use of auto tires for walls.  Tires are stacked one on top of another and rammed with earth.  This simple and inexpensive method provides the mass needed to sustain even temperatures.

Another distinctive feature was the use of pop cans and bottles to construct walls.  The tops of two bottles were cut off and the bottoms taped together.  A mortar wall was laid up using the bottles and a light filled room was the result.  Cans were used in a similar manner for interior walls that were lightweight.

Tataouine 3Solar panels generate electricity and waste water is treated on site.  In fact, your sink water either flushes the toilet or waters the plants in the greenhouse.

Let me know if you would like get together and build one across from Jordan Creek.  Contact me at rsmith@smithmetzger.com

Ready to give up your car?

Rob Smith is a principal at Architects Smith Metzger

I rode a Mundo electric assist bike by Yuba last week and had to laugh out loud with joy! With little effort, I was flying and the bike was only set to 50/50 assist. It uses no gas and costs about $14 a year to charge the battery.

John Rhodes of Raker Rhodes Engineering in Des Moines owns the one I rode and is thinking about giving up a car and just using the bike. He would save about $7,000 per year if the car payment was about $450 per month, plus all the other stuff. 

The bikes are available from Ichi Bike in the East Village. With some additional options the electric assist bike costs about $3,000. Studded snow tires make it safe for year round use.

Oh, but you think you don’t have time because a car is faster? From his near west side office he can make it downtown just as fast as if you drove. Depending on where you had to park your car, he might beat you since he just parks by the front door. 

Yuba bikeI could have used it to get to Hy-Vee last night. Since it is a cargo bike rated for 450 pounds it can carry about anything.

While sustainability is important to John, it’s not the top reason he prefers to use the bike. He likes the exercise, saves some cash, but mostly it is fun and gives him peace of mind. He says “You are just more aware of each moment”.

If you are thinking about biking more let me know at rsmith@smithmetzger.com

Recycle your roof

 

Roofing 1Rob Smith is a principal at Architects Smith Metzger

Last year before I sold my house I had to replace a section of the roof. The shingles came off and went into the back of a truck I assumed went to the landfill. You can now insist your roofing be recycled.

Commercial roofing is typically EPDM, which is commonly referred to as rubber roofing, and comes in big sheets. Two items can be recycled in this case. Most times the sheet is held down with rock which can be reused over the new roof or removed and used for many purposes: landscaping, driveways, etc.

The EPDM sheets can be sent to a manufacturer like Firestone and recycled to become the backing or walkway pads on the roof. Or turned into rubber crumbs for climbing walls.

Roofing 2Asphalt shingles can be recycled too. Nearly 10 million tons of shingles are removed annually. According to my semi-scientific calculations, that would fill 10 to 15 801 Grand high rises with shingles. Things like nails need to be removed with magnets at the recycler, but in my case half the nails ended up in my yard.

Asphalt shingles can be recycled for many other things such as new shingles, asphalt pavement, and pothole patches.

Next time you see a reroof project, pass the info along. Send your thoughts to rsmith@smithmetzger.com

Let's wipe out unrecycled toilet paper

Toilet tissueRob Smith is a principal at Architects Smith Metzger

Toilet tissue is used every day, but it is never going to be recycled. However, what you use should be recycled toilet tissue.

The most popular brands sold to homes contain zero recycled paper: Charmin, Cottonelle, and Quilted Northern. Scott Ireland of CapSan says, “very few nonresidential clients will pay the high prices for those products and usually buy recycled toilet tissue.”

Studies show if every family used just one roll of recycled tissue instead of virgin tissue, 420,000 trees would not be cut down. Think of the impact if every family used a case!

Toilet tissue 2Recycling one ton of paper for toilet tissue also saves 7,000 gallons of water and enough electricity to power a home for six months. That’s because the process of recycling paper into toilet tissue is much easier than starting with a tree!

SCA of Sweden, the third largest producer of tissue, has teamed up with two companies in Iowa to wipe out virgin tissue. You are going to love this!

First, trucks loaded with recycled toilet tissue come from Wisconsin to Des Moines and deliver to CapSan. Rather than return empty, the trucks pick up waste paper from City Carton at their main location in Iowa City. Of course you have contracted with City Carton so your office waste paper is there also. The paper is taken to Wisconsin and made into toilet tissue. Then it starts all over again.

Now you may not reuse the magazine you read last month, but there is a direct connection.

Where are you with wiping out virgin toilet tissue? Send your thoughts to rsmith@smithmetzger.com

Do it right the first time

Rob Smith is a principal at Architects Smith Metzger

I remember a story a friend who travelled through Ireland told me. He came upon a grumbling man repairing a stone fence. The Irish man said “If my great grandfather had done a better job the first time I would not have to fix this fence.” Sustainability often starts with doing it right the first time!

Brick wallBrick walls with brick caps do not work in our climate. Great for Phoenix, but the freeze-thaw cycle here rips them apart. Water gets into the wall through the joints on the top and slowly breaks the brick. The DO IT RIGHT THE FIRST TIME SOLUTION: Make sure the top is stone or concrete and slopes to drain. You should also put flashing under the cap.

Rusting lintelsEvery window in a brick wall usually gets a steel angle lintel to support the brick. Problem is most of the time they rust and fall apart. Almost impossible to keep painted and the fix is costly. The DO IT RIGHT THE FIRST TIME SOLUTION: Make sure the lintel is galvanized and you will never have to worry about it. You don’t even have to paint it!

Corners of gypsum board walls are susceptible to damage as they get banged from carts and other things. Some of my clients want to use those big ugly vinyl guards used at hospitals. The DO IT RIGHT THE FIRST TIME SOLUTION: Make sure the drywall forms a solid corner before the metal corner goes on. The metal is only as good as the solid backing behind it.

Got any do it right the first time tips? Send your thoughts to rsmith@smithmetzger.com.

Summertime and the Livin is Easy

Ella Fitzgerald sang George Gershwin’s hit “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess and you could just sense the heavy heat of summer.  This summer take a few steps to beat the heat of summer and be more sustainable.

Summertime 1My office mini blinds stay in one position pretty much year round.  Now that summer is here adjust blinds so more of the summer sun is reflected outward to save on air conditioning.  It’s great to have the winter sun warm up a space but not the summer sun.  I just climbed up on my credenza and closed down the blinds.

