Sustainable Construction and Design

Concrete is getting more green

Rob Smith is a principal at Architects Smith Metzger


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.

First, 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

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!

The 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

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.

The 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.

Office 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

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

Not your ordinary senior apartments

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 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.

Natural 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

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

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.

Imagine 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

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.

Send your thoughts to

Cordless vs. gas 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.

Now 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


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

Styrofoam 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. 

Rent 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

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


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

Every 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)

  • Pressure 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.”

The 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. 

When 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. 

View 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 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.

What 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

My 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 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

Oh 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.


Plug Load = Bad!

Homes 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! 

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.

Reuse a Shoe

In 1990 Nike wondered what the company could do to be more sustainable. An obvious solution was to keep athletic shoes out of landfills since they may never decompose. Voila, the Reuse-A-Shoe program, was started.

About 1.5 million pairs are recycled at Nike recycling centers each year. Since its beginning nearly 28 million pairs have been recycled into other products rather than going to the landfill.

The only drop off center in Iowa is the Nike Factory Store at the outlet mall in Williamsburg. The store manager says they get about 200 pairs a month placed in the drop off bin. You can also mail shoes directly to a Nike recycling center.

The shoes are separated into three parts. The hard outer sole is ground up and used in sport court tiles, track surfaces, and even new shoes. The midsole or the cushion part is used for outdoor basketball and tennis courts. Finally, the shoe’s upper fabric is used in the cushioning pads under floors made of rubber or wood. Nike even came up with a new product called Nike Grind which is synthetic sport flooring.

Maybe the day will come when no new shoes will be made with virgin materials; instead all our athletic shoes will be in a never ending loop of use and rebirth.

-Rob Smith

Toilets are a funny thing

It was 1991 when Kevin Nealon and Victoria Jackson debuted the “Love Toilet” on Saturday Night Live. I laughed and was amused at the riduculousness of such an idea. Funny how comedy can be a precursor to the future. 

Twenty years later Caroma from Australia makes a toilet with a sink on top of the tank. The simple idea uses waste water while washing your hands to help fill the tank for the next flush. After flushing, the toilet directs cold water to the faucet to wash yours hands. No faucet to mess with!

The toilet also features a dual flush system. Notice the buttons on either side of the faucet for “number one” or “number two”. The great thing about the toilet compared to other low flow toilets is a larger outlet that is touted to have less blockages than other toilets.

So this is a great idea to recycle water right at the fixture, but I laugh when I think of people using it sort of like the “Love Toilet”. I can visualize straddling the toilet after use to wash my hands and feeling yucky. What if I am not done washing my hands when the water goes off? Do I flush again? On the other hand it does limit my water use like those automatic faucets at the airport.

Or how about your three year old standing on the lid because they cannot yet reach the sink?  Let me know if this new sustainable design toilet works for you or if you think of Kevin and Victoria.

~Rob Smith, AIA, LEED AP

Metal shavings to countertops

It seems not a month goes buy and the recycle industry comes up with another stunning and interesting countertop material. Renewed Materials makes a sheet full of waste aluminum flakes. Flakes are the result of making aluminum bars and other shapes into machine parts, windows, or anything else made of aluminum.

Founder Demir Hamami says “What makes Renewed Materials different from other companies is the initial quest to make a recycled product. Other companies make recycled products as a result of figuring out what to do with a waste stream from the manufacture of a core product or how to add recycled content to a core product.”

The aluminum flakes are encapsulated in polyester or acrylic resins and used for tabletops, and countertops. Make sure when you shop for a countertop you know about the basic differences of polyester and acrylic.

Polyester resin makes for a hard surface but is not very transparent and cannot be melted for future reuse (thermoset). Acrylic resin is very transparent. They make eyeglasses of acrylic; it provides great visual depth and can be melted (thermo plastic) for future use, but is a much softer material.

Demir also shared important insight on the general public’s take on recycling. Demir commented “The focus seems to be on post-consumer waste recycling. What I see are huge opportunities in recycling pre-consumer waste from the manufacturing process. That is where much waste resides.”

