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Sustainable Design Starts With Keeping "New Old" Buildings

Okay, I admit it. My architect juices used to get flowing when someone said “let’s start a project from scratch” as opposed to “let’s start a project starting with this old building." Now, my rose-colored glasses have become green-colored, and I look at things differently.

The green truth is: Saving an old building is the most sustainable thing you can do. Tearing it down is the worst.

When I think of old buildings in Des Moines, I conjure up images of pre-WWII buildings such as the Equitable, Hubbell, Kirkwood Hotel, or many structures on Court Avenue.

Unfortunately, many other buildings of equal or greater grandeur have been removed from the Des Moines skyline. Green practices - not the historic movement - helped save what was left.

The number of square feet typically constructed in a city - such as Greater Des Moines - after WWII typically exceeds what was built before. Those are the buildings that need to stay and be retrofitted for new uses. The mechanical systems have outlasted their useful life, and the buildings are most likely poorly insulated and have not-very-efficient windows.

Nearly every commercial building west of 63rd Street was built after WWII. Those are the “new old” buildings that could meet the same fate as their predecessors. Let’s take a look at a 20,000-square-foot building constructed in 1965, and look at some of the sustainable ideas that can save a building from the landfill.


New buildings use steel made with recycled product, but keeping an existing steel structure in place is even better. Beams, columns and decking may cost $10 per square foot or a value of $200,000 if left in place.

Footings and foundations

Concrete construction has not changed substantially in the past 50 years. Properly designed concrete foundation walls should last a long, long time. The slab and foundations may have a value of $150,000 to replace.

Exterior envelope

The exterior wall construction of our hypothetical building could represent nearly 9,000 square feet of surface area. If it's still weather-tight, the envelope could have a value of another $150,000.

Interior doors and cabinets

There may come a day when we just don’t rip out doors because building does not have the “in” wood. I look forward to the day when we consider the value of recycling and retrofitting as opposed to the "in" design when building.

Material not going to landfills

If the structure, slab, exterior envelope and interiors are saved, that material won’t fill up the landfill. Just the material mentioned above would represent a pile 100 feet by 200 feet by four feet high. That may not seem like much but it is 80,000 cubic feet of stuff. To put it another way, that’s more than 16 pretty good-sized backyard in-ground swimming pools.

So remember, sustainable design practices may be most important on the “new old” buildings because we do not think of them as historic. There is also an ample supply for businesses to consider instead of building from scratch. A recent example is the old location of the Des Moines Social Club. That building is being saved from the wrecking ball and a landfill by forward-thinking developers and future tenants.

- Rob Smith

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