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Sustainable Design in the Midwest: Challenges and Opportunities

May 25th, 2022 | 5 min. read

Sustainable Design in the Midwest: Challenges and Opportunities

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Sustainable design practices aim to reduce carbon emissions, minimize waste, and produce healthy environments. While the core objectives of sustainable design are the same across the globe, architects must adapt to local environments.

If you are starting a green building project in the Midwest, you will encounter both challenges and opportunities. The Midwest’s notoriously erratic climate makes it challenging to heat and cool buildings, creating unique design implications. However, the region also offers access to renewable energy and opportunities to connect occupants with nature. 

In this article, we will dive deeper into the challenges and opportunities you may face when you go green in America’s heartland, helping you better understand the design decisions your architect may present. 

Challenges of Sustainable Design in the Midwest 

The Midwest is known for its seasonal climate. Often, winters are frigid and icy, and summers are hot and humid. Day-to-day temperatures also rapidly change, especially in the spring and fall.

These temperature extremes create unique design challenges. The goal is to reduce carbon emissions while maintaining occupants’ thermal comfort. 

Reliance on Mechanical Systems 

Daily and seasonal temperature fluctuations mean many Midwestern buildings rely on mechanical systems for ventilation. In milder climates, mixed-mode buildings that feature both natural and mechanical ventilation are more common. 

However, care needs to be taken to reduce operational inefficiencies when introducing mixed-mode strategies in the Midwest. Large-scale buildings often need to be airtight to reduce energy waste. 

While this approach provides consistent interior temperatures, it gives occupants less control. Opening a window to enjoy a fresh breeze may be at the cost of energy efficiency.  

Some buildings feature sensors that notify occupants when to close windows. Such strategies provide thermal comfort benefits without sacrificing energy efficiency. These systems, however, often add a layer of cost and complexity to a project, making them less-than-ideal for some building owners.  

Moisture Control 

The Midwestern climate also creates moisture control challenges. Throughout the year, interior temperatures differ drastically from exterior temperatures. A warm, dry interior on a cool spring day can cause condensation in the building’s walls.  

Controlling moisture is another factor your architect will consider when making design decisions. 

Rain screen systems are one of the most common methods for managing moisture in Midwestern buildings. Thermal massing materials used in other areas of the country can limit the performance of your building.  

building using rain screen system

Rain screen systems are one of the most common methods for managing moisture.

Programming Implications 

The Midwest also presents some programming challenges. A “program” is an architectural document that outlines the spaces in your building and their sizing requirements.

When planning your program, you may have to consider certain programming elements. Since Midwestern buildings often rely on mechanical systems, you may need to allocate space to housing the system.  

You should also consider adding space for enclosed parking. While other parts of the country can take advantage of outdoor parking and carports, enclosed parking is more sustainably-minded when accounting for winter idle time and carbon emissions.  

Depending on your location, you might also consider adding a basement to protect against natural disasters like tornadoes.  

Opportunities for Sustainable Design in the Midwest 

Although the Midwest challenges some traditional sustainable design strategies, the region also offers many opportunities. Several Midwestern cities have made sustainability a top priority. 

Madison, Wisconsin, for example, aims to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2030. Iowa City, the home of one of our studios, has reduced carbon emissions by 45% from 2010 levels

Regionally manufactured products, access to renewable energy, and a pragmatic, forward-thinking ethos position the Midwest well for green design. 

Regionally Manufactured Products 

Local and regional products are key to sustainable design. Local production helps minimize carbon emissions, supports local communities, and allows for greater collaboration with product manufacturers.

Thankfully, many building materials and products are manufactured within the Midwest. Glass, concrete, lighting, and even certain types of lumber are produced in the region. Strategies like sustainable sourcing and embodied carbon reduction can be easier to implement in the Midwest than in other areas.  

Renewable Energy 

Renewable energy has been gaining momentum in the Midwest. The geography and sparser landscape allow for infrastructure like solar and wind farms. 

In Iowa, MidAmerican Energy is working to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. They estimate that 88% of the energy consumed by Iowa customers in 2021 came from renewable sources. 

Although Midwestern buildings often rely on mechanical systems, the availability of green energy makes this reliance more digestible and cheaper. 

Biophilic Opportunities 

The Midwest offers ample opportunity to implement biophilic principles. Biophilia refers to humanity’s innate connection to nature, and cultivating this connection is a staple of green building rating systems like the Living Building Challenge

Often stereotyped as flat, “flyover country,” the Midwest has a surprisingly diverse array of landscapes and views. Its historically agrarian culture lends to less populated environments and ample opportunities to connect occupants with nature. Additionally, its seasonal changes allow for a variety of outdoor activities and multipurpose interior spaces, like indoor courtyards. 

Learn More About Sustainable Design 

If you are undertaking a building project in the Midwest, prepare for a few challenges. Seasonal temperature changes can make it hard to introduce mixed-mode strategies. Instead, your building may need to rely on a mechanical system. At the same time, the climate may limit your material choices and add programming requirements. 

Despite the challenges, the Midwest is well-positioned to adapt to the changing climate. Regionally sourced building materials and access to renewable energy help reduce carbon emissions.  

The region’s landscape also provides opportunities to connect with nature. Even if you cannot open a window, you can still enjoy a nice view. 

To learn how you can integrate sustainable design strategies into your next building project, read about the most popular building certification systems