Sustainable Construction and Design

Radiant floors are on the rise

Kid on radiant floorWhen I designed the Central Iowa Shelter & Services I knew a radiant floor would be preferred. Why?  Bare concrete floors sitting on the earth never get warm, and the shelter would be full of people who wanted to get out of the cold not into it! Since the earth’s temperature is about 55 degrees it is difficult to ever get a slab as warm as the air in the space.  Sooner or later you are going to get cold.

Commercial buildings have long used radiant floors because of concrete and steel construction. I would love radiant floors in my home but homes are not built like commercial buildings. Leave it up to American ingenuity to create Warmboard! You can now buy a 4x8 plywood panel already routed out to accept the radiant tubes.

The radiant heating panels have many advantages over the typical furnace.

  1. Radiant panelEveryone will feel more comfortable. Radiant heat does not require blowing air at people which makes you feel colder.
  2. Energy is saved because you can push water through pipes much easier than push air through ducts.
  3. An expensive furnace system can have two zones but a radiant system is unlimited. This allows the bedroom wing to be at a different setting than the living room.
  4. Radiant energy means you sense the heat when you are closest to the source.  Therefore the air does not tend to stratify and be hottest at the ceiling.

Let me know if you have experienced radiant floors and what you think. Contact me at

The proof is in the glasses

Proof glasses 1Rob Smith is a principal at Architects Smith Metzger.

I have decided my next pair of glasses will be made of maple by a bunch of lumberjacks from Boise! Why? They are sustainable and cool.

Raised in a family lumber business in Utah, three brothers founded Proof in 2011. They loved anything made of wood and why not eye glasses?  Wood, of course, can be replenished rather than the plastic frames of the past. I suppose you could burn them when you were done with them.

The company has taken off because of one simple fact.  Depending on who you want to believe, between 60 and 70 percent of Americans wear glasses. That’s pushing 150 million people.  That’s a big need for glasses.

And the amazing news is the frames cost $100 to $150. I have spent much more for plastic frames in my years of wearing glasses!

Joni Schrup, owner of Discerning Eye Optical in Iowa City is the dealer for Iowa.  She was at a show in New York and visited the Proof booth and was attracted to the idea of wooden glasses. She says “The glasses are selling okay in Iowa. People like the way the glasses look and they are sustainable. And that’s good because eyewear for younger people is on the rise due to viewing phones and tablets all the time.” Proof glasses 2 Proof glasses 3

The idea has blossomed into wood wallets and cigarette lighters.  Maybe purses are next.

I would be happy to know what you think of Proof glasses.  Contact me at

It might sound crazy...what I'm about to say

Rob Smith is a principal at Architects Smith Metzger.

Okay, I admit it!  I am addicted to "The Voice."  I even cast my vote on Tuesday morning for Matt McAndrew. When I started watching I knew nothing about the judges but now am a big fan of Pharrell Williams.

Plastic entangled turtleMost think of Pharrell as the singer of "Happy" but the animals of the oceans are happy because of his collaboration with the Vortex Project. The Vortex Project is all about recycling nearly 40 million tons of plastic that ends up in the ocean.  The plastic blows into the ocean or is dumped by ships directly into the ocean. Nothing degrades plastic except sunlight. Small pieces are digested by wildlife or sea life become entangled in a web of plastic. Another problem is that the toxins in the plastic reside inside fish that we end up eating.

The Vortex Project is named from five massive ocean vortexes that swirl and slowly collect massive amounts of plastic. Much of it also shows up on our beaches. What do you do with tons of recycled plastic? Find a rock star to incorporate the waste into high fashion.

Along comes Pharrell. He is creative director of Bionic Yarn which produces denim from recycled materials. The clothing line is called Raw for the Oceans and features jeans and other clothing made exclusively out of recycled plastic from the ocean.  I checked online and you can get jeans from $110 to $210 a pair.  I know what you are thinking but think of the baby turtles you saved.

I would be happy to know what you think of Pharrell’s venture.  Contact me at

The sun will come out tomorrow

Sun will come our tomorrowLittle Orphan Annie was right “Bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow there’ll be sun”. And that sun is being used more and more to produce electricity on the roofs of our homes.

Technological breakthroughs are making it easier. What has changed?

  • Ever increasing watts per solar panel
  • Longer life panels

So where does one start? Randy Skeie of Ecowise Power in Des Moines says “Take advantage of energy audits offered by your utility company to see if any energy efficiency upgrades can be made before installing a solar system.  There is a saying in the industry …“The cheapest energy is the energy that you do not use in the first place.”

Once you have established your electrical need, you decide how much you want to produce. Typically a home uses about 11,000 kilowatts of energy per year. Rates in Des Moines are at 11¢ per kilowatt or a yearly cost of $1,300. 

Randy says about 525 square feet of panels are required to produce 11,000 kilowatts. The cost is $31,200 but several tax credits lower the cost. Federal and state credits reduce the investment to about $17,000.

The payback is about 11 to 12 years when increases in electrical energy costs are assumed (and I am sure they will go up). Therefore, if the life of the system is 25 years the savings is approximately $75,000!!!

