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Iowa City to Receive Habitable Mixed Media Art Installation from Moen Group

Housing | Art

SummaryIowa City is scheduled to receive another habitable art installation from the Moen Group. Constructed of mostly recyclable materials similar to those used in an Apple computer, such as metal and glass, the structure will reflect the sky and other natural surroundings. It will also reflect sunlight — creating a net gain of ambient light in the otherwise light starved downtown area.

About the Builder. The Moen Group is a community improvement firm that creates world-class architecture and also restores vital historic two-story properties in the Iowa City area to maintain historic integrity. [More…] In addition to being curators of quality architecture, they also give financially to support the arts and other charitable causes that advance the community.

ARTchitecture. Moen Group’s other works have been referred to as artchitecture, and their next mixed media on skyline project is much anticipated by those who follow their work.

“As a photographer, I’m usually looking to nature, landscapes, flowers, and sunsets for inspiration. I’ve often found myself taking photographs of the Moen Group architecture as it reflects clouds in the sky, a nuance of the reflected evening sunlit skyline, or even for its own intrinsic beauty of symmetry, patterns, colors, and textures. I think of their work as habitable art or artchitecture. Rather than simply taking up space and absorbing all available light like most buildings, the Moen Group creates structures that reflect their surroundings and increase ambient lighting.” ~ Greg Johnson, Iowa City Photography Artist

[Click here or above image for larger view of the Vogel Building.]

Funding. For the cost of construction, the City of Iowa City will donate a small amount of seed money (raised through a TIF) that amounts to pennies on the dollar for what will be received in return. The remaining cost of construction (about $11 million) and ongoing maintenance will be paid by the Moen Group.

City to Receive $2.5 Million Back Over 10 Years. Iowa City currently receives $23,302 annually in taxes from the existing property. The new structure will generate $234,792 annually in taxes, essentially paying back the $2.5 Million dollar seed contribution. So, the city will have lost nothing. In fact, over ten more decades, the property will generate $25 million for the city. [source]

Downtown Needs Boost. Downtown Iowa City continues to suffer from a slightly high turnover of businesses struggling to survive in a relatively low density area. Downtown Iowa City suffers from the same plight as a bedroom community, but it’s the other side of the coin. In a bedroom community, people only go there to sleep, but their work life and social life are somewhere else. In Iowa City, many people come to downtown for work or education, yet their social life and home life are elsewhere. Their only purchase might be a $5 sandwich or some beer. Bringing more full-time residents to the downtown area can change that. In this way, the financial return to the city and downtown retailers will be immediately realized as additional business and revenue is brought to the downtown area. For these reasons, many people believe a TIF is the right tool for the next Moen project. The financial return to the Moen Group will likely take much longer than the benefits returned to the city.

Public Support of TIF. Some people, who may otherwise support the project, are not sure if a TIF is the best method of supporting the project. [Source 1Source 2] Yet many people see the value of the project as a viable way to boost Iowa City’s downtown economy and view it as a worthy recipient of financial support through a TIF.

“Investing $2.5 million to get a return of $7.5 million over 30 years (a typical mortgage period) through taxes seems like an obvious choice. The city really can’t afford to pass on this opportunity and lose $25 million in tax income over 10 decades. Considering the success of the Moen Group’s previous projects, and the investments they have made in revitalizing Iowa City’s downtown area, they seem like a good choice to oversee the project.” ~ Greg Johnson

Creating Light by Day. For much of the day in downtown Iowa City, in the late afternoon, you just won’t see the sun in the western sky. The downtown Iowa City area has reduced light due to surrounding non-reflective buildings such as the Jefferson Building. For this reason, the downtown area misses much of the morning and evening light. The proposed structure, like others by the Moen Group, will be created using glass and would serve to reflect light in the afternoon; creating a brighter downtown public space. By reflecting sunlight, the building will create a net gain of ambient light in the otherwise light starved downtown area.

Light Art Sculpture by Night. By night, most buildings are dark and unattractive. With the Moen Group’s architecture, glass is used and lighting is attractively installed. Instead of peep-hole windows dimly dotting an otherwise drab institutional block surface, glass allows for illumination for those inside and outside of the building.

Urban Renewal. Urban revitalization is achieved by creating mixed use, low-impact, carbon-reduced, highly attractive livable downtown spaces. Such development reduces sprawl.

When Developers Live Where They Build. There’s a benefit to requiring that a developer live in the area they are developing. Of course, this almost never happens. Most developers build where they see profit opportunities. They don’t typically build with quality of life as a bottom line because they don’t plan to live where they develop. To them, development of homes or offices is the same as creating a factory. It’s purely a business decision. Noise, pollution, ugliness — these don’t matter to most investors. The end result is that profits are given a higher priority over quality of life. The Moen Group is different. The principals of the Moen Group live, work, and shop where they develop. This explains why quality of life engineering goes into all the buildings they create. The buildings are attractive and enhance the community by offering the diversity that comes with mixed use spaces.

When Developers Maintain What They Build. Normally a builder creates a poorly built structure then quickly sells it off for a profit with no regard to the cost of maintenance. Whether a house flip, or new construction, most builders see a short-term profit opportunity and don’t consider the long-term impact of what is being built. In this regard, the Moen Group is different. The Moen Group retains and manages their buildings. This explains why they are designed to be low maintenance and low cost. These efficiencies translate into lower carbon impact and greener designs.