-Rob Smith

Residential wind energy a lot of hot air?

All those large wind turbines along the highway make you want to run out and install a turbine in your backyard. But wait a darn minute because it may just make no sense or cents.

Over the last two months my home averaged 1,000 kwh of electricity. Can I generate all my electrical needs on site? The large ones along the highway generate 800 kilowatts an hour on average and would have to rotate for only 20 minutes a month, but my neighbors would complain and I would too at a cost of $2.5 million.

The large turbines generate electricity that goes into the grid where a home turbine generates electricity and continually recharges batteries. The electicity you would use then comes from the batteries.

The installed cost of the typical system can be $4,000 to $5,000 per kilowatt of generating capacity including a battery system.

I found several systems on the Internet in the 5kw range. In Iowa the average wind capacity factor is 33% which means whatever the rating of the system you only on average get 33%. So that 5kw turbine would generate on average 5kw times 720 hours per month times 33% equals about 1,200 kw.  That would theoretically handle my electrical needs but at a cost of $20,000 to $25,000.

I can buy electricity from MidAmerican Energy at about 9 cents a KWH. My electric bill last month was $100.  At that rate, which is during the summer peak load, the investment would take 20-25 years to pay for itself.  My suggestion instead is to conserve energy or do other measures like insulation or new windows.

Iowa is more than a breath of fresh air

I am sure as you travel across Iowa you have noticed the horizon dotted with wind turbines. More than 25 wind farms can be found mostly in the north and west portions of the state. One of the most noticable is near Adair along Interstate 80.

Iowa led the nation with nearly 26% of the electricity generated in the state by wind power. The state currently has about 2,900 turbines with a total capacity of 4400 mega watts when the wind is blowing everywhere in the state.  Experts say the wind power capacity of the state is 570,000 megawatts or approximately 130 times the current capacity. Obviously with adequate funds all of Iowa’s demand could be delivered by wind energy.

The turning of the blades rotate a shaft, which creates electrical current through an electrical generator. The electricity is transformed into a higher voltage and put directly into the grid through high power lines. That is why wind farms have to be close to high power lines.

MidAmerican Energy owns and operates almost half of the 4,400 MW capacity in the state and is able to generate an amazing one-third of its electrical generation by wind power.  In fact, of all the utility-based companies, they have the greatest wind energy capacity in the country. Tina Potthoff, spokesperson for MidAmerican says “Wind energy is a cost-effective means to increase generation capacity when compared to nuclear, coal, or oil power plants. The Wind Production Tax Credit helps also.”

Look for more info to come on how you can install a system for your home.

Electrifying fabric

The United Airlines terminal always gets my attention when I fly into the Denver Airport. The majestic white canvas stretched over a steel frame echoing the snow capped peaks beyond. What if within the fabric was imbedded a solar film powering all the lights in the terminal? That is exactly what PowerFilm Inc. of Ames has in mind.

Mike Coon, VP of Building Integrated Products, says “PowerFilm is collaborating with a world leader in architectural fabrics to make the skin of a building produce electrical power.”

The electricity created could have a direct connection such as an entrance canopy powering the lights at the entry. An indirect connection to energy consumption would be to connect the film to the grid and just know you are reducing the amount of fossil fuel needed to generate electricity.

Experts say the average amount of full sun one can expect in Iowa is four hours per day. As Mike Coon explains, “One could expect five watts per square foot of active material at a full sun rating when the fabric is optimally oriented to the south.” Now let’s put that information in perspective. 

The offices of Architects Smith Metzger has a roof area of about 4,000 square feet. If fabric were stretched over the roof on the average day we could expect 80 kilowatt hours (4,000sf X 5 watts/sf X 4 hours /1000 watts per kilowatt). Over a month, about 2,400 kilowatt hours would be produced or about 25% of the electrical consumption in June.

If you want to learn more look them up at the Iowa State Fair on Expo Hill near the MidAmerican Energy wind generator.

Can you guess the number one complaint about buildings?

Think about your experiences within buildings from your office to the movie theater. What is your number one gripe? Do you agree with our number one?

