Sustainable Construction and Design

Plastic lumber and more

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

The Plastic Recycling of Iowa Falls has been making recycled products from post consumer waste and post industrial waste for the last 25 years. Their major products are tables, benches, car stops for parking lots, and lumber. 

The company uses high density polyethylene such as milk jugs and low density polyethylene such as grocery bags as the raw material.  PVC or PET (pop bottles) recycled waste is not found in their products. Sue Waters, VP of sales and marketing, says it takes 7 one-gallon milk jugs to make one pound of recycled product.  Therefore it takes 770 milk jugs to make a 110 pound park bench.  In fact the company makes over five million pounds of product in the course of one year….that’s 35 million milk jugs!

According to Sue, finding an adequate stream of material is one of the main issues the company faces.  In the old days she says “companies would give away their waste but now we compete with China for our raw product.  China sends so many containers to the USA and wants them to return not empty.  As a result they are competing with us to buy recycled plastic.”

The lumber is great as pallet material but not as good as a structural beam.  The product expands in the sunlight or heat and my sag some.  When I asked how the 4x4 would work as a fence post she said “it would last for a long time but it tracks the sun and would bend towards the east in the morning and towards the west in the evening. 

You can support the Iowa based company by travelling to Iowa Falls and buying a bench for your garden that will last a lifetime.  As an Iowan they will give you 40% off to boot.

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

- Rob Smith


Recently I was asked on a project to provide a list of all interior materials and the location where the product was made.  Sounds easy, but as I went off to do my job I found it was not.

The concern comes from LEED credits available for using a product where the raw materials and manufacturer is within 500 miles of the construction site.  The goal is to encourage buying brick from the next state rather than have it shipped across the country.  If everyone purchased materials this way then collectively less gas etc. would be used. 

But what about all the lesser materials like floor tile, ceilings, countertop materials like Corian, sinks, faucets, and all sorts of other products.  Wouldn’t it be more sustainable if these products were at least made in the USA?  A web research into various products came up empty handed.  Time and time again there were pages and pages of product information but none on where the various products within one company were made.  Several instances stick in my mind.

One was an obvious American company like Formica with only corporate address info and nothing on plant locations or where anything was made.  Did they have a plant in China?  Another example was a company with a name like “American Products Inc.”  At least I could assume I found a company making goods in the USA but upon further investigation it was a subsidiary of a company from Germany; an obvious ploy in sustainable product marketing to get consumers to buy foreign products.

The only way I could get to the bottom was to call the factory representative or the company itself.  Even then most did not know where their stuff was made.

Buyers beware for sure!!

- Rob Smith

Buttons to corn cobs

This is a second blog in a series featuring Iowa companies who are making an impact in sustainable construction.

The McKee Company of Muscatine was founded in 1895 and at one time was the largest manufacturer of pearl buttons in the world. Their buttons were found on men’s dress shirts made for JCPenney, Van Heusen, Arrow, and Land’s End. When most clothing lines left the states and went to China the need for buttons was drastically reduced. 

The company still makes buttons but has used button making technology and transitioned to sustainable building products. Years ago, the company looked for more sustainable ways of making buttons and turned to a biomass resin instead of petroleum based. Buttons are made by pouring the resin into a spinning drum making a thin sheet which is peeled off the inside of the drum. The sheet hardens and is made into buttons. Corn cobs are used to polish the buttons after they are punched and tooled into the desired shape.

Jay McKee, fourth generation owner, says one day they experimented by adding corn cob material to the resin and voila, the Green Line of sustainable products was born. The 22 percent bio content panel can be used for many uses such as shower enclosures, bathroom walls, countertops, and decorative cabinet panels.  Other options include wood chips, lemon grass, and fibers. The material has also been 
successfully used at restroom renovations at the University of Iowa Quadrangle dormitories.

The button making process allows many custom panels to be manufactured because small quantities can be easily made rather than setting up for thousands of square feet of material.

Check out my last blog on ReWall at IowaBiz sustainable design and construction

Panels made from milk cartons

The citizens of the USA dispose of 250 million tons of trash each year or about 4.6 pounds per day.  Luckily about 30% of trash is recycled. The waxy cartons used for milk and juice account for about two million tons of trash and typically go straight to the landfill.

The Rewall Company of Des Moines is using a European process to turn the cartons into construction building panels. The boards can be left natural where you see all the words and colors of the cartons (naked board) or a paper coating (essential board) is applied to both sides.  Either product can be painted. You could panel your basement or go ultra-modern and make an accent wall in your living room.

