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The Corner of Green and Main

Sherman Hill, Des Moines


A Des Moines Visionary Builds a Model
for Preservation, Conservation, and Choice

Story by Linda Mason Hunter, images provided by Indigo Dawn/Silent Rivers Design+Build

A nation that forgets its past has no future 

Winston Churchill (1874–1965)

Chaden Halfhill stood on a shady Des Moines residential street in 2005, looking across at a lone, boarded-up, decrepit commercial building. The circa-1915 structure’s modern features included peeling paint, dark wall paneling from the ’60s, a drop ceiling from the ’70s, and electrical and plumbing systems as old as the building itself. An absence of gutters had allowed water for years to seep through the foundation into the basement, polluting the air with a pungent, musty smell.

“It was a rundown, neglected, leaky old building held together with mediocre repairs — a far cry from anything anyone with sense would be interested in owning,” Halfhill recalls with a laugh. Still, the bones were good, he surmised, the general structure sound.

He pondered the possibilities for months before actually purchasing the dilapidated property for less than $95,000.

Halfhill, a former sculptor turned green builder and owner of Silent Rivers Design + Build and Indigo Dawn Development, christened it the “Green & Main Pilot Project,” for it would become, he imagined, a model — a 21st-century bricks-and-mortar manual, a paradigm-shifting set of best practices marrying historical preservation, sustainable design, and community connection.

The Heritage of Place

When Lloyd K. Hulett opened the first self-serve grocery store in the capital city’s bustling Sherman Hill district in 1933, he understood the formula for commercial success. The location was ideal — on a streetcar line in a walking neighborhood near its busiest intersection. Sitting on the corner of 19th and Center Streets, the sturdy 5,000-square-foot masonry building had a wide entrance, a cavernous basement excellent for storage, an open 1,600-square-foot room at street level, and three pint-size rental apartments upstairs.

Two large display windows allowed passersby on foot or in streetcars to marvel at the decorative displays of canned goods and fresh produce assembled to entice. Not sexy by today’s grocery standards, but Hulett’s neighborhood store was practical and efficient — just what was needed in the early years of the Great Depression.

“It was the heyday of the corner grocery,” says John Zeller, local research historian. “Every neighborhood of 1,000 people could support one.”

In the back of the store two butchers in blood-splattered aprons sliced fresh cuts to order. Hulett stood behind a polished maple counter, crushing out his cigarettes on the wood plank floor beneath his feet, ringing up sales on an ornate brass cash register with a hand crank and a bell that rang each time the money drawer opened.

Some customers simply signed for their groceries. “Regular customers had running accounts,” explains Zeller. “The grocer kept track and mailed invoices at the end of the month. If you paid your bill, he sold you groceries.”

Today, 80 years later, many Iowa towns harbor one of these small commercial buildings — once upon a time a bank, a cafe, a tavern, a grocery store — but it often sits dilapidated, unloved, and unused. Renovation can cost more than building from scratch, leading to demolition. Those that don’t meet the wrecking ball are sometimes “remuddled” beyond recognition.

“Much of Iowa’s architectural heritage exists in small communities and Main Streets,” says Michael Wagler, state coordinator with Main Street Iowa, a division of the Iowa Economic Development Authority (IEDA). “These buildings help define the history and mystique of a place. While every old building isn’t itself a historic landmark, it is the collection of these structures that makes up our link to the past. Our built environment is irreplaceable. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

LEEDing by Example

After assembling a team of experts, Halfhill spent five years studying the Sherman Hill site (before, right), researching the neighborhood, and hammering out a plan. In the evenings he wrote grant proposals describing not just sustainable design (including a green roof, rain wall and rain garden, geothermal heating and cooling, passive solar and natural ventilation, the latest water collection and filtration technologies) but also a state-of-the-art classroom. The refurbished building with a renewed connection to the neighborhood (its first tenant will be a birth and wellness center) would welcome visitors to tour and learn. Green & Main, when complete, would demonstrate best practices in every green discipline — site impact, energy efficiency, resource management, water conservation, and indoor air quality.