Turn off your lights during peak times of the day.  My window faces south so I get plenty of mid-day sun.  I turn off my lights when the sun shines brightly.  Right now I am typing this blog with the lights off (some would say I am in the dark most of the time) which saves electricity and reduces air conditioning because of the heat that lights emit.

Summertime 2Turn up the thermostat a few degrees to save energy.  I am surprised when I tour buildings the amount of people who have sweaters on or heaters running during the summer.  Tell the guy with the thermostat in his office wearing a sport coat all day to take the coat off and turn up the thermostat.

Send your thoughts to rsmith@smithmetzger.com

Don't Forget About Mother Nature On Mother's Day

I would hate to guess how many Mother’s Day gifts end up in the trash.  Cards, pots, flowers and more.  Not trying to be a scrooge here but how can special time spent with mom be more sustainable?

Gardening with momMost moms have a garden and like flowers.  How about being a brute and helping to restore a neglected garden.  Lots of mulch is easy to spread and helps retain moisture rather than watering all the time.  Over time the mulch decays and makes for better soil.

A live plant is a gift that keeps on giving.  Make sure they are native so mom does not have to water in the hot sweltering August sun.  Day lilies, peonies, hydrangeas, and many types of hostas flourish in Iowa.  Read the label about preference for sun and remember most hostas like shade.

Mothers day 2An old fashioned bike ride and picnic are a good choice.  You don’t have to bike far to enjoy the outdoors.  Water Works park should be especially beautiful this Mother’s Day.  Pick out a quiet place and talk about life.  Still a good idea if mom is older and has to be driven there for a picnic.

Send your thoughts to rsmith@smithmetzger.com

What Will They Think of Nest?

An amazing 90% of programmable thermostats are not programmed!!!  Can you believe it?  When I got a new furnace I immediately programmed my thermostats.  There were oddities even with a programmable thermostat.  Like what, you ask?

I set the thermostat to vacation mode, but when I return from the Mexican beach it is like an IGLOO in my house for hours.  Or I work out early in the morning except Wednesday but cannot program day by day.

NEST 1Then voila.  The inventor of the iPod comes up with the NEST thermostat which can save up to 20% on your energy bill.  It learns your habits and sets a schedule over time to meet your lifestyle.  For the first week you adjust the temperature manually and the NEST learns what time you get up each day and when you go to bed.  It sees the routine in your life and sets a schedule.

It’s even got an ‘auto away’ feature that goes into energy saving mode if it senses no activity for 90 minutes.  Better yet, if it sees a regular pattern it goes into energy saving mode in 30 minutes.

NEST 2Away on vacation?  No problem.  Just use your tablet or phone to connect with your nest.  When you return to the Iowa tundra wearing flip flops your house will be warm and toasty.

Best part?  It sends you an email once a month to review your energy usage and makes suggestions on how to save energy.  Like having a building engineer in your closet!  What will they think of nest?

Want more info?   Who could explain it simpler than Ellen DeGeneres.

Send your thoughts to rsmith@smithmetzger.com

To save Younkers or not? That is the question!

Younkers burned

Rob Smith is a principal at Architects Smith Metzger

Many people have asked me since the Younkers fire if the building can be saved.  I have answered “Why sure. If 100 story buildings can be built, then Younkers can certainly be rebuilt.” I have no doubt technically it can be done even though looking down from the Hub Tower one can see steel beams twisted from the extreme temperatures. 

It would not be the first major change to the building. The east half started as a five story building and was renovated into a seven story building.


Younkers1 Younkers2 Younkers3

The elaborate cornice was removed when the shorter six story addition occurred and the building took on a more stream lined look. The flat arch windows were a poor gesture to the grand arched windows of the original building. The construction of the west half was obviously steel and concrete since it remains standing.

The sustainable thing to do is to rebuild the exterior and construct the inside with a steel and concrete structure with new exit stairs and mechanical shafts. The east exterior could even be a “reinterpretation” of the original building. That way Des Moines retains part of its history which seems the important thing to many.

The other viewpoint is to remove the building and start anew. Some have suggested green space. Other ideas are an iconic crystal court with grand stairs to the skywalk. Only time will tell which way the economic and political winds will blow.

Ah yes, it’s that sustainable dilemma knocking at the door again!

Send your thoughts to rsmith@smithmetzger.com

Dollars bills down the drain

Water drippingRob Smith is a principal at Architects Smith Metzger

February 10 was a historic day for me. My office got new toilets! I took the plunge after years of replacing flappers and other fixes to old toilets.

What got me to pay $1,700 for FOUR TOILETS? My soaring water bill, that’s what! Staff would show up Monday morning and find a toilet running. I got to the point where I would do a toilet check before leaving for the weekend.  

You would not think a running toilet would amount to much, but it sure did.

The water bill was usually around $100 for 3,000 gallons of water. Then last summer things started to change. It went to 6,000 gallons, then 16,000, then in January it hit 55,000 gallons. I was embarrassed and decided it was time to do something. 

Drake IIBut what toilet to buy? Went with a Toto Drake II. Not only does it use 1.28 gallons per flush which is less than the high efficient models at 1.6 gpf, but it really flushes. My biggest worry was spending the savings on plungers.

About time someone figured out a better mousetrap. The hole from the tank is bigger so lots of water dumps into the toilet. Two jets create the “double cyclone” and flush with power I have never seen before.

My water bill for the first month with new toilets is the lowest it has been in three years. I figure the savings will easily pay for the toilets in one year.

The guy who knows more about these toilets is David Lekowsky at American Plumbing Supply Co., but beware: He gets really excited talking about these great toilets!

Send your thoughts to rsmith@smithmetzger.com

Is it a square peg in a square hole?

Rob Smith is a principal at Architects Smith Metzger

“The old Plex did not know it was really a YMCA in disguise” is what my partner, Daryl Metzger, said about the downtown YMCA moving into the abandoned Polk County Convention Center. Name one building in the downtown core you could put tape on the floor and play a game of basketball! Repurposing the Plex as a YMCA is a great fit and very sustainable.