The product is made from post-consumer and post-industrial waste content found within 500 miles of Des Moines. Rewall is working with Metro Waste to obtain post-consumer product from the Des Moines area. 

The 8 foot by 4 foot panel is virtually inert and water resistant. I personally soaked a piece of naked board in water for a week and the panel barely changed.  Anywhere you have used plywood or oriented strand board this 100% recycled product can be used.  Examples are under countertops, paneling, tile backer board, floor sheathing, and roof sheathing.

The product can be purchased at the Habitat Restore in Des Moines or Kinzler Companies in Ames.  You can buy 1/2” x 4’ x 8’ naked panels for $26.00 or 1/2” x 4’ x 3’ essential board for $5.75.  Tanner Kinzler of Kinzler Companies says he is always looking to replace existing products with others which perform better, cost less, and are greener.  He is excited about Rewall.

So next time you throw a milk carton in your recycle bin, you may see it next in your kitchen remodeling.

To see a related Business Record story, click here.

- Rob Smith

Images via and Google images respectively.

Not so big house

While shopping at Barnes and Noble for the holiday, I stumbled on a book I have been meaning to buy for years - Not So Big House by Sarah Susanka. Originally published in 1998, it tackles head on the premise that bigger is not always better when it comes to homes.  As a result, the house is more sustainable because much less materials are used to build perhaps 30% to 50% less home.  Ongoing energy costs are also greatly reduced.

I can speak to this firsthand as my wife and I look for our next home.  Many houses have lots of space with no detail or character to make a house a home.  So much space the exterior became mostly vinyl or metal siding.  Compare that to the entry of a home from the Not So Big House which is rich in detail.  Can’t you see yourself sitting on the porch for hours?  The same concept from years ago is found in areas of Des Moines such as Beaverdale where small brick homes are still in demand.  Many feature built-ins and craftsman detail throughout. 

Consider if homes were more appropriately sized, the amount of wood and concrete that would be conserved.  Imagine the amount of resources saved if houses were just 10% smaller? With nearly 7 million homes built per year at an average size of 3,000 square feet, a 10% savings would save 2.1 billion square feet of home construction. That’s a lot of carpet and space which did not require heating or cooling.

So next time you or someone you know thinks about a new home, pick up a copy of Not So Big House and think about being more sustainable from the get go!

Building going geothermal

More and more new commercial buildings are going geothermal as a viable means to reduce energy costs.  The 40,000 square foot Central Iowa Shelter & Services building, currently under construction south of downtown Des Moines, features a geothermal system.  The mechanical engineer for the project, Alan Langley of Alvine Engineering, says “the trend in Iowa is more buildings are using geothermal systems, in fact about 80% of the schools we design use geothermal systems. Offices and healthcare are good candidates also.”

Alan also adds “the trend started in Iowa when the utility companies started to provide hefty rebates for energy conserving systems like geothermal”.  Basically, the utilities pay companies to lower their energy usage rather than bring on a new power plant costing millions of dollars.

A commercial system costs $16-$20 per square foot so the cost for a geothermal system for a 10,000 square foot building would be $160,000 to $200,000. The payback is typically 5 to 7 years and from day-one heating and cooling costs should be reduced by 35%-45%.

A geothermal system takes advantage of the earth’s constant temperature.  The diagram shows the earth’s temperature near the surface in Iowa to be about 52 degrees.  Therefore, the temperature of water when circulated through a closed system of vertical or horizontal loops nears a constant 52 degrees.  The loop is tapped into by mechanical equipment which either transfers heat to the loop during the summer or takes heat from the loop during the winter.

An amazing result of the loop is the potential transfer of energy within a building during the winter.  The interior zones of a large office building many times require year-round cooling while the perimeter usually requires heating.  Mechanical equipment removes heat from the interior zone and transfers the heat to the loop.  Mechanical equipment at the exterior zone reverses the process and removes the heat from the loop providing heat where it is needed. Now that is being Green!!!

What direction should a home's windows face?

I have always enjoyed a daylight filled room and the warmth of the sun in the winter.  One of the first things people ask for when I am designing their dream home is lots of windows.  I translate that to mean “give me south facing windows so I can be warmed by the sun as I have my coffee and watch the snow fall.”

