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.

Daylighting and views

The Living Building Challenge sets a number of Imperatives for creating a sustainable building, and #8 is Civilized Environment. This recognizes that people are healthier, happier, and more productive if they have access to fresh air and daylight. For Amazing Space, the upper portion of every window is operable, allowing guests and staff to enjoy the fresh air and sounds of nature.IMG_20160422_081737035To maintain a continuous air and moisture barrier between the inside of the building and the outside, after installation the windows frames are sealed with an expandable foam, creating a water-tight barrier.

IMG_20160427_114329469_HDRThe U-Factor of a window measures the heat loss. The lower the number (on a scale of 0-1), the less warm air leaks out through the windows during the winter. Our U-Factor is 0.28, and contributes to our overall envelope of R-30. The Solar Heat Gain Coefficient of 0.27 is a measure (on a scale of 0-1) of how much solar heat the window allows into the building. The low SHGC will help keep the building cool in the summer. IMG_20160427_114336664_HDRThe 10th Imperative of the Living Building Challenge is biophilia, which focuses on designing a building that “includes elements that nurture the innate human attraction to natural systems and processes.” The viewscapes provided by Amazing Space take advantage of the existing natural woodlands to the north and prairies to the south. This is the view out of a newly installed office window.

Beescaping for Earthday

An apiary must be more than a wooden box in an ecological desert. The honeybee is imperiled not because we cannot make enough wooden boxes to house them in but because we are all too prolific at creating and maintaining ecological deserts. From the corn field in which we are unwilling to share space for milkweeds, to the  Kentucky bluegrass lawn in which we are unwilling to share space for clovers, our meticulously maintained monocultures create the ecological desert that cannot support bees and most other creatures. Save the bees, and we will be well on our way to sustaining the ecology of our planet.

These cedar top-bar style bee hives will ensure good pollination of the trees and plants. And honey!
These cedar top-bar style bee hives will ensure good pollination of the trees and plants. And honey!

For this earth day, I have the rare opportunity to celebrate our ecology and life by dynamically increasing the diversity of Indian Creek Nature Center-a place that has incrementally been making such positive changes since it started in 1973. The bare ground from the Amazing Space construction zone is ours to create a new sustainable ecology for both the wildlife and the people.

Alliant Energy employees volunteer to plant trees. The Lindens will be the dominant shade-producing trees for the driveway.
Alliant Energy employees volunteer to plant trees. The Lindens will be the dominant shade-producing trees for the driveway.

The foundations of a good landscaping plan:

  1. Relationship to place. All of the species selected are native to Iowa. This recognizes and celebrates the value of the natural ecology. Having evolved here, the species will be self-sustaining, able to handle Iowa’s harsh winters and summer droughts. They will support the wildlife that lives here.
  2. Relationship to people. From the linden trees that will shade the driveway to the New Jersey tea plants that border the walkways, the plants and trees are species well suited for urban landscaping. They were selected to demonstrate how native plants and trees can enrich yards, providing beauty, shade and pollination. They also have edible nuts, flowers, and fruits, creating a multilayered edible landscape.
  3. Relationship to plants. Nature is a mosaic of diverse vertical layers. The lindens will provide some shade for the sassafras and bladdernuts. Sunny areas will be dominated tallgrass prairie species. Taller plants will rely on shorter plants for support.
The flowers of a native landscaping plan support bumblees, butterflies and hummingbirds.
The flowers of a native landscaping plan support bumblees, butterflies and hummingbirds.

Amazing progress on Amazing Space

More ductwork arrives regularly. Often, ductwork inside a building is hidden above drop ceilings. In Amazing Space, we are deliberately leaving the ducts exposed. This helps guests understand the heating and cooling systems in the building, and allows us to highlight the natural beauty of the pine trusses and the integrity of the architectural design.


The glass walls and doors that invite people into the building and entice them back outside are being installed. With the exterior stonework finished and windows letting natural light inside, the biophilic beauty of the building is starting to emerge.


At same time the glass curtainwall system is being erected, the siding is being installed. The yellow insulation foam is being covered by the rich brown of the hardieplank panels.


Amazing Space is made of locally sourced wood and stone. Initially, lapped cedar seemed like a logical choice of siding to compliment the stone. Despite being a rot-resistant wood, cedar still follows a natural decomposition path over time. The cedar on our existing building is being destroyed by woodpeckers, as they dig out the insect larvae burrowing in the wood. In contrast, the hardieplank siding is made from cement board, has a 30 year warranty, and will last indefinitely. The longevity and low-maintenance of this material weighed heavily in its favor as being the more sustainable option.



What’s in a wall?

