From conservation communities that minimize pollution from storm water runoff, to a development of homes that generate as much energy as they use, Greater Des Moines developers are beginning to prove that green home construction can sell.

Hubbell Realty Co. built its first “conservation community” in Grimes in 2006. Since then it has developed and sold conservation communities in Altoona, Carlisle and Johnston.  Hubbell expects to build and sell 225 conservation community lots this year. 

Recently, a team of designers and engineers put together plans for a development in Charles City where residents would return as much energy to the power grid as they consume and would have no carbon emissions. 

In this report, reporter Kent Darr takes a look at both projects and how the developers made them marketable.

A group of Greater Des Moines construction professionals hopes the future of homebuilding is playing out on an abandoned school site in Charles City.

That is where they are building what they believe will  be the state’s first net zero energy residential development, complete with a geothermal field that will keep every house in the project warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Structural insulated panels - two layers of composite board with rigid polymer foam sandwiched between - will keep the breeze out. Solar arrays feed the electrical needs.

Rain will trickle through permeable pavement, follow the six-acre site’s topography and seep into the watertable relatively free of silt and polutants. The development, called Parkside, is tied into Charles City’s storm water sewer system, but odds are that runoff will not reach it.

When all is said and done, residents of the Parkside development should give back to the utility grid as much as they take. Their net energy consumption should be zero and their carbon emissions should be zero.

“At first, I wasn’t sure how realistic the whole deal was,” said William Ludwig, whose William J. Ludwig & Associates Ltd. design is a partner in Parkside Development, L.L.C. 

But now he is a true believer. And that’s a good thing because Ludwig and his partners have their own nickels in this project. They don’t expect to make a lot of money selling 38 houses at a maximum of $150,000, although they will receive some utility tax credits.

Let’s say no one is in this  strictly for the money,  but the project had to work financially.  

“I wouldn’t say anybody here is an environmental activist,” said Mark LaCroix, whose KCL Engineering is part of the development group. “We’re doing this because we believe it is the right thing to do.”

LaCroix and partners believe that such projects can be money makers for developers and solve the housing needs for small communities.

“I would encourage any community of 1,000 to 2,000 population to take a look at this,” Ludwig said.

Parkside is an affordable income community that has been two years in the planning. It took root in a proposal that KCL Engineering, a 10-person firm whose home office is in the West Des Moines small business incubator, submitted several years ago for a net zero energy project at a military base in Texas.

That project didn’t go anywhere, but LaCroix, a mechanical engineer, and partner James Deeds, an electrical engineer, thought they were on to something.

So he planted the seed a couple of years ago with Charles City Administrator Tom Brownlow during a meeting about an electric-generating water wheel project on the Cedar River, which runs through town.

Brownlow, who had stirred some controversy in town when he convinced the city to replace aging streets with permeable paving as a way to control stormwater runoff, liked the idea, and suggested the abandoned elementary school site as a good location.

Ludwig, a former Des Moines city planner who has designed many of Greater Des Moines premier projects, including Glen Oaks in West Des Moines, the state’s first gated community, realized that catching the attention of the city administrator wasn’t enough.

Over a nine-hour period, he pitched the idea to elected officials, banks, homebuilders, real estate agents, the school board, the local community college and residents.

“It had to make sense to them or it would not work,” he said.

By the time the meetings concluded, “we thought the spirit was there,” Ludwig said.

In addition to a first-of-its kind residential development, potential homebuyers with incomes at 80 percent of less of the area’s median income could qualify for a forgivable loan that would cut $37,500 off the $150,000 purchase price.

It is estimated that about half of the city’s residents would qualify.

They also could receive up to $9,000 in tax credits for the use of alternative energy sources, LaCroix said.

The project features 10 side-by-side single-family structures that are surrounded by 18 standalone single-family homes. Each of the 38 residences will sell for $150,000.

Owners will belong to a homeowners association that, among other things, will pay for the cost of maintaining a geothermal field located under a park or common area, lawn maintenance and snow removal.

That geothermal field is one of the project’s unique features. It is not uncommon for individual residences to have the systems installed and some college campuses also used them to heat and cool individual buildings, but at Parkside, one field will feed all of the houses.

Dale McNair of A-One Geothermal Inc. in Earlham, said the whole-field approach is beginning to show up on the West Coast, but is not common in Iowa or the Midwest.

“This project isn’t going to have any emissions,” he said. “This is the way it’s going to be in the future.” McNair, whose company installed the geothermal unit at the Iowa governor’s mansion in Des Moines, is part of the Parkside Development group.

Developers also considered having a single solar array feed electricity to the houses, but that plan was scrapped in part because Iowa law requires individual residences to be metered. As a result, each house will have a panel of photovoltaic solar cells supplying electrical needs. Excess energy can be fed onto the main power grid during times of low usage, such as during the day.

Wind power also was considered, but was thought to be impractical in an urban setting, said electrical engineer Deeds. The houses are constructed using structural insulated panels that are 8-feet wide and 30-feet long. They create an air-tight envelope and can withstand winds up to 200 mph. In addition to their strength and efficiency, the panels cut construction time and allowed completion of Parkside’s model home in three to five weeks.

Parkside houses will not have basements. The ability of the panels to withstand high winds is a key consideration in Charles City, where an F5 tornado struck in May 1968, claiming 13 lives and causing an estimated $30 million in damage.

LaCroix said a storm shelter approved by the Federal Emergency Management Administration is planned for a community center.

All of these features seem to make sense for homeowners, but what about the builders?

For one thing, this group of investors benefits by being both developer and homebuilder. Costs are not passed along from one sector to another. For example, McClure Engineering is part of Parkside Development. The firm is doing the excavation work, a cost that typically would be paid by the developer, then passed along to the homebuilder and, eventually, to the homebuyer, Deeds said. “We’re an integrated group,” he said.

And the group has cost efficiencies by purchasing materials, such as the structural insulated panels, in bulk, he said.

The members of Parkside Development believe they have come up with a way to develop a housing project that will catch on across the state and the Midwest.

Stewart Realty in Charles City is marketing the project. In an initial survey of whether residents would be interested in buying a house in the project, 80 people answered “yes.” To date, 10 lots have been sold, LaCroix said.

The sales suggest to LaCroix that Parkside Development has touched a nerve.

It might also turn heads. The business is working with the Iowa Economic Development Authority to find a way to buy an electric vehicle that would serve as the Parkside community’s second ride, “rather than everybody having their own second car.”