Net Zero Water in Action

I was both honored and humbled to receive the Stormwater and Urban Watershed Development of the Year Award at the 2017 Iowa Water Conference on behalf of Indian Creek Nature Center.
What exactly, does net zero water mean, besides spending countless hours with a civil engineer on site design?

It means that the building and site were designed so that a) every drop of water that falls on the site, stays on the site, and b) throughout our operation, we use less water than falls on the site, over the course of the year.

A combination of native plantings (which don’t require watering), ponds, raingardens, and bioswales contain the water on-site. What was more difficult to predict was how much water we would consume, versus rainfall.

Four months into documentation, and we are doing well.

Month Water Used (gallons) Rainfall (inches) rainfall (gallons)  1 acre site
Dec-16 9,620.8 1.05 28,511.70
Jan-17 8,965.6 1.46 39,644.84
Feb-17 7,259.6 0.68 18,464.72
Mar-17 10,000.20 0.75 20,365.5


Live edge wood: celebrating the shape of nature

During a prairie restoration project, we had to cut a number of trees down that had grown up along a former fenceline. The farm fields had been planted to prairie in the 90’s, but they were still separated by a straight “treeline” edge. Such unnatural edges decrease the overall diversity of the species that live in the prairie. Instead of creating habitat brush piles and cutting firewood for maple syruping, we had the irregular log sections sawn on-site into 2″ thick boards.

We took the boards to a kiln. This allowed the wood to dry quickly, with minimal warping, and killed any insects in the process. The kiln recut and planed some of the boards for us to create 3/4″ live edge baseboard.


Volunteers took the bark off and sanded down the live edge to create a smooth finish.


A master craftsman from Ryan Companies than installed the baseboard. Lining up the live edge with the studs was a labor of love and caring.

Box elder is a soft wood with a short lifespan, and is not usually considered a top choice for craftsman. However, the beautiful red bands create a dynamic, rich hue in the room.
Box elder is a soft wood with a short lifespan, and is not usually considered a top choice for woodworking. However, the red bands create a dynamic, rich hue in the room.
Hackberry is also not typically a choice interior wood, but its pale color creates a unique offset to the blue wall.
Hackberry is also not typically a choice interior wood, but its pale color creates a unique offset to the blue wall.
Black cherry is more commonly used among furniture makers.
Black cherry is more commonly used among furniture makers.


Creating biophilia: the plant press

We harvested big bluestem grasses from the prairie and cattails from the wetland last fall.
Using 3/4″ plywood and buckets full of sand, we created a 4’x8′ plant press that dried the grasses flat over the winter.
We shipped the grasses to 3-Form, a company that presses organic materials into resin. The see-through panels that resulted are one of the ways Amazing Space merges nature and interior spaces.

Bringing the Beauty of Nature Inside

Working in a 1932 dairy barn, the boundary a modern structure typically provides between us and the environment is…fuzzy. Mice live in the walls. Fox snakes shelter on the silo stairs and bask in offices. Leaves blow in through open doors and insects sneak in through open windows. When our offices and programs move into Amazing Space next year, maintaining a close connection with nature while taking advantage of things like climate control and screens on windows, is challenging.

In Amazing Space we want to ensure guests are still connecting with nature, without subjecting them to water dripping on their heads and wasps landing on their papers. We also want to make sure we take full advantage of the additional space the new building provides us. Enter…the inside creek. It’s not a real creek. A real creek with flowing water was discussed early on during brainstorming, but we decided it would cause many of the same complications we experience in our existing building, as well as being unsustainable financially to maintain.IMG_20151118_113553010

A replica creek, on the other hand, could provide a marvelous guest experience on a number of levels. First, by filling it with models of the plants and animals that live in the Iowa waterways but our seldom seen, guests would learn more about the creek outside and make their nature experiences more meaningful. Second, the soft curves of the creek break up the angular building corners and hard planes of construction, creating a far more natural feel. Third, having the model underground provides a unique interactive element for all guests, without inhibiting people moving freely through the building during large events.IMG_20151120_092747440

Casting the creek directly into the floor was a challenge for both the designers and the contractors-most concrete and construction equipment is designed for right angles, but the team rose to the occasion magnificently. Eventually, the plywood will be replaced with glass, the void underneath filled with rocks and dirt, replica crayfish and mussels. In the meantime, the gentle curves of the “creek” running through the building remind everyone working on the site that this unique project is ultimately for the environment.


