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Johnson County conservation building “LEEDs” by example

F.W. KENT PARK– “If we can’t live by example, then we’re not fulfilling our mission,” said Johnson County Conservation Director Harry Graves, as he showcased his department’s new headquarters building at Kent Park.
The almost 13,000 sq. ft. building houses conservation staff offices and shop facilities in what Graves describes as “about the greenest county building.” Going green wasn’t negotiable, as far as Graves was concerned.
“It’s the right thing to do.”
The Conservation Board decided they wanted to “do everything we could to make it green.”
The structure, which was completed in March of this year, replaces an office/shop building built in 1970. The original building was constructed as a maintenance shop and subsequently added onto three times. It has since been returned to a garage to house equipment.
“It was very cramped quarters, the air quality in there was zilch,” Graves said of his former digs. He added that the County’s insurance inspector didn’t like the old facility due to a host of air quality and safety concerns. Despite having outgrown the building, Graves did like one feature of the converted shed.
“It was a warm building in the winter,” thanks to a hot water heat system he and his crew kept patched together. With a new roof and siding, it looks better than it ever has, he said. However, Graves said the building’s capacity was maxed out, with 12 regular employees crammed into it, and seasonal workers needing room to work.
In 2005 or 2006, Graves said the Conservation Department and the Board of Supervisors started talking about a new facility. In 2008, the Board approved a bond issue for a new County Conservation headquarters and shop building, but two snags slowed the project.
“There are 1,082 acres of land in Kent Park and next to no flat spots,” Graves said of what he described as “second rate broken topography.” In other words, preparing a site for the building would be a challenge. Then, “there was the unpleasantness of December 2008,” he said referring to the general financial crisis. However, in the end, Graves said, it was a blessing in disguise as construction began in April of 2009.
Apex Construction of Iowa City was the low bidder on the project, with a total bid of $1,915,000 divided into $1,043,675 for the headquarters building and $871,325 for the maintenance facility. When all was said and done, however, the project came in under the bid amounts, at $1,112,000 and $808,736 respectively.
Both structures are connected in a way that pressurizes the administrative areas, helping to keep vehicle and equipment exhaust out. An exhaust diverter system is also used to cut down on the fumes which permeated the previous facility.
“We’ve got the room to work and we’re grateful,” said Graves.
Graves noted his staff’s ability to make or fix anything. Well, almost anything.
“They can’t fix the crack of dawn, or mend a broken heart,” Graves said with a smile, “but they can do anything else.”
The facility is built of structural insulated panels; essentially expanded Styrofoam sandwiched between chip board, making sturdy and well-insulated walls. Windows are triple pane and the most efficient the department could buy. A computer monitored geothermal system heats and cools the structure and provides radiant heating in the shop area. While the initial investment in the geothermal system is expensive, Graves pointed out over time it will have a tremendous payback.
Occupancy sensors control lights throughout the building, and plumbing fixtures like the toilets are low volume/high efficiency, dual-mode. Waste products are flushed to a septic tank. In the tank, solid materials settle out while the liquid is routed through wetland cells where the roots of plants, soil and rocks purify the wastewater.
Another unique feature is a safe room built into the center of the building for use as a storm shelter– a safety feature for staff, and a potential refuge for campers.
Recycled materials abound in the building and can be found in such things as Dakota Burl paneling which utilizes agricultural fiber bi-products, in this case sunflower hulls, to create unique cabinetry, as well as ECO Consentino counters and work surfaces made from crushed bits of porcelain, glass, ash, mirrors and stone scraps held together with a corn based resin.
Graves said the cost of the recycled material was comparable to more traditional products and noted the cost is continually coming down.
As often as possible, materials were brought in from within a 500-mile radius to further green the project by reducing the amount of transportation necessary.
The efforts paid off not only from an environmental standpoint, but also as points toward LEED certification.
LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, and was developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) in an effort to encourage and facilitate the development of what they call “sustainable buildings.” Projects are awarded different levels of certification (Certified, Silver, Gold and Platinum) based on a scoring criteria. By achieving 42 documented and approved points, Gold certification was awarded on July 14 of this year.
“This is the most decorated of the County buildings,” Graves said proudly. “The end result was worth the wait.
“We practice what we preach, we don’t just wear it on our shirts.”