Environmental Design. Moen Group projects offer a variety of environmental design benefits.

  • Carbon Reduction. Carbon reduction is accomplished through creating a livable downtown neighborhood that blends residential, business, and retail spaces. In this way, what would otherwise be year-round automotive commuting is replaced by pedestrian commuters who live and work in the same area. The reduction in noise, traffic, and automotive emissions is substantial.
  • Natural Light. Glass reflects light, but also provides natural light to residents and businesses, reducing lighting costs.
  • Low Maintenance. When buildings are constructed to be very low maintenance, this translates into reduced time, energy, and chemicals invested in cleaning, upkeep, and maintenance which results in lower carbon emissions.
  • Reduced Toxins. Smooth polished cement floors, glass walls/windows, metal surfaces, and concrete surfaces mean fewer materials used (such as carpet and painted walls) that might be sources of toxic off gassing for residents and the environment.
  • Walkable Communities. Walkable and livable communities are healthier and more balanced which generally leads to a reduction in crime, which reduces demand on law enforcement, which in turn reduces carbon emissions.
  • Non-Quantifiables. There are many other environmental benefits that aren’t easily quantifiable.
  • Small Footprint. The building utilizes a small footprint of land due to vertical development.

“In 2003, I worked with Jay Shafer of Tumbleweed Tiny House Company to build a 10′ x 7′ home. It was at that time possibly the smallest house in the world. I lived in the home for six years and wrote a book about the experience. Having a 70 square foot footprint was quite an accomplishment. I’ve seen the spot where the Moen Group plans to build a vertical village of 24 tiny homes. The footprint is impressively small and approximately equal to the yard surrounding my tiny 10′ x 7′ home. By going vertical, and allowing the village of homes to share common walls, hallways, and other facilities, they are achieving efficiencies exponentially better than what I was able to do. I applaud them.” ~ Greg Johnson, Author of Put Your Life on a Diet: Lessons Learned From Living in 140 Square Feet

Visually Dynamic Architecture Design. Most structures don’t change much visually throughout the day or year. Moen Group architecture is visually dynamic. Depending on the time of day (or night) and time of year, the architecture morphs in appearance.

The use of reflective surfaces such as light colored metal and glass allows for changes in the building surface.

Windows change color as they reflect surrounding light, clouds, and buildings.

Walls made of glass allow for changes of inside lighting to alter the appearance of the structure from the outside. This creates a structure with infinite possibilities in appearance. It’s a building that never looks the same twice. As shown in the example here (click to enlarge), the retailer in the lower level is creatively using lighting and bright paint to foster an inviting and uplifting feel to the space.

In this way, building residents can take ownership of the outside appearance of their building. These changes in architectural appearance create a more alive feel to urban areas and reduce the monotony that is harmful for mental productivity and health.

Transparency and Openness. Structures built with glass are the architectural equivalent to Facebook. We live in a society where people are increasingly choosing to interact with others. When living or working surrounded by glass walls, live is more expressive and interactive. We’re more aware of and responsive to our surroundings. Those living inside of visually transparent spaces enjoy a feeling of visual openness that reduces any sense of claustrophobia. Traditional architecture blocks human interaction and makes residents feel closed off from the world.

Smaller Living Reduces Per Capita Environmental Impact. Those who live in smaller spaces use and own less stuff. The average U.S. home is about 2400 square feet, and filled with things most likely made in China. To manufacture, ship, sell, and deliver all that stuff takes a toll on the environment. Not to mention maintaining (cleaning and repairing) all the stuff. There’s the extra part-time job (driving to and from) that’s required to earn enough money to buy and eventually replace all the stuff when it’s obsolete. The Moen Group is promoting simpler, smaller, and more sustainable living by providing 16 one-bedroom condos that are 662 square feet and eight one-bedroom condos of 1039 square feet. These are substantially below the current national average size home.

“As the president of the Small House Society, I believe smaller homes are an essential step toward a more sustainable world. I applaud the Moen Group for embracing the simpler and smaller model for the architecture they create. There’s a rising unmet demand for smaller homes and it’s inspiring to see a progressive mainstream developer leading the way. The fact is that technology has simultaneously gotten smaller, yet offers us more. As a result, we can live abundantly in smaller spaces without much sacrifice.” ~ Greg Johnson, President of the Small House Society

Fostering Community. Traditional apartments and multi-family dwellings are an efficient way for developers to squeeze as many renters into a space as possible. They are designed to maximize profits not to foster community. The Moen Group creates holistically balanced living spaces where people have opportunities to meet and interact. Such social-centric designs result in a higher quality of life. The Plaza Towers is a good example of this where one can find a restaurant, fitness center, grocery store, yoga center, and more all under one roof.


“Functionally, the Moen Group is similar to a community improvement organization that raises money through building and profitably utilizing world-class artistically designed architecture. A sizable percentage of the income generated from their various properties and investments goes back to the community. Any investment by the city, including a TIF, is likely to produce a fairly prompt and generous return in the form of taxes and other benefits. Investing in their work is likely the best investment the city can make at this time.” ~ Greg Johnson

Thanks. Many thanks to those who’ve taken the time to read this article and provide positive feedback. Below is a map showing some of the recent article readers. Click here or the map below for a large view.

By Greg Johnson

Greg Johnson is a freelance writer and tech consultant in Iowa City. He is also the founder and Director of the ResourcesForLife.com website. Learn more at AboutGregJohnson.com