Amazing Space, November 2015

IMG_20151022_124547289Conduit has been run and water piping has been laid.

IMG_20151103_143710940Around the perimeter, both vertical and horizontal insulation (pink) provides a thermal break. During the winter, the insulation prevents cold exterior air from entering the building through the ground. The vapor barrier (yellow) protects the slab from ground moisture.


The rebar provides structural integrity to the concrete, tying it together and adding strength as external forces (tensile strength) pull on it in various directions over time. This will reduce the potential for the concrete to crack in the future.

IMG_20151105_072840967 The floor of the building being created. So much of what has happened to-date has taken place underground and will never be seen. This concrete will be directly experienced every day by guests.

Planting a bioswale, part 1

Walls are going up.
Walls are going up.
Septic system is nearly complete.
Septic system is nearly complete.

Amazing Space is progressing quickly, both above ground and underground. Three of the bioswales are complete. Finishing them early allows us to protect them with silt fence immediately and re-establish permanent native prairie in the same season they were initially disturbed. We started dormant seeding already to provide the seeds a natural cold, wet stratification and good soil contact for spring germination.

Planting the bioswale with a seed and sand mixture.
Planting the bioswale with a seed and sand mixture.

In a few days, the more traditional annual oat cover crop will be planted. If these warmer temperatures hold, they should establish roots yet this fall to protect the soil, and they will die back over the winter. The site will also be mulched, to protect the bare soil.

Prairie seed is expensive, and local seed is the best, so we have been busy collecting. Paper bags are better, but we didn't have any on hand when this culver's root presented itself.
Prairie seed is expensive, and local seed is the best, so we have been busy collecting. Paper bags are better than plastic, but we didn’t have any on hand when this Veronicastrum virginicum presented itself.

Because these are bioswales, they are designed to move water through them. While it will be a lot of water, it won’t be standing and puddling. The species we plant need to be able to withstand drought far more than they need to be able to withstand flooding. For this first round of planting, we used: common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa*), white wild indigo (Baptisia alba), river oats (Chasmanthium latifolium), rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), cream gentian (Gentiana flavida), sweet pearly everlasting (Pseudognaphalium obtrusifolium), grey coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), wild rose (Rosa arkansana), little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), late horse gentian (Triosteum perfoliatum), culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum),  purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), and narrow-leaved coneflower (Echinacea augustifolia).

wild coffee
Triosteum perfoliatum

As fall harvesting continues, so will the number of species we plant. For species that we don’t have a lot of already on-site, such as white prairie clover (Dalea candida) and rough blazing star (Liatris aspera),  we will purchase. Due to the support of Rockwell Green Communities, we also have a number of established plants started in the Butterfly Hoop House to transplant.

Butterfly weed ready for transplant.
 Asclepias tuberosa ready for replanting outside.

*It’s worth learning the Latin. I recently had a great conversation with a volunteer interested in helping us establish more pleurisy root on the property. Never having heard of pleurisy root, I had to do a bit of research to determine if pleurisy root was native (it is) and if it fit within our land management plan (critical to the plan, in fact).  I was also initially introduced to Triosteum perfoliatum as wild coffee, no Latin provided. I had to key that out in a guide book to find its Latin name, because what most people call wild coffee isn’t native here…

Indian Creek Nature Center’s Living Building Challenge

When I think about nature, the impact it has on me, and the relationship I have with it, I tend to think about the joy of being in nature, and that all-encompassing sensory experience that we can only barely begin to understand. But I suspect, if nature were to think about me, the relationship is less positive. I drive on paved roads; I put things in the landfill that will never decompose; some of the products I use leach toxins into the water; and, I predominantly burn coal for my electricity. Now, I also work full-time to care for the environment, I am making great improvements in the products I choose, and I am conscientious about my energy use. But that doesn’t change that homo sapiens are by far the most ecologically invasive, permanently destructive species on the planet-and I am part of that problem.

The solutions are often neither obvious or easy.  So I am thrilled to be part of Indian Creek Nature Center’s new construction project that is rising to meet the standards set by the International Living Future Institute’s Living Building Challenge. Not obvious and not easy (and my posts are likely to be far less frequent). But being on the leading edge of the green construction revolution will help us-all of us-live in better harmony with the environment and sustainably care for our natural resources.