It got me thinking about other buildings in downtown and what would be a great fit. Sometimes in building renovation I have tried to put a square peg in a round hole which makes the effort less sustainable.

YounkersMany premiere buildings like the Equitable, Des Moines, and Younkers are being transformed into housing. Is that the best fit? While the first two have smaller windows and seemingly more adaptable to housing, it will be interesting to see how the Younkers building deals with those monumental windows.


Parking garageCould the City garage on 5th between Court and Walnut be transformed into the year round farmers market you hear about? You could just walk past vendors as you go up the ramp. Enclosed and partially heated it could be an easy change. Or maybe the Brown Garage on Grand with its big south facing windows?

Insurance exchange buildingThe Insurance Exchange Building (the one with the Travelers umbrella) has always been one of those class B buildings in the downtown core. How about a fitness center piggy backing on the YMCA across the street? Full of trainers, nutritionists, physical therapists, chiropractors, and natural food restaurants. 

Let me know what you think would be a great fit for buildings waiting to be born again.

   

Send your thoughts to rsmith@smithmetzer.com

NeighborGoods

Rob Smith is a principal at Architects Smith Metzger

Now you can share or borrow stuff with NeighborGoods to get it done. So I had to try it.

I signed in with a user name and set up a password. At first I saw what I could borrow in Brooklyn (could have been operator error). I immediately edited my account and pinpointed where I live so I could be routed to people near me looking for something to borrow or that had something to share.

Neighborgoods log in screenThe site has you set up an inventory list of the stuff you would share. The great thing is you can establish the group you want to share with. I could set up a group of just close friends, actual neighbors, or all my Facebook friends. It was very easy to do.

I listed a hand truck and 8 foot ladder in my inventory. Now people can ask to borrow my ladder on-line.  Many categories allow easy searches to find what you need. I put the ladder in the tool category.

The video on the website made me smile. Neighbors are shown walking down the sidewalk with a blender and passing it on to someone at a coffee shop; or better yet, getting a cooler from someone at a park bench.

What will people think of next to use technology and make the planet more sustainable?

Send your thoughts to rsmith@smithmetzer.com

Concrete is getting more green

Rob Smith is a principal at Architects Smith Metzger

Tilt walls

Tilt up concrete construction has been around since the 1920’s and is typically identified with big box stores such as Home Depot and warehouses. Basically, a form is made on the ground and filled with concrete and reinforcing. Once the concrete is cured, the panel is “tilted up” on top of the footing and fixed in place.

This simple construction process is being used on sustainable structures across the country. While you don’t see it much in Iowa because of our winters, architects are using the unique construction for sustainable reasons.

WarehouseFirst, concrete construction from the Romans is still intact so it is very durable.  Tilt up buildings from the 40’s have had very little maintenance and are still performing.

Second, each panel is made on site so shipping is nonexistent compared to brick or precast concrete which can come from hundreds of miles away. Ready mix plants are usually within a few miles in metro areas.

Third, systems have been manufactured so an insulated sandwich panel can be cast on site. The encapsulation of the insulation provides a very good air infiltration barrier.

Lastly, the massiveness of the concrete resists temperature migration from the outside.  Like the adobe homes with thick walls built by Native Americans, the heat of the summer sun is felt inside much later than when the sun has set. Some architects have even imbedded rubber tubing in south facing concrete walls and removed the heat during the winter for space heating.

Keep your eyes peeled for a tilt up project in Iowa.

Send your thoughts to rsmith@smithmetzer.com

Brewery brews up green

Rob Smith is a principal at Architects Smith Metzger

Each year the Committee on the Environment (COTE) of the American Institute of Architects selects a list of Top Ten  “green buildings.” This blog post continues my series looking at some of the projects to see what is cutting edge in green design.

The Pearl Brewery Building in downtown San Antonio repurposes a warehouse for a mix of living and retail spaces. A very green move was to add a floor within the high bay warehouse to double the density without affecting the site.

The largest solar array in Texas covers the 30,000 square foot roof and provides 25% of the building's electrical demand. Kiosks allow users to see how much electricity the solar panels are generating and the building demand.

The project also addressed the amount of rain water that usually runs off of large commercial parking lots. Impervious materials were removed and materials letting water through were added as well as bio-swales and wetlands. This creates ways for water to be absorbed and never make it to the storm sewer. Iowa needs to do more of this!

Pearl brewery 2The greatest visible idea was to repurpose many items from the brewery. Large beer vats became cisterns to hold roof water for watering the landscape. Smaller tanks became planters. Even old beer cans were used to decorate studio room doors. Rather than throw things away on projects, we can find creative ways to reuse them!

Next up are trends in sustainable design. Stay tuned.

Send your thoughts to rsmith@smithmetzer.com

Office buildings can be super green too!

Rob Smith is a principal at Architects Smith Metzger

Each year the Committee on the Environment (COTE) of the American Institute of Architects selects a Top Ten  “green buildings”. This blog post continues my series looking at some of the projects to see what is cutting edge in green design.

Cote office 1The Clock Shadow Building in Milwaukee shows even a modest office building can be very sustainable. The designers wanted to construct a building and use as much salvaged materials from other buildings as possible. Salvaged wood siding, brick, cabinets, and steel panels account for 30% of the materials. That’s a lot!

Even in a dense urban environment, the building takes advantage of 27 wells below the building. Open land is not needed to take advantage of geothermal systems.  This allows the building to use 40% less energy than others.

Cote ofice 2Office buildings are perfect candidates to greatly reduce water consumption since the biggest use of water is flushing toilets.  Rainwater is collected on the “green” roof and held in a 15,000 gallon cistern. The building uses 50% less water than the typical office.

The large southern orientation features operable windows and sunscreens to keep out the sun in the summer and let it shine in during the winter.  Can you imagine a beautiful day at work with fresh air blowing in your window? 

The tenants are predominately non-profit groups and share common spaces such as conference rooms and waiting. Therefore, the building is smaller and uses less energy. The combined use of spaces also creates a community that can challenge each other to ride bikes and walk to work more often.

If you have an operable window in your office, let me know!

Send your thoughts to rsmith@smithmetzer.com

Children learn from their school building

Rob Smith is a principal at Architects Smith Metzger School pic 1

Each year the Committee on the Environment (COTE) of the American Institute of Architects selects a Top Ten “green buildings.” Today, we'll take a look at a school building that made the cut.

