From the Ground Up, Green Buildings Shine

The headquarters of HNI in Muscatine, Iowa, environmentally designed by OPN Architects.

The headquarters of HNI in Muscatine, Iowa, environmentally designed by OPN Architects.

Iowa City, IA – In 2006, OPN Architects of Cedar Rapids worked with Gensler to design a full renovation of an abandoned 1920s-era building in downtown Muscatine to serve as the corporate headquarters of HNI, the world’s second-largest office furniture manufacturer. The floors are recycled, the urinals are waterless and a highly efficient heating and cooling system delivers climate control at a reduced cost.

In recognizing the need for additional office space, HNI seized the opportunity and upgraded to an environmentally certified building, while maintaining its downtown Muscatine presence. The company has set a corporate goal of achieving sustainability in all its facilities and felt its new headquarters was the best place to start.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that homes and businesses account for nearly half the total energy use in the United States and 38 percent of carbon dioxide emissions. The average home emits twice the greenhouse gases of an automobile. The recycled HNI headquarters consumes 10 percent less power than the company’s previous building of a similar size.

“Our building has been a tremendous success story,” said Glenn Stelzner, HNI’s corporate facility manager. “We’re getting a lot less complaints from employees about air quality due to the use of non-toxic materials in our new building, and the natural lighting is great.”


Natural lighting help illuminate the interior of HNI's headquarters.

Natural lighting help illuminate the interior of HNI’s headquarters.

Constructing a high-performance green building requires taking into account the entire life cycle of a structure, from design to removal, often referred to as cradle-to-grave. This philosophy considers location, surroundings, construction materials, energy consumption, indoor air quality and environmental impact.

To codify the relationships among these concepts, the non-profit U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), a sustainable building practices group, unveiled its Leadership in Energy and Environment Design, or LEED, certification program in 2000.

The program awards points for reaching benchmarks in six categories, such as water efficiency and indoor environmental quality. A project requires at least 26 points, out of a possible 69, to qualify for the lowest of four levels of certification, starting at basic and continuing through silver, gold and platinum.

Since its unveiling, LEED has stood as the standard for the design, development and operation of environmentally conscious buildings.

En route to earning a LEED silver certification for the HNI headquarters, OPN diverted 75 percent of construction waste from the landfill and optimized the use of daylighting, with 78 percent of the building receiving natural light.

Utilizing building placement to take advantage of natural lighting, sun light and shade are keys to designing a LEED certified building.

Inside HNI’s headquarters.

“LEED made sustainable design comprehensible and quantifiable to the public,” said architect Steve Knierim, of OPN. “The program opens the door to have extended conversations with clients regarding sustainability.”

While the technology behind the program may be state-of-the-art, many of the concepts are based upon architectural practices in use for decades. Sanjay Jani, owner and lead architect at AKAR Design in Iowa City, said he has combined elements of nature and beauty in construction design since 1991.

“Green should just be common sense,” said Jani. “If you position a building to take maximum benefit of sun and shade, that saves so much without using any alternative energy solutions.”

Green architecture takes the core elements found in the LEED program and adds functionality for occupants, while paying attention to aesthetics that will combine nature, beauty and sustainability into a financially affordable structure.

A LEED-certified building can be completed for about 2 percent more in upfront costs than standard construction practices, according to a 2006 study by Davis Langdon, a construction cost-planning and management company.

Certain green upgrades are initially expensive. The cost of a geothermal heating and cooling system, which taps into the constant temperature of the earth’s subsurface, is two to three times more expensive to purchase and install than a conventional one. Yet such a system pays for itself in about seven years.

While much of the LEED program is straight forward, some have complained that points awarded for certain green practices don’t match their costs or benefits. A photovoltaic solar energy system, that can produce electricity, for example, starts at around $40,000. This currently earns the same number of LEED points as installing a bike rack.

The system may not be perfect, but the LEED program has been instrumental in bringing attention to sustainability in the commercial building and real estate markets.

Green architecture’s leading advocate in the United States is the federal government, which uses LEED specifications for all new construction projects and sustainable upgrades.

“Architects have partly gotten on board because the government is one of the biggest consumers in the country,” said Tony Nash, an architect with AKAR Design. “If your firm is LEED-certified, it gives you a leg up on the competition.”

The LEED-certified James Van Allen Elementary School in North Liberty, Iowa.

The LEED-certified James Van Allen Elementary School in North Liberty, Iowa.

All the architects at Neumann Monson Architecture in Iowa City are LEED-certified. They designed the James Van Allen Elementary School in North Liberty, the first LEED-certified public school in Iowa, earning enough points to reach the silver level.

“We relish the challenge of sustainability while being aesthetically pleasing,” said Scott Palmberg, an architect with Neumann Monson.

Meanwhile, some homebuilders are trying to educate consumers about available green technologies and the wisdom of up-front investments in energy-saving home improvements.

The intention is to establish a market value for green-certified homes and businesses, analogous to Consumer Reports’ ratings of automobiles.

With LEED, “we are changing the focus to where it needs to be and keeping the focus throughout the planning, building and finishing process,” said Neumann Monson architect Chris DeGroot.

The Vedic Way

An architect's rendering of the Sustainable Living Center at Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa.

An architect’s rendering of the Sustainable Living Center at Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa.

In Fairfield, home to the Maharishi University of Management and center of the Transcendental Meditation movement in the United States, modern green-friendly practices have been combined with an ancient building method originally found in India’s Vedic architecture to create buildings and residential neighborhoods that are highly energy efficient.

Vedic architecture focuses on a building’s orientation, proportion and room placement so it is in line with the progression of the sun and takes maximum advantage of the heat, shade and natural light.

“Maharishi Vedic architecture looks at designing buildings that are in harmony with natural law,” said Jonathan Lipman, a leading Vedic architect and director of the Institute for Maharishi Vedic Architecture in Fairfield.

Properties in the Abundance Ecovillage draw their electricity from wind and solar, and use as little as 100 kilowatt-hours per month. A similar-sized conventional home in this area uses about 10 times that power for the same services.

“Once people build homes based on their needs instead of about ego or image they will make more intelligent housing choices,” said Dal Loiselle, founder of Evergreen Homes and Development in Fairfield. “I can build a house now for the same price as before but it costs one-third to run if using green.”

Buildings in North America contribute over 2.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere yearly. The construction of green-based housing and retrofitting of older homes could save 1.7 billion tons of CO2 annually, according to a new report from the Montreal-based Commission for Environmental Cooperation. The Green Building Council estimates that by 2010 approximately 10 percent of commercial construction will be green.

“We may have gotten on the bandwagon late, but they didn’t account for the resiliency of nature,” says developer Loiselle. “Once you stop negative actions, the bounce back is dramatic.”

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Part of a special report entitled, Degrees of Green: Exploring the State of Iowa’s Environment.

Published by:  The Daily Iowan | 05-02-08

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