After the 12th year there is no electrical bill for your home.

The incredible news is for commercial projects there is an additional tax credit that in this case would have reduced the cost from $17,000 to $7,500.

If you want more details I would be happy to share.  Contact me at

Harness the sun's energy

The energy from the sun is incredibly powerful and plentiful.  Just one hour of the sun’s energy could provide the planet’s electrical energy for one year. 

Des Moines Onstage at 2124 Grand Avenue installed panels on their roof recently.  The panels should provide nearly 80 percent of the building’s electrical needs according to owner Maria Filippone.  She says “The panels are working as predicted and the payback should be 4.5 years.”

Solar panelsSolar panel systems used to store energy in batteries but now generated electricity goes for immediate use or back to the power company if you are generating more than you need.  Net metering provides a credit when more energy is generated than consumed.

Tax credits are available for the installation of solar panels.  A whopping 30 percent from the Feds with no limit and 18 percent from the state but a $20,000 commercial and $5,000 residential limit.  It’s almost like buying a solar system at ½ off.

So where to begin?  The first thing to do is conserve all you can.  Rather than pay the high price of generation, pay the low price of conservation.  Update light fixtures and reduce plug loads like computers running all night.  Then figure what percentage of your electrical needs you want to generate.  The great thing is more panels can be added as funds are available.

My next blog will figure the cost of solar for your house.

How’s the test from last blog coming?  Anyone turn off the blue light devices two hours before bed? Contact me at

Sunlight good. Blue light bad.

Rob Smith is a principal at Architects Smith Metzger.

Melatonin is the hormone which makes us sleepy. Sunlight reduces the production of melatonin and therefore we are not sleepy during the daytime. Diminishing daylight in the evening increases the production of melatonin and makes us sleepy. 

Blue light on the other hand does not have the same effect as sunlight. Blue light diminishes the production of melatonin.  Unfortunately, the drive to get more light for less watts has been attained on the back of blue light.


Blue light at bedtimeOur homes are bathed in blue light. Just go to buy light bulbs and the push is for compact fluorescent and LED, both which emit blue light. Then we have all the blue light emitting gadgets such as cell phones, tablets, computer screens, and TVs.  Just look at the blue glow as you drive through your neighborhood.

What’s a sustainable person to do?

  • Make sure to buy a full spectrum lamp which provides light closer to daylight.
  • Install Drift light in your house which over 37 minutes (the average length of sunsets) dims and helps the body with the shift from light to darkness for a better sleep.
  • Turn off the TV and tablet. Recommendations are a full 2 to 3 hours before you hit the pillow. I bet that does not happen often but many also sleep poorly.

Let’s take a test together.  No TV, phone, or tablet 2 hours before bed.  Let me know if you sleep better. May be better for your marriage too!  Contact me at

Don't Put Your Staff to Sleep

Recent studies show natural daylight in the workplace has more benefits than we thought.   Productivity has been tied to natural light but now extends to other health benefits. 

Colorado-mountain-biking-bicyclingA Northwestern University School of Medicine study was reported in the June Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine indicating people exposed to natural daylight in the workplace also get more sleep, are more active, and overall have a higher quality of life.

“There is increasing evidence that exposure to light, during the day --particularly in the morning -- is beneficial to your health via its effects on mood, alertness and metabolism,” says senior study author Phyllis Zee, Northwestern Medicine neurologist and sleep specialist.

How much more sunlight did they get?  About 175% more daylight or nearly double the amount. The study also shows people have to be within 20-25 feet of the windows or else you might as well not have windows.

The results on sleeping showed those with natural daylight got 46 minutes more sleep than those without windows. The interesting thing is that when you are not near windows the artificial lighting is many times “blue light” which reduces the production of a sleep inducing hormone but that’s another blog.

My next blog will focus on conflict between low cost artificial blue light and your health. Contact me at

Time to boot bottled water

Water in a glassI go to meetings and am offered bottled water. What do I do if I don’t finish? Take it with me? Leave it and hope it will be recycled? Then I fell into “well if everyone else does it then I will have bottled water at my office.” 

No more! If you come to my office you will be offered something to drink and if you choose water it will be in a clear glass tumbler.  If you don’t drink it all we can use it to water the plants!

You can do the same for three good reasons.

First, bottled water produces 1.5 million tons of trash a year. While a good candidate for recycling, experts say 80% goes to the landfill.  Besides it took oil to produce the plastic, nearly 50 million gallons.

Bottled water 1

Second, the cost is more than fifty times the cost of tap water.  The cost for a gallon of Des Moines tap water to my office is $0.03.  Costco has a pallet of bottled water at $320 and it still costs $1.32 per gallon.  Which is a better deal?  $320 for the pallet of water or $7.25 for tap water?

Third, most bottled water is just purified tap water so we are drinking the SAME THING! Costco sells Nestle “Pure Life Purified Water”.  What the heck is that? Sure does not sound like city tap water but is!

Join me and stop buying bottle water for your office and home.

Questions or feedback? Contact me at

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

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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.


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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?

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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One man's trash is another man's treasure


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.

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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.

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.

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.

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? 

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.

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

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.

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

-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

-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

-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

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

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