California-based Marin Country Day School attained the platinum level of LEED, which is the highest level. The school uses 20,000 Btu’s per square foot compared to the average school use of 110,000 Btu per square. Photovoltaic panels on the roof produces 13,000 Btu’s for a net use of 7,000 Btu per square foot. Sure it’s California but that is not much energy!

How does it do it? Walls of glass with deep overhangs keep the direct sun out of classrooms but let daylight in. Many classrooms don’t use the lights during the day.

A cooling tower evaporates water at night which costs less than energy-intensive, compressor-based air conditioning. The water is stored in a 15,000-gallon underground cistern, and is used to cool the slabs via radiant tubes. These same tubes also heat the buildings with the use of a condensing boiler.

Rainwater from the roof is collected and used to flush toilets and supplement the cooling system.

School pic 2The best part of the project is how it educates the students about energy usage. Each class is metered separately so students can see how they impact energy usage. An online monitoring system shows them how the solar panels, rainwater collection, and energy usage are all interconnected.

When we educate people about how each one of us impacts energy usage, we will become better users. What a better place to start than with young children!

Stay tuned for the next blog in this series, featuring information on a small urban office building.

Send your thoughts to rsmith@smithmetzer.com

Not your ordinary senior apartments

Merritt apartment 3Rob Smith is a principal at Architects Smith Metzger

Each year the Committee on the Environment (COTE) of the American Institute of Architects selects a Top Ten  “green buildings”. This and future blogs will review some of the projects to see what is cutting edge in green design.

Merritt Crossing Senior Apartments in Oakland, Calif., is not your ordinary senior housing. The building provides 70 apartments for seniors in the 30%-50% of the local median income and about half are for people previously homeless.  Yet the design is spectacular and not what one would expect for low income housing.

Merritt apartments 2Natural ventilation is important to seniors so the long and narrow building allows 85% of the spaces to be within 15 feet of an operable window. The floor-to-ceiling windows also let in plenty of natural light compared to the dinky windows many apartments get.

Green space is very important to seniors but with on-site parking requirements little exterior space remained. Lifts were provided in the lower level garage so cars could be stacked making way for a landscaped garden area.

A central high-efficiency hot water system is augmented with a roof top solar system which meets 70% of the hot water needs, something we don’t see often in Iowa. 

An array of solar panels also provides about 40% of the electrical energy for common areas such as lobbies, halls, and a community room.

All of this fits in with Des Moines Age Friendly City Initiative: attractive housing for seniors located near shopping and entertainment options.

Stay tuned for a school renovation and expansion project.

Send your thoughts to rsmith@smithmetzer.com

Net zero buildings

Rob Smith is a principal at Architects Smith Metzger

The 2030 Challenge sets the goal for buildings to be carbon neutral by 2030. That means if it uses electricity or natural gas it must generate on site enough renewable energy such as wind or solar to offset the usage of carbon based energy.

Old buildingTo date, not many buildings have achieved that status. A renovation of an east side building for the home office of Modus hopes to join the small list of buildings that have achieved net zero status.

Justin Doyle, principal of Modus, says, “The trick to net zero buildings is to reduce your consumption of energy in three areas. The less you use the less you need to produce."

The three areas Justin focuses on are:

  • Plug loads. Everything from computers to cell phone chargers will be monitored.
  • Lighting. Provide one-half watt per square foot. That is equal to 50 watts in an office of 100 square feet.
  • HVAC. Operable windows will allow users to open windows when they want ventilation rather than a mechanical system constantly providing fresh air.  The system will not have much ductwork and instead use console units. Geothermal will also reduce energy usage.

The goal is to offset the energy usage with 17,500 square feet of photovoltaic panels on the roof, building canopy, and roofs over 60 parking stalls. If the system produces more electrical than needed, electricity will be put back into the grid. If the system cannot provide enough, electricity will be purchased.

Stay tuned as more and more buildings strive for net zero usage of fossil fuels.

Send your thoughts to rsmith@smithmetzer.com

Forgot to turn off your computer?

An architect can do all one can to design a building to be sustainable. Integrate green products and systems that conserve energy and water. We also use elaborate computer programs to predict the future energy usage of a building.

All our predictions are based on many assumptions of the daily habits of the occupants.  Will they turn off their computer at night? Will they sneak in a heater under their desk and will it run all night? Will they operate the thermostat at 70 degrees or 72 degrees? All these can impact the overall energy use.

Energy modelingImagine if each department could view a dashboard showing their energy usage? Users could see firsthand the impact of turning off electrical devices each night for a month. Facility managers could see the effect of operating the building within recommended thermostat settings.

Software is coming to the market to do just that! In the future we will have that capability. Computers will be able to shut off your computer if you left it on or turn off your heater. Don’t know how but it’s coming. It’s the missing link in conserving energy.

Send your thoughts to rsmith@smithmetzer.com

One man's trash is another man's treasure

Photo

Rob Smith is a principal at Architects Smith Metzger

A last effort after my house move was to organize my workbench. After sorting stuff I ended up with a box of coax, phone wire, speaker wire, plumber’s putty, and two white electrical switches. All of which I will never use.

I picked up the box and instinctively headed to the trash can. “Wait a minute” I said to myself, someone at the office certainly needs this stuff. The next day I offered my stuff to those much younger home owners, but alas, no one was interested. 

I headed to the office dumpster when someone mentioned Craig's List Des Moines. I took a picture and that evening at home posted a listing in the free category, “box of phone and speaker wires and more”. 

What happened next still amazes me. The next evening I checked to see if anyone was interested. To my delight I had 15 responses!!  They ranged from “I’ll take it” to asking the exact length of the coax or if there was an Ethernet cable in the box.

I decided to go with the first response who said they wanted the entire box. The time was 10:23 PM. Two hours after I made the post.

My stuff that I was going to throw away will have another life. I am now a believer that if you try, you can find a new home for your unwanted stuff.

Let me know interesting ways you have repurposed stuff rather than sending it to the landfill.

