Sustainable building design is the focus of a conference drawing more than 100 Iowa architects to Des Moines today. Rob Smith, president-elect of the Iowa chapter of the American Institute of Architects, says it’s vital to build structures based on "green" principles to save energy, money and the environment.

Workshops at the A-I-A meeting include "Get Off The Grid," which focuses on solar and wind power, and "Slow The Flow," discussing the use of rainwater as a water source for toilets. Smith says, one workshop called "Turn Out the Lights" details "how we can use the sun to light our buildings and our spaces using reflective shades and various devices along windows to bounce light across the ceiling and turn the lights off so we can use the sun to light the spaces when the sun’s out."

He says other presentations will range from long-forgotten ways to achieve affordable, sustainable design to the use of cutting-edge technologies. "It’s an exciting time to be an architect," Smith says. "One of the things is just remembering and learning what we know so well. People 500 years ago didn’t rely on energy and electricity. They stayed in their mud huts or their dwellings in the rocks and really knew how to use the sun and natural elements to heat their space."

Smith, an architect in Des Moines, says buildings are responsible for nearly half of all energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Smith says there’s a need to focus on integrating eco-friendly, energy-efficient measures in the design process, adding, building green doesn’t have to cost more.

"Green can be simply thinking about where’s the south side of my house and how can I let the sun in to heat my space?" Smith says. "You look at a lot of homes, the south side might have one window on it, just because it faces your neighbor, but certainly you can deal with high windows to bring that in and that doesn’t cost you anything." He says other sustainable techniques include the use of materials that contain recycled content, or water-conserving plumbing fixtures and a high-efficiency irrigation system.

When building or remodeling a kitchen, he suggests using a "green" countertop that’s made of recycled waste products, which he says are just as solid and beautiful as granite and aren’t mined out of the earth, but help to preserve it. The conference runs today only at the Hotel Fort Des Moines. For more information, visit the Institute website .