Stanley Center turning former library into Iowa’s First Living Building

Stanley Center
This artist rendering shows the exterior of Living Building the new Stanley Center for Peace and Security. CREDIT NEUMANN MONSON ARCHITECTS

MUSCATINE, Iowa – Bringing a closed, abandoned library building back to life is “what good looks like” and is a welcomed new chapter in downtown Muscatine’s revitalization.

The Stanley Center for Peace and Security, a Muscatine-based international non-profit policy and advocacy organization, has accepted the Living Building Challenge to renovate the city’s former library into its new headquarters.

This $10 million project not only brings economic growth to the region through hiring regional contractors and its use of locally sourced materials, but it also seeks to surpass the sustainable building practices addressed by most new construction projects today. The Living Building Challenge is one of the most rigorous and comprehensive programs in place today for sustainable design and construction. 

Neumann Monson Architects, Iowa City, and Graham Construction, Cedar Rapids, are leading a team of area construction trades partners to tackle this rigorous challenge.

“The Living Building Challenge is the most advanced and holistic framework for sustainable design performance areas. It really sets the highest bar for what good looks like in architecture,” said Erin Rovalo, vice president – Community Department, for the Seattle-based International Living Future Institute (ILFI). “The goal of having buildings like this is to have a net positive effect on the environment and for the people that occupy those spaces.” 

Neumann Monson Architects told the QCBJ that not many firms are willing to take on such a rigorous process like that of the Living Building Challenge. 

“Buildings contribute to roughly 40% of the carbon emissions in the world. There are many programs out there right now that try to lessen what we’re taking from the world and our resources. But the Living Building Challenge tries to do even better than that and give back,” said Sally Obernolte, associate principal, project manager at Neumann Monson.

According to Ms. Rovalo, when buildings are built to code, they’re doing the bare minimum for human health, safety, and protecting the environment. She says a living future is really a vision that encompasses all sectors of society and the buildings and spaces we occupy on a day-to-day basis should work to fight against climate change.

Challenge accepted

To the Stanley Center for Peace and Security, it was very important the construction of its new headquarters align with the organization’s mission and values. The building and site selected for its new headquarters was previously Muscatine’s Musser Public Library at 304 Iowa Ave. 

In 2017, the library relocated to 408 E. 2nd St. in the former headquarters of HNI Corp. That building and property, donated by HNI to the city, functions as the HNI Community Center and Musser Public Library. 

The building sits on a spot that once had a natural creek and today still has an underground storm sewer flowing below the center of the building. These factors and the constraints of adjacent properties posed considerable challenges for the Stanley Center and Neumann Monson Architects.

The building owner and architect both believe the Living Building Challenge would meet their needs. 

“It’s super exciting to think that by the end of 2022 we’ll be moving into one of the most environmentally sustainable buildings in the world,” said Keith Porter, Stanley Center’s president and CEO. “Renovating a building that has been used for learning and education for all those years is meaningful to us … it’s really just a win-win for us and the community.”

Once completed and certified as a Living Building, the Stanley Center headquarters will be the first ever Living Building in Iowa and one of only 30 such buildings around the world.

According to Mr. Porter, the Stanley Center thought it could do much more for the community by renovating the former library building, which likely would have remained abandoned for many more years. “We knew that the most environmentally sound building is the one you don’t have to build. So doing a renovation would actually help us meet many of our environmental goals as well.”

Bringing It Back To Life

The land at the intersection of Iowa Avenue and 3rd Street was given to the City of Muscatine by P.M. Musser in 1901. Muscatine’s Musser Public Library was located on the site from 1901 to 2018. The existing building – now being renovated by the Stanley Center – was built in phases in 1965 and 1972. In the early days of Muscatine, a small stream ran down the hill through the site which ultimately became an underground storm sewer.

As part of the Living Building Challenge goals, the Stanley Center will feature an outdoor courtyard with individual and meeting workspaces and an 850-square-foot community garden that will provide fresh produce to the neighboring foodbank. 

Inside the two-story, sun-lit atrium lobby, live trees will eventually grow. Living lettuce walls and plenty of other plant life will surround building occupants with a welcoming natural environment.  