Yet it amazes me, when I see the McMansions in the suburbs of America, how few pay any attention to the direction of the sun.  The shadow cast on this behemoth suggests the large blank wall could face south.  What a shame!  The owners are robbed of one of the easiest sustainable design principles; passive solar energy by just letting the sun shine in and heat the space during the winter.   This is an example of using a stock plan with no attention to the orientation of the house. 

The best orientation for a house is with windows to the south since it is easiest to shade glass during the summer and let it shine in during the winter.  The next best is east so you get light in the morning and not the beastly sun in the summer afternoons.  Since the back of the house typically has the most windows, that means 75% of homes do not have the best orientation and 50% are a disaster (since homes have an equal chance of facing any one of the four directions).

Finally, I was looking to move to the country and was amazed time after time how a new home was built on 10 acres and still faced the street.  Certainly with that much land one could have oriented the house to take advantage of the sun.  I saw many huge windowless walls facing south…must have been the walk-in closet.

Next home, think about the benefits of the sun on your pocket book and state of mind!

- Rob Smith

Demountable wall systems mounting a comeback!

In the 60's and 70's, many big corporations like GE, Principal, and US West installed miles of demountable walls rather than building walls out of metal studs and gypsum board. I worked with a system used at the US West building in Des Moines. It matched the typical demountable wall system….beige with a vertical joint every 4 feet and doors where you needed them. To jazz it up you could provide a side light next to the door. Yippee!!!

Problem was they were just plain ugly. The walls were not used much after the 80’s because workers' expectations of the work environment increased.

Along comes the green movement and demountable walls are being considered again. The difference this time is they look cool and can adapt to almost any style. The walls no longer have the look of 4 foot wide monolithic panels. Systems come in a wide array of wood, metal, glass, and painted finishes. You can even get sliding doors to your office. Surfaces can also be equipped with white boards so you can write on the walls.

The demountable wall is more expensive than building walls from scratch but you can take them apart and reconfigure. While a typical painted 8 foot office partition costs $60 per foot and a demountable wall costs close to $75 per foot, it’s still worth it even if you just move them once. A new layout can also be done quicker with the demountable walls and makes less of a mess. That’s very sustainable.

Companies like Dirtt and Teknion are leading the way with innovative design. Ken Kahrs of Koch Brothers in Des Moines sells Teknion and says the demand for demountable walls continues to rise. Ken also says 50% of the cost can be written off and the remainder depreciated over 7 years rather than 30 years for a stud wall.

So, when it comes to sustainable design and construction consider demountable walls.

Workstations are dropping their panels

Panel systems to provide some privacy and acoustics for the office worker came about in the late sixties by companies like Westinghouse and Hermann Miller.  You’ve seen the typical six foot tall monolithic panel in many movies as an endless sea of gray where one could easily get lost.  Sometimes one color was used throughout…like turquoise!!


For years, I encouraged using lower panels so you could see others and not be penned in, but everyone seemed to want no interaction with others.  Then along comes sustainable design and LEED where your design gets points for providing daylight and views for most office workers.  With a wave of the sustainable wand, shorter panels are now being used. 


Two credits within the Indoor Environmental Quality of LEED deal with daylight and views to the outside.   Daylight requirements have several approaches, but basically the credit is achieved when all occupied spaces have a level of at least 25 foot candles in 75% of the space.  If daylight provides 25 foot candles to 90% of the space, 2 credits are achieved.  Obviously tall furniture panels block daylight from penetrating the space and providing the required foot candles.


Views requirements are the main driver of shorter furniture panels.  One credit is achieved when 90% of all occupants in a space have a direct line of sight to the outdoors between 30 and 90 inches above the floor.  Furniture panels can use glass to meet this requirement if a taller panel is needed.


What does this mean for office workers?  They are more connected to the outdoors and natural cycles.  In the old days of tall cubes everywhere, you could actually lose touch with the time of day or whether it was raining so you could run outside and close your car windows.


Access to natural daylight maintains our circadian rhythms.  I have never heard my clients say they have too many windows.  On the contrary, I have ripped holes in many walls to provide light into what was a cave.


- Rob Smith

An Interface with Carpet

The early 1980’s is when I met my first carpet tile.  Now nearly every job I do is carpet tile.   People replace carpet tile not because it wears out but because it “uglies” out!  The stuff won’t die.  I even know of a university dining hall where they cleaned the carpet tile by running it through the commercial dishwasher.  YIKES!!