Send your thoughts to rsmith@smithmetzger.com

Cordless vs. gas mower

Cordless mower

Rob Smith is a principal at Architects Smith Metzger

After my big move a month ago it is time for the garage sale to rid ourselves of all the stuff we don’t need. One of the items might be a Black and Decker cordless mower I bought several years ago.

Why did I make the switch? I learned that mowing your yard accounted for as much air pollution as driving your car 20 miles. I also did not have to run to the gas station in the middle of mowing.

If I moved quickly, I could mow my small lot of less than 1/3 acre with one charge. If it was wet or I waited an extra day when it was growing like crazy, I could not make it on one charge and it was back to the garage for a 12 hour charge. I also had to make sure I mowed often enough so the grass did not get too high. Once I let it grow too tall, and even with a full charge, it would not cut the grass.

Gas mowerNow I have a slightly larger yard and cannot mow on a single charge; it seems I’m either mowing or charging.  So, I bought a cordless to be sustainable and it no longer does the job. Now that the end of season sales have come along, I’m off to buy a gas mower for next year. Maybe the best thing to do is pay someone to mow my lawn!

If you have a small yard and want a cordless mower give me a holler.

rsmith@smithmetzger.com

Sustainable landscapes

Japanese cypress

Rob Smith is a principal at Architects Smith Metzger

Phase IV of remodeling my new house is reworking a forgotten landscape. I started to investigate my options with trees and bushes and came away with one thought: “Who invented all these bushes and grasses? I mean, I grew up with pampas and honeysuckle but Purple Fountain Grass and Japanese Cypress?” I want to plant sustainable plants that don’t require watering and a lot of maintenance.

While the house came with an irrigation system I don’t plan on using it. Maybe it’s those images in my head of an irrigation system going full blast in a rain storm.

Big box stores sell materials which might not be very sustainable in Iowa. The purple fountain grass sold at Lowes as a perennial is listed for zone 9, which can stand temperatures as low as 20-30 degrees.  Not Iowa’s typical winter!  While you bought a perennial, chances are, in Iowa it is an annual.

Bob Slipka of Genus Landscape Architects says “Once established, and that usually takes one year, native plants can survive about anything nature throws at them. Buyers need to beware to check the hardiness zone on any plant material. Just because it says perennial might mean it will grow year after year in Arkansas but not in Iowa.” Bob recommends larger local nurseries for sustainable landscaping. The plants are native, or at least acclimated to Iowa.

Well, I am off to buy plants that can survive on their own in my yard! No sense in filling the landfill with trees that never stood a chance in Iowa.

rsmith@smithmetzger.com

The sustainable dilemma

Rob Smith is a principal at Architects Smith Metzger

I always wrestle with what I call the “sustainable dilemma.” Do I use a product that is made of recycled materials or can be easily recycled?  Or, on the other hand, do I use a product I think is less sustainable but lasts forever (isn’t that what sustainable is?). I faced the dilemma head on selecting interior doors for the Wellmark YMCA.

Wood doors are made from a renewable resource, although it takes a long time to grow a maple tree big enough to make veneer for doors. Fiberglass doors are made from glass fibers and resin and last forever. The door is inert to water and has a durable finish that may not require painting for years.  

Fiberglass sectionTeri of Edgewater Fiberglass Doors and Frames of Neenah, Wisconsin says, “Fiberglass doors have a lifetime corrosion guarantee and work excellent in wet environments. A growing market is farms…whether dairy or sod. We don’t see them used much in office buildings because the doors cost more than wood, but in tough environments they will last forever.”

So back to the dilemma… 

Fiberglass doors, like a garage or entry door, do the job especially well under wet conditions. So even though they are not made from recycled material and cannot be repurposed, I'm ready to try fiberglass doors as a long lasting product that won’t end up in the landfill. 

Let me know what you think.

rsmith@smithmetzger.com

Moving on up... to the Southside!

Rob Smith is a principal at Architects Smith Metzger

Today is finally moving day for the first time in 22 years. I found several choices to make the big move more sustainable. 

Bio-degradable peanuts instead of Styrofoam
Packing peanutsStyrofoam peanuts last longer, are lighter, and do not compress as much as corn and starch peanuts. However, corn peanuts can go in my compost pile! Styrofoam could be used over and over but where am I going to store boxes of Styrofoam waiting for the next move? 

Boxes
I bought many boxes from U-Haul and what am I going to do with all those boxes? U-Haul has a service called U-Haul Customer Connect where you can post that you want to buy, sell, or give away boxes. It’s a great idea to share used boxes, because I would much rather give them away than put them in the recycle bin. 

Plastic moving containersRent plastic moving containers
If you do not want to mess with buying boxes you can rent plastic totes and return the totes. These can obviously be reused many times. They would also keep your stuff from getting crushed. 

Rubber bands
Some movers are using wide rubber bands to close boxes rather than strapping tape. The bands can be reused over and over again where the tape is non-biodegradable and goes in the trash. 

Donate unwanted stuff
You can imagine after 22 years we have stuff. Rather than move stuff, I am giving away clothing and household items no longer used. Why move stuff that won’t get used? Moving can be an ideal time to recycle. 

If you have an upcoming move, give me a shout. We can exchange boxes over a cup of coffee. 

rsmith@smithmetzger.com

West End Salvage could be West End Recycle

Rob Smith is a principal at Architects Smith Metzger

I have never been an antique kind of guy, but a recent trip through West End Architectural Salvage made me think antiques are one of the earliest ways of recycling. Instead of dining at a new steel and glass table you could dine at a 200-year-old oak table. 

DSCN3279pDon Short opened West End Salvage in 2006 in an old building on the site of the Pappajohn Sculpture Park and moved to the current location at 22 9th Street one year after opening. The store now features a coffee shop, five floors of stuff, and a furniture shop. Many wedding receptions and business parties take place there after normal business hours.

Don Short says the fastest moving items are stained glass and unique items. Buyers are mostly homeowners rather than contractors because of the time to find just what you want. On a typical Saturday about, 2,500 people roam the aisles and even 100 on week days. Many come from out of state to find a treasure.

Furniture is made in the basement and integrates antiques into a new bar of reclaimed wood or a slab of native Iowa walnut into a beautiful table. 