“When this is finished, we can leverage the success of this project nationally and help position Iowa as a leader,” says Halfhill.

Indigo Dawn broke ground in September 2010 amid a heavy downpour — a fitting scenario for a renovation project heavily defined by water management.

By October 2011 permeable pavers covered the parking lot, allowing water to be absorbed rather than being diverted to the storm sewer. Behind the building a bioswale — a sloped drainage channel planted with native vegetation — can manage seven inches of rain (the 100-year flood level), trapping silt while the root systems of prairie grasses carry water deep into the ground to filter pollutants. A 1,492-square-foot roof planted with 50 different sedum varieties can handle more precipitation. Eight wall-mounted storage tanks collect rainwater to use to wash off the parking lot and, when necessary, water the green roof.

“Green & Main is a great example of a site where they have worked hard to keep the water where it lands on the property,” says Jennifer Welch, an urban conservationist with the Polk County Soil & Water Conservation District. “Otherwise, rainfall runs off streets, rooftops, and yards and picks up pollutants as it flows into the storm sewer and into our rivers, causing water pollution and flooding.”

Geothermal heating and cooling comes from eleven 300-foot-deep wells. Sixteen solar panels on the roof will provide 20 to 25 percent of the building’s electrical needs. Daylight from a large skylight and multiple clerestory windows fills the interior, reducing the need for electricity. The green roof provides natural insulation. Low-density spray foam insulation was added to interior walls, creating a thickness that could support a second layer of windows inside the originals. Halfhill estimates the completed Green & Main Pilot Project will be 76 percent more energy efficient than current national building standards.

During deconstruction the crew meticulously collected materials from the original structure for reuse — from floorboards, double-hung windows, and existing fixtures to metal pipes, lath, concrete, and asphalt. They salvaged materials from razed buildings — floorboards from the school gymnasium in Cambridge, glass-block and crystal doorknobs from a building on the east side of Des Moines, structural 2x10 lumber from a garage in Sherman Hill, 1x6 shiplap lumber from Iowa barns (used for the subfloor), 8x8 barn beams (used for posts in the car port and solar arbor).

“Salvage and recycling efforts on the Green & Main site will divert 322 tons of recyclable construction and demolition debris from the landfill,” says Jim Bodensteiner, who oversees the DNR’s Solid Waste Alternatives Program (SWAP).

With a holistic approach to sustainability, Halfhill is aiming for the highest green renovation certification available: a Platinum rating from Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED).

À la Carte Renovation

An original cost projection of $2.2 million has grown to $2.35 million, a price tag out of reach for most small-town builders and developers. (Site plan at right, right-click to enlarge.)

“Costs can be a major roadblock,” says Sam Erickson, who as Vice President of Community Housing Initiatives (a statewide nonprofit) gets a half-dozen calls a week from communities interested in renovating buildings like Green & Main. “It’s more expensive and it’s more trouble, but someone has to be first to take a chance and have a vision.”

The average builder/developer wouldn’t have near the expenses of the Green & Main project. “Any replication would be streamlined, carefully considering cost versus value,” advises Halfhill. “For example, don’t do a green roof if your building doesn’t support it. Our green roof cost $21,000, plus $60,000 to change the structure to support it. I happen to like the green roof a lot. We’ll see how it performs. But if I were looking at it from a numbers standpoint, I wouldn’t have done that. If you’re going to do this kind of rehab, these are the things you have to consider.”

Things such as geothermal heating. Green & Main uses six different heat pumps. Using only two might not make the building as energy efficient, but that choice would save $40,000. Money could be saved on landscaping and parking as well. Installing permeable asphalt or permeable concrete is less expensive than pavers, which were chosen to match the character of the neighborhood. That required more digging, creating a gravel base.

“Chaden’s project is unique,” says Wagler. “He’s taking it a step further by documenting the process in a better practices manual, including lessons learned. That will be a wonderful education tool. We’ll be able to see the effect a green roof has on storm water practices, for example, or quantify the benefit of porous paving on the parking lot. Having a pattern book will enable a property owner to choose from a menu of options. Even if they implement only one or two or three of the options, it will truly increase the building’s sustainability by that much.”