The manufacture of carpet is not very sustainable since it is made of nylon which is made from petroleum.  In addition, the backing of carpet tile is also petroleum based.  It took a visionary and founder of Interface carpet, Ray Anderson, to question the long term sustainability of carpet tile.  After reading The Ecology of Commerce, Ray transformed his business from a linear model where carpet is made, used, and goes to the landfill, to a circular model.  The carpet goes from manufacture, used, and back to manufacture without any petroleum needed.

This sustainable paradigm required innovation.  There were no machines to take old carpet tile and separate the yarn from the backing so Interface built machines.  Nylon manufacturers partnered and figured out how to take harvested yarn and turn it into liquid nylon and spin new yarn.  As a result of this kind of thinking, last year over 350 million pounds of post-consumer carpet was diverted from the landfills and over 80% was recycled.  

Now recycling centers are sprouting up to get the recycled product back to manufacturers.  Many times the cost of recycling is cheaper than landfill fees.  In fact, companies like Interface are working with municipalities to increase landfill fees for carpet to ensure the circular model does not run out of product.

What’s in the future?  Already Interface uses no virgin raw materials in the manufacture of the carpet tile backing.  Their 2020 goal is to use no virgin raw materials in any part of the entire carpet tile, just recycled or bio based material.

Sustainable design is really about changing our paradigms and asking pretty simple questions.  Ray Anderson asked if there was another way for his business to make a product and not contribute to depleting a virgin material like petroleum.  He found a way and Interface is now the leading carpet company in the world.

What does VOC mean to you?

I remember long ago when I was refinishing woodwork and would get dizzy. I did not know I was feeling the effect of a high amount of VOC's in the air. The varnish was comprised of Volatile Organic Compounds (usually carbon) and VOC’s were released into the air as varnish dried.

Today an important part of the green movement and LEED certification uses low VOC paints. Federal regulations cap the VOC content in paint at 250 grams per liter for flat finishes and 380 grams per liter for all other finishes.  LEED requires flat finish paints at 50g/l and others at 150g/l. Paint meeting these requirements is often referred to as “Green Seal Certified” paint.  You can also beat LEED requirements with zero VOC paint (really not zero but anything under 5 g/l).  Then there are “true zero VOC” paints to differentiate from zero VOC paints.  Confused yet?

The catch is, the base white color can be “green seal certified”, zero VOC, or true zero VOC but as soon as you add a colorant the VOC’s could go through the roof.  Be careful when you pay extra for zero VOC that you are getting what you paid for.  Zero VOC paints cost more because others use a less expensive petroleum base.

I called my friend Gordon Sterk, owner of Johnston Ace Hardware, who sells Benjamin Moore paints to get the scoop and found Natura by Benjamin Moore is a true zero VOC including the colorant.  The paint costs $69 per gallon and is available in an infinite number of colors.  Benjamin Moore also has several “Green Seal Certified” paints that cost between $39 and $59 per gallon.  Home Depot has a similar paint called FreshAire Choice but only comes in 65 colors and costs about $40 per gallon.

- Rob Smith

More than gardening books on the shelf

A company has come up with a shelving system which hangs planters on the wall to bring live plants into your office or home. The breathe wall exchanges air with the surroundings and filters the air. The plants more or less inhale bad air and exhale good air.

A nice idea since when I go into a home or office without one green Indoor plant I get this sterile creepy feeling. And while plastic plants sometimes fool you, I am talking about live plants which grow and you have to water. 

Studies show indoor plants can improve indoor air quality by removing 87% of air toxins in 24 hours. Recommendations are to provide 15-18 good sized (that’s 6-8 inch pots) in the average 1,800 square foot house to help with air quality.  My keen mathematical mind comes up with a plant per 100 square feet so each room should have one or two plants. That’s a lot of plants!!

One researcher recommended to a company to have every employee within 45 feet of a plant. A much lesser density than one per 100 square foot but apparently still beneficial to the morale of workers. Another facet of plants is it just makes people happy and feeling good.

Palms and ferns are one of the best plants because they are used to relative low light levels at the bottom of the rain forest so they can grow in most places.  The plants also help stabilize the humidity in spaces which is good to fight colds and keep your nasal membranes feeling good in the winter.

- Rob Smith

White is the new green in roofs

In 2009, Al Gore and Mayor Michael Bloomberg pushed for the painting of one million square feet of roofs in New York City and launched "NYC Cool Roofs." The plan was to reduce energy costs and give college students a job.  It at least got people thinking about the color of their roof.

