BUILDINGS Magazine: A Zero Utility Bill Building

September 2011

You can read this article below, but there are two other ways to better see what it looks like online, in a digital version of the magazine: click here to browse the enhanced, rich media version from cover to cover: article is on pages 24-26, includes pop-out video, or click here to just see the article.

A Zero Utility Bill Building

One zero utility bill university is boldly pursuing off-grid for electricity, water, and sewer

By Jennie Morton

You wouldn’t expect to find a building of the future nestled in the hills of Iowa, but the Sustainable Living Center (SLC) is all about breaking the mold.

Commissioned by the Maharishi University of Management, the facility is a forward-looking project that draws from an “East Meets West” approach to sustainability. It is the first to integrate four separate building challenges: LEED Platinum, the Living Building Challenge, Building Biology, and Maharishi Vedic Architecture.

The result of combining ancient philosophies with the latest green technologies? A 6,900-square-foot building that’s off-grid for electricity, water, and sewer.

An Ambitious Plan
Since its inception, the Sustainable Living Center has evolved from an environmentally conscious project to one that minimizes its impact right down to the paint on the walls. Unlike other new buildings on campus, the design requirements were voiced by the faculty, students, and community members. While their first visions of the center were less far-reaching, the future occupants insisted on a building that teaches.

“Why off-grid? It’s never been done for a campus building as far as we know, and we wanted to demonstrate that it can be done,” explains David Fisher, director of the SLC and a university professor. “This is where the industry needs to go next, but they won’t do it unless they see it first. This will help to expand their vision of what is possible.”

One also doesn’t think of the Midwest as a hotbed for sustainable architecture, but it’s for this very reason that Maharishi University wasn’t thwarted. “Contrary to popular opinion, the Midwest is ideal for an off-grid building. It’s hard to imagine a place with more extremes with temperature, weather, and humidity. But if you can do it here, then you can do it anywhere,” Fisher says.

Overcoming Challenges
An intricately planned building of this magnitude requires an element of patience to temper unexpected complications. The first challenge was funding. Because the university was focused on another large project at the time, the SLC needed to secure funds from the onset. Once some excitement had been generated, the recession hit and stalled progress. Consequently, the center is being built in stages.

This economic reality may mean the building will go online without all the features required to be fully off-grid. However, the university remains optimistic. “Even short of the full goal, the building will compare favorably with, and even go further, than most green buildings,” says Fisher.

Conflicting opinions on green strategies were also a factor that had to be addressed to find consensus in the design. “People often have very sharp differences for the best way to go green,” Fisher says.

For instance, how does one determine whether in-floor radiant heating or a forced air system is the most suitable option when both reduce energy consumption? Fisher says many conversations like these were necessary to achieve the most optimal version of the building.

While the four challenges provided many options for sustainability, some produced a conflict of interest. For example, LEED honors recycled content, while Vedic Architecture supports the use of virgin materials only. The Living Building Challenge requires the protection or restoration of natural habits on the site, but only LEED specifies light pollution reduction.

“However, one reason for doing all four certifications is to try to be as inclusive as possible of different people’s ideas of what should be in a green building,” Fisher explains.

Another stumbling block came in the form of climate change, which impacted the center’s renewable energy output. “We discovered that the number of cloudy, wintery days with low temperatures and wind has increased more in the past 5 years than it has the last 20 years,” says Fisher. “We also found out that rainfall has gone up by 4 to 5 inches a year. We had to do some redesigning when we learned this.”

Creativity Yields Results
If you’ve assumed this progressive building is using cutting-edge or proprietary systems to get to its goal, you’d be mistaken. The university prides itself on using “state-of-the-shelf” technologies to prove that its goal can be achieved in the here and now with well-proven equipment and supplies, says Fisher.

This led to some out-of-the-box strategies to find solutions to common problems:

• “One strategy was instead of trying to make a building have a comfortable temperature at any humidity, we lowered the humidity. We know high humidity, whether cold or warm, makes people uncomfortable,” explains Fisher. “So we keep the humidity controlled with desiccant cooling, which actually provides a wider temperature range as a buffer.”

• Students drove innovation by insisting the amount of concrete in the building be reduced, so an alternative to cinder blocks had to be found. A nearby construction project excavated a ridge and the students saw the displaced soil as a resource. They ran a compressed earth block machine to compact the dirt into blocks. These became the thermal mass to help insulate the building and were also used for interior walls in classrooms and hallways.

• To negate any VOCs, even the paint on the walls has a biological origin. Earth plasters are mixed with sand and cow manure, paints have a powder milk base, and most pigments are derived from clays, minerals, or spices. “People today have a heightened awareness of what kinds of building materials are toxic or produce off-gassing,” says David Todt, vice president of expansion. “It’s important to demonstrate the kinds of techniques that will result in a more healthy building for people to work in.”

• To achieve zero-water status, extensive rainwater harvesting will be used and filtered with UV light for drinking water and toilets. All black and grey water will be processed in a septic tank and then by a peat moss system for irrigation needs.

Justifying the Cost
Though construction is still underway and anticipated to be completed within the next year, the final costs per square foot are projected to be $450. Fischer is quick to point out that while sizeable, the costs aren’t much higher than a typical LEED project.

Some have criticized the project as being twice as expensive as LEED, but those numbers are based on a certified project only, he says. Average costs for LEED Platinum projects are typically around $350 a square foot. The extra $100 for the SLC is balanced by the additional three certifications and the elimination of grid ties.

Given the high costs, Todt recognizes that the university’s commitment to sustainability won’t be easy for everyone to duplicate. “We know it’s not commercially feasible for everyone to do an off-grid building like we have,” Todt admits. “But this is a demonstration project – it makes a statement that this is the way we need to go in the future. If that means someone is doing a normal building and decides to go the extra mile with efficiency in one system, that’s what we want to help motivate.”

Fisher also stresses the benefits of grid independence. Calling the SLC a zero utility bill building, he hopes the building’s example will prompt others to think about a future that makes an off-grid facility a savvy move.

“We encourage others to keep in mind the effects of peak oil, climate change, and energy descent as you design your green building,” recommends Fisher. “You can have it all, and you can have it now. It’s just a matter of deciding if it’s worth it to you.”

Jennie Morton ( is assistant editor of BUILDINGS.

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2 Responses to “BUILDINGS Magazine: A Zero Utility Bill Building”

  1. The Iowa Source: MUM Sustainable Living Center « The Uncarved Blog Says:

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  2. Maharishi University of Management to open new Sustainable Living Center, a net-zero energy bldg « The Uncarved Blog Says:

    […] The Iowan: Sizing Up Small Towns: Rethinking Success in Rural Iowa: Fairfield Thinks Inclusively | BUILDINGS Magazine: A Zero Utility Bill Building | The Iowa Source: MUM Sustainable Living Center Share […]


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