And where does all the stuff come from? A buyer in Texas informs Don of treasures from Italy, Turkey, or the United States. Or a foundry in Chicago that decides to finally clean up the old warehouse and discovers 150 wooden mold pieces sitting under a tarp for the last 30 years.

Next time you want to add a treasure to your house, make a trip to West End Architectural Salvage. I will!

Rob Smith

rsmith@smithmetzger.com

61 Years of Life

2013-07-25 12.11.52Today I am 61 years old!!!  So as I ponder 61 years of life on this planet, I ask “Do I have anything other than my house that is 61 years old?  If not, could anything make it to 61 years?

2008 Lexus 350RX?   Definitely not.  Hopefully the oil industry and auto manufacturers will give up their grip on transportation and a major breakthrough will occur.

Pots and pans? Maybe?  Handles with bolts rather than tack welded.  No plastic. Solid aluminum might make it but I will have to get them professionally cleaned every 15 years.

Toboggan?   It could make it.  I still have a Sears steel toboggan I bought when I was 16.  Don’t use it as a sled but instead as a Christmas decoration. 

Ladder.  Definitely yes.  I bought the heavy duty Fiberglas 8’ ladder about 15 years ago.  I won’t see it make 61 years but someone else should.

Furniture.   Absolutely!  Interestingly what I have most of that will make it 61 years is
furniture.  Many years ago I bought a solid maple butcher block table at a garage sale.  The top is two inches thick and the three leaves weigh a ton.  This table will definitely make it several hundred years.  Some other furniture like my steel canopy bed could make it too.  My mom gave me a tea cart and book cabinet which might already be 61 years old!

Let me know if you have something that has or could make it for 61 years; easy if you collect antiques.

rsmith@smithmetzger.com

Not all flappers are created equal

Rob Smith is a principal at Architects Smith Metzger Hornet flapper

Seems my life is all about toilets right now. Most toilets have a flapper that lifts and allows the toilet to flush. In my case, I am plagued with flappers that don’t seal and let water sneak through.

I knew something was going on when my office water consumption doubled. At the same time my water bill at my unlived in home about equals where I live. I called Des Moines Waterworks and was told to check the toilet. Studies show an average house can lose over 10,000 gallons a year from leaky toilets. That’s about 1,200 cubic feet or two months of water for my house.

Waterworks recommended an easy test. Get some food coloring and pour it into your tank.  If the water in the bowl is the same color after about 15 minutes, you have a flapper problem. I did it on the 12 toilets in my life and found three that did not pass the test.   

So it was off to the hardware store. I was amazed at the choices of flappers.  Ones where a rubber ring is glued to the porcelain for a better seal, red cone-shaped ones, and ones with different weights for just the right time delay before it covers the hole. 

I went with the Hornet-made flapper with soft pliable plastic rather than hard plastic, able to adapt to several installation conditions and a plastic chain which does not kink. It even had a cover over the hook so it would not get tangled.   

If you have a similar toilet story let me know at rsmith@smithmetzger.com

-Rob Smith

ReWall making an impact

Milk cartons

Rob Smith is a principal at Architects Smith Metzger

Last February I blogged about an upstart company in Des Moines making 4’x8’ panels from recycled cartons. The ReWall Company of Des Moines has been making great strides since then.

The company uses a proven technology to turn beverage cartons into construction building panels. The panels can be natural where you can see all the words and colors of the cartons or white for ceiling tiles.

The newest product is Naked Board+ which can replace the Fiber Reinforced Plastic (FRP) used in high abuse areas such as industrial buildings or commercial kitchens at half the cost.

Sales are steadily increasing and the company is expanding its production to meet the demand. Hubbell is using the product at the Rocket Transfer Lofts in the closets. Nelson Construction is also using the panel in the in Fleming Building renovation.

A distributorship has been established in Philadelphia and in Iowa the DNR is specifying and using ReWall in multiple projects.  David Phillips, CEO of ReWall, says “Philadelphia has many subsidized housing projects with a focus on using recycled products. Our wall panel meets all the LEED requirements. Since waste is regional the goal is to eventually have seven manufacturing locations spread across the country.”

The company recently received the 2013 Iowa Environmental Impact award for the small business category. Other honors are the Innovation Award from the Iowa Recycling Association and the Governor’s Environmental Award. Phillips adds “Awards are a validation of our recycling efforts. Sales are a validation of the product.”

ReWall is becoming another Iowa success story!

-Rob Smith

Green when green wasn't cool

Rob Smith is a principal at Architects Smith Metzger Juno lighting kit

I bought a house built in 1981 and have learned first-hand what sustainability is all about. The house was built by a builder for himself. He probably did not think he was being green, but he was. Several items have amazed me as I update a few things.

The one that blew me away was the lighting. The house is full of brass track heads and brass eyeball fixtures. The track and track heads are made by Juno Lighting, which is still in business. Juno has decided to not make their system obsolete with new models so I can get a white track head that works perfectly on my 32-year-old track.  Now THAT is being green. How many manufacturers have updated and left people out in the cold just to update?

Updating the recessed cans was a similar story, and again Juno came to the rescue. It takes me about 10 minutes to unscrew the existing inner workings, screw in a LED fixture and I have much more light than before.

I bought the LED fixture at Lowes for $35 and it is rated for 35,000 hours. I figure if the half bath fixture is on for four hours a week (I doubt it would be that high) I won’t need to change the lamp for 168 years!!! So now I am passing it on.

What do I take away from this? I am going to think about the brand next time I buy something. Do they have staying power?

If you have a similar story, let me know at rsmith@smithmetzger.com.

-Rob Smith

What can you share?

Rob Smith is a principal at Architects Smith Metzger

My last blog encouraged readers to add to the list of stuff we could share with ourMan with tools neighbors or friends rather than consuming more and more stuff. Does every house on a street need an extension ladder? 

Sharing is a very sustainable action. The side effect is neighbors getting to know each other and maybe even working together. All in the spirit of sustainability! Does it get any better than that?

Added to the list from last blog, the list grows to 20 items. I checked my stash and I can admit to owning seven of the twenty items. Probably half get used once a year.