Also, a centerpiece of the atrium lobby will be the Tree of Acknowledgement, a sculpture created from metal railings reclaimed from the former library to form the tree’s roots and trunk, and leaves cut from de-commissioned library books.  

The Stanley Center will use an array of solar panels and storage batteries to meet the building’s energy requirements as well as to put renewable energy back on the grid.  Rainwater will be collected and processed into potable water for the building.  Overflow from the water treatment system will run through an architectural river feature outdoors in front of the Stanley Center. 

Inside, construction to meet Living Building Challenge standards requires all building products be Red List Free.  The Living Building Challenge’s Red List represents the “worst in class” materials, chemicals, and elements – all known to pose serious risks to human health and the greater ecosystem. An extensive vetting process is being used to ensure that vendors, contractors, and all materials meet strict compliance to Living Building standards.

The ILFI maintains its Declare Label database of products and building materials pre-vetted to be Red List Free. The Declare Label helps manufacturers and builders alike get through the process with greater efficiency. 

Muscatine-based HNI Corp. – through its Allsteel and Gunlocke furniture companies – is working toward earning the Declare Label for the walls and furniture to be installed in the Stanley Center.

Andy Lown, superintendent for Graham Construction, with an eastern Iowa office in Cedar Rapids and a central office in Des Moines, told the QCBJ that the project’s biggest challenges actually had little to do with meeting Living Building Challenge requirements.  Mr. Lown said although the building was built as a heavy structure and built to similar design specifications, they had difficulty bringing in the size of equipment he preferred to make structural changes.

“The restraints to access on two sides of the building were the biggest challenges,” he said. “All of our construction trade partners have been flexible and willing to pivot to get the job done.”

Local sourcing is a key tenet of the Living Building Challenge.  As such, Graham Construction has worked hard to ensure work is done by local construction trades partners. 

Key Construction Trades Partners

  • Neumann Monson Architects – Iowa City
  • Graham Construction – 
  • Cedar Rapids
  • Diamond Cut Inc. – Davenport
  • Hawkeye Electric – Hiawatha
  • Heartland Finishes – Cedar Rapids
  • Hometown Mechanical – Davenport
  • TSF / Cedar Valley – Cedar Rapids

Living Building Challenge standards

The Living Building Challenge is the world’s most rigorous, performance-based building framework. It is made with Seven Petals which represent the highest levels of design and performance standards for how a building meets sustainability goals.  

These Seven Petals cover:  Place; Water; Energy; Materials; Health and Happiness; Beauty; and Equity.

In fact, the Living Building Challenge goes beyond what most sustainable building practices do.  A Living Building is defined as ‘regenerative’ by creating a net-positive for the world and its community. A Living Building adds renewable energy to the grid, it captures and treats rainwater for the building’s use, it avoids Red List chemicals in construction materials, it reduces landfill waste, it creates aesthetic beauty, it feeds people, and it fosters a positive environment for the health and well being of those who occupy the space.  

“A Living Building creates more energy and clean water. It is designed to restore balance and natural patterns, to give back more than is taken,” Shawn Hesse, ILFI senior director of special projects, told the QCBJ. “The world is better off because we built this building.”

Mr. Hesse said, of course, there is a perception that to do this it costs more money.  Most projects do reach the Living Building Challenge certification within typical cost-per-square-foot standards, and some have even come in under budget.  Projects with cost overruns, he said, typically are due to site-specific issues not because of the Living Building Challenge requirements.

For a building to earn the certification all construction standards must first be met. Then, the project goes through a 12-month proof-of-performance audit to ensure all 20 imperatives specified in the Seven Petals are achieved.

Neumann Monson’s Ms. Obernolte said the Stanley Center created an intentionally inclusive collaborative process. The team has managed the many facets of the project understanding how work in each discipline will affect another.

Once the building is occupied, Neumann Monson will help lead a team to ensure all systems move forward, documentation is managed, and all deliverables are met during the audit.  

“This is the most inclusive type project I’ve ever been involved with,” she added.  “The entire Stanley Center team created a collaborative environment with us and our construction partners. It’s who the client is and who we are. Everyone has rallied around the same goal.”  

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