If you answer "the temperature is too cold or too warm," you are in line with our experience. IFMA (International Facility Management Association) completed a survey and found thermal comfort issues even outweighed “high noise levels, limited space, and unpleasant odors”. More than half of those office workers who complain modify the conditions by bringing in their own fans, heaters, or even wearing gloves.

Seems like the most common way to deal with the complaints is for staff to check out the mechanical setttings, inform people things have been checked, and visit them later to see how they are doing. The funny thing is half the time no changes were ever made to the system, but people felt better thinking changes were made.

Jeff Buscher, Design/Construction Manager at Meredith, confirms the number one complaint. Jeff says “Heating and cooling is why people usually contact us. People sense temperature differently since they vary so much in age and body types. Distribution is also an issue since ceiling diffusers are spaced apart. If you are sitting directly under a diffuser your conditions are different than the person sitting ten feet away.” Jeff also added “Sometimes after a complaint, we find the mechanical system is clearly not working right.”

What I have learned is, if you don’t let those in charge of your environment know you are uncomfortable, you will continue to be uncomfortable.

Ventilation is costly

Old mechanical systems provided minimal fresh outside air for the occupants of buildings. The sick building syndrome of the 70’s was caused to a great degree from not enough fresh air to flush out all the toxins. Nowadays, one of the key ingredients for a sustainable building design is providing adequate ventilation.

The American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), which recommends standards for mechanical systems, uses the number of people in a room and the size of the room to determine the ventilation rate.  For example, a 150-square foot office requires about 15-20 cubic feet of fresh air per minute. That’s a lot of fresh air.

Jared Bartell, a mechanical engineer at MODUS in Des Moines, says ventilation accounts for about 30% of the cost of heating and cooling a building. One of the reasons is during the summer the fresh air has to be dehumidified and during the winter heated.

The typical mechanical system provides fresh air to a space all day long even if it is unoccupied. If your building has areas such as conference rooms or other spaces not used all the time, you might think about investing in a CO2 sensor. The sensors measure the CO2 rate of the outside to the rate inside the room. When a higher level is sensed in the room the ventilation system kicks on. Therefore, you might have a situation where ventilation in a large room is not needed for days, resulting in quite an energy savings.

See other blogs featuring sustainable design at IowaBiz sustainable design and construction.

-Rob Smith

Check it at the curb



The recycle industry starts with the stuff in the recycle container you put at the curb. Past blogs on products from glass countertops to plastic lumber rely on a stream of waste that starts with you.  


Robert Pickens, Vice President of the Midwest Region of Greenstar Recycling says “only 3%-5% of all the material put in recycle containers in the Des Moines area ends up in the landfill. Material is sorted by both machines and by hand into cardboard, newspaper, magazines, glass bottles, seven types of plastic, tin, and aluminum.”



Greenstar then provides the raw material to processors who in turn prepare the material for the end user, such as a company that needs polyethylene pellets to make park benches.  Most of our local stuff goes to processors in the United States and Mexico. Some might even end up in China.




The chemical makeup of some plastic makes the process pretty toxic to revert back to a raw material. As a result, Pickens says “Manufacturers are shifting their packaging so containers can be more readily returned to a raw material for reuse.” Wow, that means a ketchup bottle that used to end up in the landfill may cost a bit more at the grocery store but the bottle becomes a mayonaise bottle in a second life.


Pickens says we can we do three things so as much as possible gets recycled.

  • Rinse out your bottles. Even a recycler does not want dirty product.
  • No plastic bags from the grocery store. They just clog up the machinery.
  • No weird stuff like holiday lights or broken dishware.

-Rob Smith

Some people are cool and some are hot!

Do you notice how many people go to a movie and carry a jacket or pull-over even when it's in the 90’s outside? Or people at a convention wearing sweaters in the summer? I am one of those people. Went to see The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and began the trip to hypothermia when I sat in my chair. Don’t companies understand everything engineers do to make systems energy efficient goes out the window when the system is not operated correctly?