Interlacing the Future

In January the project ran out of available cash. Halfhill laid off his administrative staff, leaving a skeleton crew of two. The building stands empty, the interior walls framed with reclaimed lumber from the Des Moines Animal Rescue League. Windows are stripped of lead paint, rebuilt, reprimed, and reglazed. Four steel I-beams support the weight of the green roof, which can weigh as much as 27 pounds a square foot when saturated with rain. The shell for a two-story, 1,100-square-foot passive solar addition is ready for windows and roof.

Even as a work in progress, the building is already being used as a classroom. “It’s a great opportunity to show how we got to where we are,” says Halfhill. “On Earth Day [April 22, 2012] we had 12 [visitors] go through the building. It wasn’t just DOE [Department of Energy] and historic preservation representatives in the crowd. It was people from the cultural community and water conservationists and environmentalists. It was a great opportunity to illustrate for a diverse crowd how their separate areas of focus converge in this one project — how this sort of rehab is truly holistic. They can begin to weave the story together, to see the connections and learn to collaborate. They’ve never done that before.”

As he pursues financial support to finish the project, preaching to prospective funders the gospel of a triple bottom line (not just financial cost but also environmental and social impact), Halfhill ponders the irony of this Depression-era corner grocery store being reborn during what has been called “the Great Recession.” As then, it’s now a tough economy — and a time of great transformation.

“We’re experiencing a sweeping paradigm shift all over the country. People want to make a difference and they’re demanding change. Even conservative banks don’t give us the cross-eyed looks we used to get five years ago when talking about green building. One day this type of rehab will be financially feasible. We’re paving the way to show it can be done. It comes with this burden of dealing with lots of different parts. But,” Halfhill sighs and shrugs his shoulders, “someone built the first strip mall. I’m sure the numbers didn’t work then either.”

connecting to community

When complete, the Green & Main Pilot Project will be a mixed-use property. The downstairs will house a women’s wellness center, bringing people into the neighborhood and heart of Des Moines during the day for appointments. Community groups will be able to utilize Green & Main’s classroom space in the evenings.

An upstairs rental apartment will respond to housing needs in Sherman Hill’s high-density urban neighborhood — a mix of apartments, duplexes, single-family homes, and businesses.

by the rules

Historic preservation dictated several design decisions. The 1,100-square-foot addition with large south-facing windows to draw light and heat matches the original architecture in materials, scale, and proportion but is built to the rear of the structure so it does not detract from the historical character of the facade. Similarly, the green roof was designed so plants cannot be seen from the street.

Windows presented one of the biggest challenges. Existing single-pane double-hungs did not meet the insulation value necessary for the project’s energy efficiency goals, but they could not be replaced because of the historic value they contribute to the building’s character. Considering these seemingly conflicting goals, it was decided to treat them as storm windows and add a second, energy-efficient, operable window behind them on the interior. These efforts, along with the restoration of the original brick and the addition of awnings, will complete the historic look of the facade.

main events

Marrying historic preservation with sustainable building isn’t new to Iowa’s main streets. The town of Woodbine (population 1,564) [from 2010 census] in western Iowa recently rehabbed 23 storefronts in its historic three-block Main Street district. In northeast Iowa 60 historic structures in downtown West Union are in the process of reconstruction. The project most resembling Green & Main is the recently completed rehab of the Valley Junction City Hall (winner of Preservation Iowa’s 2011 Sustainability in Preservation Award) in West Des Moines. It includes a menu of sustainable technologies, including geothermal heating and cooling, energy-efficient lighting, solar roof panels, a green roof, water-conserving fixtures, and salvaged and recycled materials.

Additional photos courtesy Perry Struse, and ©catnap72/iStockphoto/Thinkstock
Illustrations/Renderings by Steve Wilke-Shapiro, Ryan Peterson, and Tony Holub (2)

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