A white roof performs better in two areas over the typical dark colored roof. It reduces the surface temperature and cools the surroundings.

A white surface reflects sunlight before it can be absorbed and transformed into heat energy. In the process the surface temperature is reduced by as much as 30 degrees. The lower surface temperature reduces air conditioning and saves anywhere from 5-40% in electrical savings.

Seems the big factor is how much insulation is on the roof. The thicker the insulation the less impact surface temperature makes on the interior temperatures of the building. So if you have hardly any insulation on your roof you could paint it white and save some cash but if you have 5-6 inches of insulation you probably won’t notice a difference.

The other attribute of a white roof is it reduces the amount of heat re-radiated back to the surroundings. The phenomenon known as the heat island effect is best seen in cities like Phoenix where is does not cool down during the evening like the surrounding countryside.  So much heat energy has been absorbed by all the dark surfaces that it continues to heat the air even after the sun goes down. Some areas of the country can experience 10 degrees difference but probably not in Iowa.

I don’t think the time will come when the Iowa roofscape looks like those cities from Indiana Jones movies with the minarets and desert in the background. The cities with all white roofs are most likely never white from snow. But I wonder how long it will be before white roofs are a permanent part of landscape in Iowa. 

- Rob Smith

Ah, the "good old days" of indoor air quality

I must admit, in the past, our projects sometimes put our clients through hell! I think back to the remodeling projects where business carried on for my client amidst sanding drywall, gluing carpet to the floor, lacquering wood cabinets, and painting with oil based enamels! 

The peculiar thing was people rarely complained or made an issue of the terrible working conditions. I clearly remember a different occasion when someone finally said enough is enough, and was headed home because they had a headache from the fumes. If the guy painting is wearing a gas mask it has got to be bad. Not very sustainable!

Then in the early 80’s along came sick building syndrome. Scientific research and studies showed how toxic and polluted our indoor environments had become. People really were sick from the indoor environment. All the chemicals did have an effect on people.

Some changes happened over night and some took decades. Among the positive changes:

  • Cabinets and doors were finished offsite in the shop within a special paint booth. No longer did our clients have to work within 10 feet of someone varnishing a door.
  • Paints used were mostly latex and oil based paints were used sparingly.
  • A machine was invented to sand and vacuum drywall dust. Not only were the air conditions better but cleanup was easier.
  • Materials without formaldehyde were manufactured and products with formaldehyde disappeared from the market.

Sustainable practices now typically include special ventilation systems used during construction. Another option is to flush out the building before people occupy the building by bringing in 100% outdoor air.

Sometimes when it comes to sustainable design we think about the building but isn’t the real purpose to sustain life? When people got involved and spoke up about their indoor environment, positive changes resulted!

- Rob Smith

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There's light at the end of the tunnel

Every once and a while a new product comes along and my immediate response is “WAY COOL!” While many manufacturers of “green” products have done little other than
repackage their old product, Solatube International broke into the North America market in 1991 with a truly remarkable product to bring natural daylight into the inner parts of buildings. 

I have used skylights in the past to bring natural daylight into buildings. Skylights flood interior spaces with daylight and therefore reduce the need for using light fixtures. That’s a good green thing!! The tendency is to use skylights to light lobbies and atriums but not work spaces because of non-consistent light levels and glare. 

I was asked once to help a bank with a skylight issue in the boardroom. The skylight was over the end of the boardroom table and the sunlight was so intense no one would sit under the skylight. Of course, as the sun moved across the sky, the direct sunlight would move down the line from one chair to the next, causing people to constantly play musical chairs.

Tubular "daylighting" devices funnel daylight through a tube and get the light to where it is needed. The amazing thing is now natural sunlight can be directed to work areas not on the top floor of a building but deep within the bowels of the building. The inside of the tubes are specular so daylight can be reflected up to 50 feet with several 90 degree bends.  That’s amazing!

The Solatube system is also manufactured to provide a more consistent light level throughout the day. During the morning when the sun is low in the sky the refractors gather all the light available and send it down the tube. When the sun is high in the sky
some of the light is reflected so not all the daylight available is sent down the tube. That way the interior senses a more uniform illumination consistency than a typical skylight.  One device can remove the need for lights in a conference room.

Look for solatubes at the new Central Iowa Shelter & Services building, currently under construction. Three of the Solatube devices will be used to bring natural daylight into interior corridors and reduce utility costs forever.