It is estimated that, during the cooling season, a decrease in the setting of a thermostat by one degree adds one percent to your energy bill. Or a five degree decrease adds five percent. Engineers work hard to get a 40% savings in energy usage and the thermostat setting can give 5% right back. What gives?

Steve Alvine of Alvine Engineering shared some insight into the thermal comfort of people. He was updating a HVAC system in an office building and found two people sitting next to each other, one wrapped in a blanket and the other with a fan. “It comes down to making people comfortable and we are all different.” he says.

The American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), which recommends standards for mechanical systems, is based on making 80% of the occupants of a building comfortable. Basically, people are so different that a mechanical system is hard pressed to make everyone comfortable.

So why do places like movie theaters and convention centers keep it so cold? Perhaps places have learned people can put on more layers to be comfortable, but it is not acceptable to take off layers to keep cool. It's all about minimizing complaints.

So much for saving energy.

Insulate yourself from the world

Next time you think about sustainable design, start with the insulation in your house. Insulation is what keeps the interior of buildings and homes from feeling the effects of the outside temperature. In an Iowa winter for example, the temperature inside a home will naturally decrease because of the effects of a lower outside temperature. When the inside temperature decreases, the thermostat senses the decrease and sends a message to the furnace systems to heat air and then push it through metal ducts to make people feel comfortable.

The greater the amount of insulation, the less the inside is effected by the outside temperature. In fact, Superinsulation is defined as at least an R-Value of 40 in the walls and an R-value of 60 in the roof. R-Value is a measurement of the resistance to heat flow of insulation. The higher the number, the better the insulation resists heat flow.

The Iowa Building Code requires residential construction have at least an R 20 for walls and R 38 for roofs. As compared to superinsulated construction, what gets built (since the code usually becomes the standard) has a much lower R value.

To meet the Iowa Code, the walls require a 6” fiberglas batt which has an R value of 19. Other parts of the wall get the overall R above 20. A 12” fiberglas batt has an R value of 38 for the roof or attic. Super insulated homes use foam insulation for walls because of the higher efficiency per inch as compared with batt insulation. Spray foam insulation is nearly 3 times more efficient per inch so in the same space a fiberglas batt provides R19, spray foam provides R44.

Remember, the closer you get to super insulated standards, the less energy it will take to keep your house comfortable.

See other blogs featuring sustainable construction.

Recycled glass countertops

NOTE: This is the fourth blog in a series featuring Iowa companies who are making an impact in sustainable construction.

Dubuque-based Green Field Products has been making sheets used for countertops, tabletops, fireplace surrounds or anywhere you would think of using granite. The sheet is made of post consumer waste glass and concrete.

"How the product came into being is a most interesting story," said owner Tim Greenfield.

An architect was visiting another company Tim owns, Dubuque Glass Company, and asked what they did with the cool glass colored chips in a bin destined for a landfill. Several years later and countless hours of experimentation later, Greenfield Stone was born.

Most of the glass comes from the waste of cutting glass from Dubuque Glass Company. One company’s waste became another company’s supply stream. Mixed in are accent colors like the blue vodka bottle or bottles used at local breweries. However, the biggest seller is one called White Ash which uses different colors of gray glass.

The mix of cement, water, and crushed glass is prepared in a 5 by 10 foot by 1 ¼ inch deep bed and allowed to harden. The sheet is then ground smooth and polished to a gloss finish. The strength of the material is 14,000 pounds per square inch as compared to 4,000 pounds per square inch for typical concrete.

Tim says, “It is like baking a cake, sometimes the cake is perfect and sometimes it falls in the oven.”

The product is shipped all over the US and costs about $100 per square foot installed. That’s more than granite at $75 per square foot, but instead of taking something from the earth you keep bad stuff from going in!!!

If you want to see the product in Des Moines you can find it at Renaissance Marble and Granite in Urbandale.

See the other blogs featuring Iowa companies at IowaBiz sustainable design and construction.

- Rob Smith

*Images via Google images.

This site is intended for informational and conversational purposes, not to provide specific legal, investment, or tax advice.  Articles and opinions posted here are those of the author(s). Links to and from other sites are for informational purposes and are not an endorsement by this site’s sponsor.