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Sustainable Architecture: Designing Green Buildings

posted on April 11, 2008 at 1:59 PM



Be it for reasons of cost or potential environmental harm, most forms of energy production have drawbacks. This is not as true for conservation. Conservation can be brought on-line quickly if not painlessly. But if deployed well, conservation also can be comfortable and enduring.

A case in point is a new trend in construction. It's called LEED for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. In practice LEED principles are a measure of how a building can use less energy, water and natural resources as well as create less waste and provide a healthier environment for people inside.

Architect Kevin Nordmeyer of RDG Planning and Design in Des Moines was instrumental in bringing LEED standards to Iowa.

You can tell Kevin Nordmeyer is serious about sustainable design. He is a principal architect at RDG Planning and Design, and his buildings have been winning environmental awards for more than a decade. Even more, as an educator at Iowa State University, he shares his passion for sustainability with his students.

Kevin Nordmeyer: "Well, the same rules may apply, though, because if the sun is rising here and it’s getting hot, you’d want to minimize. I mean, if you did this and it’s coming over, you’re going to be having solar exposure on this face until you get to noon, whereas here it would just be this and the roof."

This semester’s class project is an exercise that takes sustainable design to an extreme. He and his students are designing an entire village in Uganda using only local materials.

Kevin Nordmeyer: "In Northern Uganda, they don't have access to much money, if any, but the land that's been given to this organization -- Child Voice International -- so we have soil, we have sun, we have some bamboo, and moisture and temperature. How do we design something sustainable for this village in Uganda?"

Thankfully, in Iowa, "green" construction is still optional. But in the wake of high energy prices and global warming, more Iowans are looking for ways to keep their energy costs down. And using a thoughtful process in keeping those costs down can also mean a healthier planet.

Kevin Nordmeyer: "Sustainability, green construction, all those terms deal with designing and constructing buildings so they are sympathetic to environmental concerns and not in contradiction to them."

In order to get the most comprehensive sustainable construction plan, look for L-E-E-D, Leed Certification.

LEED Certification makes sure the finished building has substantial energy savings, is diligent in water conservation, and that the construction process, itself, isn’t wasteful. Points are given as percentages saved – compared to ordinary construction.

Kevin Nordmeyer: "With LEED, the lowest level is the basic certified level. Then there's the silver level, the gold level, and the platinum level."

One of Kevin Nordmeyer’s most efficient buildings was completed in 2000, just before Iowa became a LEED member, but it used most of the LEED principles. It’s won many design awards, including being listed as one of the nation’s top 10 energy-efficient buildings.

It’s the state headquarters of the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities, built to be a showplace of energy conservation, and it rises like an oasis in an industrial park on the outskirts of Ankeny.

Kevin Nordmeyer: "The Municipal Utilities Association Building -- first of all, the reason that it's always been said to be an exemplary office structure, was that we started the entire project from the very first day talking about the goals of the project with not only the owner, the Municipal Utilities Association, and me and my engineers and energy specialists and landscape architects, but also the Polk County Soil and Water Conservation District, the Polk County Conservation Board, A Prairie Restoration Team, Outdoor Lighting Consultants from Ames Iowa talking about dark sky issues. So we had so many people involved with all different sorts of brain power."

That team put together a wide range of efficiencies. Inside the building, appliances and fixtures are all energy star compliant … heating and cooling is supplied by geothermal pumps and heat exchangers … and water heating is “on demand.”

Lighting is mostly natural, provided by high windows on the south side of the building. Sensors read the light levels and automatically dim and brighten the ceiling lights as needed. The lighting is soft, reflected off the specially painted ceilings.Bathrooms use water-conserving toilets, and the sewage is sent through a wetland clean-up system that works underneath their site’s 11-acre prairie.

The natural exterior needs to paint and has extra measures to prevent water run-off, as does the parking area. There’s a nature area across the street, and together the acres of prairie and wetlands make great homes for birds, ducks, egrets and bald eagles.

LEED projects also need to be energy efficient in how they are made. The materials used preferably come from within a 500-mile radius of the construction site, to use less gasoline. Designers are encouraged to use recycled or low-impact products. The leftover construction materials need to stay out of landfills – so methods of recycling need to be set in place.

The Municipal Utilities building is an example of what can be done to a 21st century office building to keep energy costs low and keep computers and people working at their best. But, Kevin says it goes a step further – the enthusiastic owners keep refining and cutting the amount of energy they use. In the past year, the building’s energy use has been cut another 10%.

Kevin Nordmeyer: "You can design a car or a building to get high efficiency, but -- to use the car analogy -- if I drive it a hundred and twenty miles an hour in town and ride the brakes and don't maintain it, it's not going to perform to that level. The Municipal Utility Association, we not only designed it to a high level, but they've been maintaining it and performing and making sure it runs at a high level."

There are already a number of LEED certified buildings in Iowa including Dubuque's National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium and also Davenport's Federal Courthouse revitalization. There are campus projects in Pella, Ames and Grinnell as well as a number of high profile new buildings around the state including the University of Iowa's new Hygienic Laboratory.

Tags: Africa architecture construction Energy/Environment global warming HEAT Iowa politics

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