The sustainability of a building really comes down to a snug, well-designed envelope. The walls, windows, doors, roof and floor are what prevent cold air from escaping the building in the summer and warm air from escaping the building in the winter. A good envelope has a high thermal resistance, or R-value. This equals sustained low energy usage and low energy bills.

Ecobatts are an environmentally friendly replacement to traditional fiberglass insulation. With an R-19 value, they are part of the Amazing Space wall system that, when fully assembled, will provide a snug R-30 building envelope. IMG_20160311_131030713[1]

The bats are made of sand and recycled bottle glass that form a glass mineral wool. The mottled brown color reflects their undyed, natural origins. Even the binder is a renewable, bio-based material that is petroleum and formaldehyde-free.
IMG_20160317_132555563[1]On the interior of the walls, plastic is used before the sheet rock is installed to create a moisture barrier between the exterior wall and the interior of the building. The insulation is naturally mold-resistant and water doesn’t hurt it. The walls are designed to be water-proof, but anything can happen over time. Proactively designing a wall system with strong integrity against the elements is designing a building with a long life-span that is easy and economical to maintain.



Air and Moisture Barrier


This heavy plastic tent allows the exterior of Amazing Space to be heated so work can continue. And what’s up next is the air/vapor/moisture barrier. Exciting, right? And oh-so-critical. Modern buildings provide extraordinarily good air exchange and climate (that’s a euphemism for humidity, not just temperature) control systems, but those systems can only do their job if the envelope is snug. The barrier prevents exterior moisture from sneaking inside, rotting wood and creating mold issues.IMG_20160219_135818904

The roof is geting a similar treatment, to keep the rain and snow out.IMG_20160219_135626632

Enclosing the Building

After all, the enclosing of a building is really what sets a “building” apart from pavilions, porches, and other open-air structures.placing SIP panel

The last of the Structural Insulated Panels are placed.

plastic over windows

Plastic over the window and door openings allows the building space to be heated so work can continue throughout the winter.

cracks to be caulked

Cracks such as these will be caulked and sealed around the entire building to provide the R-30 insulating value. SystemWorks is commissioning the building to ensure details like these are addressed during construction.

internal rythm and light

The rhythm of the exposed trusses, and the natural daylight that will come through the upper clearstory window are starting to define the natural patterns and biophilic elements integrated throughout the spaces.

from the road
Amazing Space!

The Challenges of Creating a Living Building

At a recent Amazing Space presentation, a guest asked me what was in our contract with our general contractor to ensure that our Living Building Challenge goals are being met, and what the repercussions would be if the challenge wasn’t met.


As the project owner, our priorities are:

  1. Respect and integrate the Living Building Challenge throughout all aspects of the project. Achieve as many imperatives as the design team, construction team, and owner find feasible.
  2. All project team members are focused on quality customer service and high quality interactions.
  3. Nature and respect for the environment is held in the highest regard when making decisions.
  4. Be a true community project, by this community, for this community.IMG_20151208_122322189[1]

The Living Building Challenge provides a comprehensive framework for helping us meet those priorities. Our general contractor, Ryan Companies, and many of the larger subcontractors, were brought on as partners early in the process so they understood and took ownership of the standards set by the LBC. Products were preselected by the design team. We meet weekly, and sometimes daily, to address concerns/issues in a timely manner. There are a number of obvious places that may make it difficult to meet the challenge. A few that we are aware of:

  1. Our specification manual is 2.75” thick and details every single product and material used in the construction process. Given the thousands of materials used, and the need to review every product down to the chemical composition, a “standard” material may have slipped through the cracks (as the project manager, I haven’t read the whole thing yet).
  2. Our budget is limited. As part of this project, we allocated $1.4 million for sustainable and appropriate materials, above and beyond a “standard” construction product. Spending more than that would not be financially prudent, and a key part of organizational sustainability is financial.
  3. The long term performance of the project, from water usage calculations to energy usage calculations, from indoor air quality to annual rainfall, is based on estimated projections. They have been independently looked at, tested, and modeled, but they are just projections for a unique, ultra-sustainable, leading edge building. How the community uses the interactive space and how the weather shifts in the coming years will provide valuable information on how good our models were for the next project.IMG_20151124_103055115[1]

Ultimately, we would like the word “standard” to not have to be used when discussing building materials or stormwater management practices. The sustainable thing to do will have become the standard thing to do.  Building practices and material sources aren’t truly sustainable yet. Regardless of whether we meet all twenty imperatives of the Living Building Challenge, the framework set by the challenge and our early adoption will ensure that the building is as integrated and sustainable as possible, and that it will provide a valuable resource for architects, developers, contractors, and others for years into the future.

IMG_20151230_111904041 (1)