Wellmark Stops "Going to the Well" To Flush

The new headquarters building for Wellmark does all it can to not go to the well for flushing toilets. Actually, they don't have a well, but get their water from the Des Moines Waterworks like everyone else. The LEED platinum building reduces water consumption by nearly 7,200 gallons of water per day or 2,600,000 gallons water per year!  That’s enough to fill four Olympic sized swimming pools.

Wellmark beats the water consumption of the typical office building by using more efficient toilets and urinals than you normally see. The toilets, for instance, have dual flushing buttons with two choices: Number one and number two for you know what. Even with all that, it still takes nearly 8,000 gallons per day for the 2,400 full time equivalent employees to flush.

The other means to reduce water consumption is the unique water reclamation system. The system has two basic components; one for flushing and one for lawn irrigation. Water comes from roof drains, condensation from air conditioning equipment, and water beneath the surface collected in foundation drainage tiles. The water is piped to pre-filters on the way to a 52,000-gallon flushing cistern. Overflow from the pre-filters and flushing cistern is routed to the 60,000-gallon irrigation cistern.

Water in the flushing cistern then travels into the building where it is pumped through several stages of treatment before discharging to a 3,000-gallon day tank. Treatment steps include additional filtering to remove sediment and clarify water, UV lights to kill bacteria and an ozone system to kill additional bacteria and remove odors from the water. The day tank holds all the water that will be sent to the toilets and urinals. Additional domestic water can supplement the reclaim water should there be a need.  

Water in the irrigation cistern goes through a similar treatment process on its way to the irrigation day tank with the exception of the ozone treatment.

Dave Southwell, executive vice president of Wellmark, says the system is working as intended and Wellmark is committed to saving natural resources.                       

When you look at the payback for water reclamation systems, it doesn’t make sense unless you make a commitment to be good stewards of the environment like Wellmark. The reason the payback takes a really long time is the cost of water in the Midwest is so low compared to other parts of the country. Other parts of the country pay nearly six times more for water than in Iowa, and rationing is sometimes necessary.

Just imagine if everyone cared as deeply as Wellmark! The Des Moines Waterworks would treat less water and there would be much less flooding because buildings would hold on to their water for use later rather than send it all down the storm sewer.  

Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head...And in the Toilets

BJ Thomas sang in 1969 about raindrops falling on his head. Those raindrops can now be gathered to serve a better purpose than wet hair; they can flush your toilets.

As part of the water cycle, rain falls from the sky and sooner or later gets to a river and then on to the ocean. Many times in urban areas, it flows down the street, into the storm sewer and soon after into the river. Harvesting the water for use later could minimize flash flooding and reduce the need for treating water used to flush toilets. 

Some buildings such as the recently constructed Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield headquarters gather rain water for flushing toilets and watering lawns. For demonstration purposes - and to understand the impact of harvesting rain water - I did some calculations based on the world headquarters of Architects Smith Metzger at 2111 Grand Ave.

The first thing to calculate is the potential number of gallons which can be harvested. The annual rainfall in Des Moines is nearly 35 inches - let’s call it 3 feet - and is relatively evenly distributed throughout the year compared with other parts of the country. The area of our roof is 4,200 square feet, so the total cubic feet of water is 4,200 X 3 or 12,600 cubic feet. Converting cubic feet to gallons is easy; just multiply by 7.5 and you end up with a staggering 94,500 gallons.

The next calculation is how many gallons of water are required to flush toilets and urinals in your building for one year. In the old days, toilets could use a jaw-dropping 7 to 15 gallons per flush. Urinals were not much better, with anywhere from 1.5 to 4.5 gallons per flush. Government regulations since the 1992 Clean Water Act require low-flow fixtures. Toilets can use no more than 1.6 gallons and urinals 0.5 gallons per flush. 

The U.S. Green Building Council recommends the average office-dwelling female office worker uses a toilet three times per day and males use a toilet one time and a urinal two times per day. 

Our two-story building is occupied by 10 women and 17 men. Based on USGBC recommendations, the women would use 12,500 gallons and the men 11,500 gallons for a total of 24,000 gallons per year. The outstanding news is I might never again have to buy water to flush toilets or urinals if a rain water harvesting system was installed.

The total system requires a way for the water to get to a reservoir, filter out the junk like leaves so it does not clog the pipes, and pipes to the plumbing fixtures. Of course the reservoir has to be filled by tap water if the reservoir ever goes dry.

In my next post, I'll take a look at how it works in real life at the Wellmark building downtown.

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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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