  • Extension ladder
  • Wheelbarrow
  • Chain saw
  • Pruning saw (I always wanted one of those)
  • Sidewalk edger
  • Lawn aerators
  • Bike racks for the car that get used a few times a year
  • Home kitchen products like the dreaded ice cream maker that takes up space
  • Air nail gun
  • Carpet cleaner

And from last blog

  • Rototiller (better yet, just rent one or hire it done)
  • Pressure washer
  • Air compressor
  • Floor buffer
  • Reciprocating saw
  • Belt sander
  • Wallpaper steamer
  • Fertilizer spreader
  • Post hole digger

The challenge is still out there to see if we can come up with a list of 100 things!  Contact me at rsmith@smithmetzger.com

-Rob Smith

Trading and sharing

Tiller3Every spring I think I should go and buy the rototiller I have always wanted. The rear tine model would be great! I could do the garden once a year and then store my $750 behemoth in the garage. But what if, instead, I bought one with four neighbors who also used a rototiller once a year? 

Sharing and trading isn’t my first thought on purchases but what a sustainable action! Years ago I bought a snow blower with my neighbor, but quickly learned we both wanted to use it the moment the snow stopped. A rototiller we could work around.

Makes you think of the stuff we consume that could be traded or shared. It might even make you buy the best so it would last longer. I could share

  • Rototiller (better yet just rent one or hire it done)
  • Post augerPressure washer
  • Air compressor
  • Floor buffer
  • Reciprocating saw
  • Belt sander
  • Wallpaper steamer
  • Fertilizer spreader
  • Post hole digger

What could you share that you own or have thought about buying?  I challenge you to let me know… let’s see if we can come up with a list of 100 things!  Contact me at rsmith@smithmetzger.com

Need vs. want

CBS Sunday Morning ran a commentary a few weeks ago about three key things for your financial success. Suze Orman talked about needs versus wants. In our financial world, a need is something you can’t do without, such as a place to live. A want is a 4,000 square foot house we may not be able to afford.

It made me think about sustainability. Is consumerism one of the issues at the heart of sustainability? Does the stuff we don’t need and just want affect our carbon footprint?  More importantly, can the sustainable movement offset the increased consumerism as other countries join in the affluence the west has enjoyed?

Victor Lebow, a US economist and retail analyst in 1955, wrote: “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever-increasing rate.”

ConsumerismThe American economy has operated that way since 1955.  You hear it every day.  CONSUMER SPENDING DOWN EQUALS ECONOMY BAD!! Yet all predictions show that a growing world population with an increased consumption is not sustainable.

How do you balance these issues in your life? Do you think about whether it is a need or a want?  Let me know your thoughts about this important issue on sustainability.

-Rob Smith

The Sustainability Index

Two of the largest retailers in the world, IKEA and Walmart, are independently developing a rating for the sustainability of their products. Walmart plans on sharing the product rating while IKEA will not.

Products will be rated on quality, recyclable content, and energy efficient production to mention a few key criteria. Walmart should roll out the rating soon so look for it at your favorite store.

Sounds to me like the greenwashing which has hit many other markets. Companies provide information to customers in an effort to sway a purchase such as putting a picture of a forest on a bottle of harsh cleaning solution for the home. 

Ikea shelving cropWhen I think of both IKEA and Walmart I do not think of long lasting and sustainable anyway. The tension lamp I bought at IKEA lasted about four months before it kept crashing to my desk with a thud. What if it had a high sustainability index because it was made at a plant utilizing renewable energy and was 75% recycled content? Unfortunately, it was made so poorly it didn’t work so I threw it away.

I think if we just use our intuition we could determine a sustainable index. Does it look like it will do the job for a long time? Does it exemplify quality or does it look like you could break it? Maybe just keeping something out of the landfill is the most sustainable thing one can do!

In the meantime, look for the sustainability index at your local Walmart. Let me know what you think!

-Rob Smith 

A more sustainable house

My wife and I are looking for our last home of our life. We have been through many homes lately and run into the same basic planning issues which make me want to remodel the house. That is not very sustainable, filling several dumpsters.   

Here are four basic planning issues that might make the next homeowner think about remodeling and being less sustainable.

Wide open entry. My first house was a little bungalow with a 6’x6’ entry hall which worked very nicely. House after house has double front doors for looks but open directly into the living room. Your friends come over and the whole room gets cold. 

More sustainable houseView into the master bedroom. Ten feet from the front door are double doors looking directly into the master bedroom. Sometimes the doors are even on an angle so you get a direct view of the bed.  

Hidden lower level stair. Basements are no longer dark and dismal spaces but spaces to entertain. On two houses I have looked at the drastic measure of moving the stair because you had to walk through too much of the house to get your guests downstairs. 

Ignore the sun. The sun warms your house in the winter and provides important daylight all year long. I have seen many south elevations of the house with one lonely bathroom window or a master bedroom that could have a south window but got west instead.

I guess I will be patient and wait for the south facing house with a private master bedroom and the stair near a shielded entry. Let me know if you think it is out there!

-Rob Smith

Demise of another Lustron house

Over the weekend, I heard the trucks and equipment of DeCarlo Demolition tearing down a historic Lustron house on Tonawanda Drive just west of the Salisbury House. I should have tied myself to the house as the bulldozers approached! The Lustron is an endangered species of early sustainable design. In fact, I would say it is much more sustainable than most homes made today.

Lustron home interiorLustron was arguably a very green solution to home building for returning GI’s after WWII. Lustron homes were manufactured by a company in Chicago from 1948-1950 before going bankrupt. The Lustron Preservation says 2,680 homes were sold for about $10,000 each and after 60 years about 1,500 homes still exist. Of the remaining stock there are 152 Lustron homes in Iowa and many Lustron homes in Des Moines less the one on Tonawanda Drive. Look for one on Chamberlain near Roosevelt High School.

Lustron homeWhat made the homes sustainable?  Porcelain steel panels for the roof, exterior, and interior walls. And in eight timeless exterior colors, including pink! It is the same material which makes up the interior of most ovens or cookware. No maintenance for 60 years is incredible. No painting of the interior so no off gassing or ongoing cost to repaint. The ceilings were metal perforated panels for even heat and no ductwork. Kitchen cabinets made of metal so you could wash them off easily.

What was their demise? Lustron Preservation says to some degree it was building inspectors and construction unions wary of new technology. Lustron homes were even banned in the very city of the manufacturer. 

Hopefully the green movement does not encounter the same issues today!

-Rob Smith

Reduce your energy to heat and cool

Reduce your energy to heat and cool 2My last blog reviewed how to reduce your office electrical consumption since office buildings consume nearly 20% of the electrical consumption in the USA. About 25% of the energy is for space heating and cooling. How can you reduce your energy for heating and cooling?

  1. Install a programmable thermostat. At our office the temp is set to 62 on the weekends during winter and 85 during the summer. That way the furnace or air conditioner barely runs on the weekends. Just make sure you program the system to meet your desired temperature before people get to the office.
  2. Before you head out on a long car trip you get your car serviced. Do the same for your system before the heat of summer or cold of winter hits. You should get it serviced at least twice a year. If you do, chances are it won’t go down on the hottest day of the year and lower the office productivity to zero because everyone went home. Just think what that costs!
  3. Keep the sun out during the summer. Provide internal window treatments like vertical or horizontal blinds, or better yet don’t let the sunlight get through the glass. Many companies make attractive exterior sun shades which can be attached to the building.

-Rob Smith

Five ways to reduce your office electrical consumption

Office buildings consume nearly 20% of the electrical consumption in the USA. About 50% of all the energy consumed by office buildings is for lighting (25%), space heating (13%), and space cooling (11%). Certainly energy usage for our businesses affects our bottom line. How can that change?

Faryal_OPTIFaryal Dotani of MODUS, a mechanical and electrical engineering company in Des Moines, offers five ways to reduce your electrical usage at the office.

Provide occupancy sensors which turn off the lighting when no one is present. In new buildings this is almost standard practice but can also be retrofitted to existing buildings.

Use LED fixtures and lamps. An LED lamp uses less wattage and provides more light. The lamp can also last nearly seven to eight years compared to two to three years for a fluorescent lamp.

DAY LIGHT HARVESTING reducing electrical_OPTIAdd windows or skylights to harvest the sunlight and reduce your lighting by as much as 50%. Most of the time the lights are off at MODUS.

Install photovoltaic panels and generate electricity. Faryal completed the design for the Franklin library where all the lighting during the daytime is generated by roof top panels. Although paybacks range from 15-40 years depending on the system, she says every year less expensive and better systems are on the market.

Provide demand based HVAC controls similar to occupancy sensors for lighting which turns on and off motors and fans for the heating and cooling system.

-Rob Smith

NEW YEAR’S SUSTAINABLE RESOLUTION

New years resolution 4The people and businesses of the USA produce 220 million tons of garbage per year.  That’s 82,000 football fields piled six feet high.  Closer to home would be to cover every square foot of Polk County’s 592 square miles with 15 inches of garbage. 

New Year brings New Year’s sustainable resolutions.

  1. Never, ever, ever, discard computers into the trash.  Did I say never?  They are not biodegradable but more importantly they contain mercury.  It gets into the water system and ends up in the fish we eat.  Instead contact Computers With Causes and give new life to your computer.  When our office computers do not have enough horsepower for new software, they still have enough for many other uses.
  2. Reduce your garbage to the landfill.  Our office of 11 fills a 96 gallon recycle container about each week.  We are going to monitor how many garbage bags of trash still go to the dumpster and try to cut that in half by recycling more.
  3. Reuse paper you printed. Just for fun I started to keep a pile of paper which I printed and no longer needed.  I would use the back side for notes, draft letters, my to-do lists, etc.  The paper was reused before it was recycled and I did not use new paper. Don’t be surprised if you get a note from me on the back of a cost estimate.

Don't lose your sustainability sanity to Santa

5 ways 1Oh the hustle and bustle of the holidays. The month of December is when we sometimes surrender our sustainability sanity to Santa. Here’s my TOP FIVE THINGS YOU CAN DO TO BE MORE SUSTAINABLE DURING THE HOLIDAYS!!

  1. Re-gift a gift. Maybe someone on your list would love the gift you got two years ago which is just sitting on your shelf. I have a set of screw drivers I don’t need so someone else gets them.
  2. Plan your trips to the stores to reduce gasoline consumption. Better yet, shop on-line at your favorite store and have them ship it to your home.
  3. Why not wrap in your newspaper? Even if you put the wrapping paper in the recycle bin much ends up in the landfill. Too much tape, high concentration of ink, and very little fiber make it a poor paper to recycle. I am going to use the holiday promos from my Sunday paper!
  4. How about company Christmas cards?  I’ve gotten cards from some companies for 20 years and never done business with them nor have they ever contacted me. Instead, have a holiday lunch with your best clients and stop sending cards to people you are not in contact with. No one will do business with you because they got a card.
  5. Buy gifts made locally. You can pick them up at numerous church bazaars, downtown holiday market, or non-chain stores. I found some great soaps made in Iowa in the East Village.

One last idea: What if Santa stopped going to each house?  Think of the gas he would save …. but wait, he uses reindeer!  NEVER MIND.

5 ways 3

Plug Load = Bad!

Plug load bad 2Homes are using less and less electricity for conventional purposes such as heating, cooling, and water heating due to better insulation and appliance efficiencies. However, the plug load is increasing greatly; those TV’s, DVR’s, chargers, and small transformers or anything with the little green light. Some estimates say vampire power accounts for 40% of home power.

If 40% seems like a lot, think of those nice spring days when most of the lights are off and the furnace is not running. All those devices are still sucking electricity. You just cannot see it! 

Plug load bad 1MODLET to the rescue. The device plugs into any outlet and controls whatever you plug into the modlet. The great thing about the device is, through a local WIFI, information is sent to your computer where you can monitor the electrical consumption at any modlet. You can even program each device to cut off the flow of electricity to your energy-stealing appliances. Chances are you won’t be turning your TV on at 3 a.m., so why not cut the power from 11 p.m. to 8 a.m.?

At $55, each you may think the cost sounds pretty crazy. I did some analysis on what it could do for my house. My 2,700 square foot house used 8,400 kilowatt hours of electricity per year, costing $850. If we are average, then 40% of the cost ($340) was for all those things that are always using electricity.  I could buy 5 Modlets for my TV’s (3), computer and printer (1), and charger location (1) at the cost of $275.

After one year I would recoup my investment and save money from then on.

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