Hawkeye Community College's revolutionary program makes difference in construction landscape

Sustainable construction site at Williston Field in Waterloo posted on Friday, March 10, 2023 in  College News

WATERLOO — Building science is the future of the construction industry.

And you can study energy efficient housing by enrolling in Hawkeye Community College’s sustainable construction and design program to help build “net-zero energy homes” from start to finish.

In two years you can earn an Associate’s of Applied Science Degree in sustainable construction and design.

“The guys who dig the holes and pour the footings will put the last piece of trim on after starting from nothing but grass,” said Ben Strickert, an instructor from Jesup.

“Net-zero” or “high performing” houses entail a renewable energy system that offsets most or all the home’s annual energy use,

“The only way to get to net zero is to have some sort of alternative energy,” said Craig Clark, an instructor from La Porte City. “That’s typically solar in our area. We can’t really have a wind turbine out here.”

In addition to solar panels, which students help install, the program promotes the use of insulated concrete forms — nicknamed “styrofoam blocks” — that contribute to the larger mission of establishing air tightness.

“Instead of just wood frame in a house, ICF makes it really air tight because we don’t have all these seams in the plywood, and then thermal mass plays into it,” Strickert said. “The thermal mass of the concrete that the house is built out of – clear up to the roof line from the footings down to the hole – is like a big battery. Once you warm that mass up, it holds that temperature for a lot longer period of time. That’s one of our big teachings.”

The sustainable construction and design program was established a decade ago and has evolved. It’s a first of its kind in the area.

The program started with less than 10 students and has doubled in size. It’s always had hands-on training, but not always home construction like it offers today.

Chris Woods of Fairbank was part of that first cohort in 2013, graduating in 2015. Since then he has worked at his family’s construction business.

If the program had not been added, the Wapsie Valley High School graduate would have studied civil engineering, the only program related to construction at the time.

He’d learned a lot from his father about building science, but was able to take his skills to new heights through the sustainable construction and design program.

“My father hadn’t had the time to dive into it as deep as we did at Hawkeye,” said Woods. “The building science and energy auditing really gave us a whole other understanding of how we’re building and what we can do to build more energy efficiently and build the best home we can.”

Woods was introduced to a technique called blower door testing.

“I bought my own blower door,” he said. “The blower door test is part of the residential auditing portion of the program, and that class basically can be for new construction or existing homes. If someone comes in and does an energy audit on your house, they tell you the real trouble spots and where you’re using a lot of your energy. It diagnoses your house from an energy standpoint.”

His cohort built a shed at Hawkeye near the Wellness Center the first and second year, and then helped Habitat for Humanity build a home just east of the campus.

After Woods left the program participants were presented with the opportunity to help city of Waterloo address blighted areas by constructing the first of three, approximately 1100 square-foot houses in the 200 and 300 blocks of Newell Street.

They were considered net-zero “ready” buildings because the city and college didn’t have the budget at the time to install the solar panels.

Fast forward to the college’s foundation purchase of its own land, including 1514 Johnston Street, and a larger tract known as the Williston Fields project at 1235 West Seventh St., where five homes will be constructed, including one that’s nearing completion.

Darin Dietz, a partner with Larry Elwood Concrete, an ICF builder and member of the program’s advisory council, was a part of the “big push” for the students to get involved in construction of the actual homes from start to finish.

“The best thing you can do for the student is to see a project go from start to finish, and then they can get involved in every aspect of it,” he said. “All the students are not going to take the same path and what that does, it broadens their perspective on the whole entire industry.”

He says Clark and Strickert are “pioneers” in academia regarding construction, and you have to travel well out of the area to get what’s being offered at Hawkeye.

“They are literally teaching the only class of its kind across the country with the ICF,” Dietz pointed out.

While a lot of the talk is about improving energy efficiency, he noted ICF “focuses on the structure of the actual building” and is “cutting edge” because it makes buildings more structurally sound.

“If we can increase the efficiency of that structure and at the same time, make it stronger … all of a sudden, it takes so much less energy to heat and cool to start with,” Dietz said. “If you then use the efficient equipment, it’s that much better.”

Graduates of Hawkeye’s program are typically a diverse group of different backgrounds and ages. The exception has been the latest cohort — 80% are fresh out of high school.

Most graduates end up working for residential contractors, trim carpenters, flooring contractors and everything in between.

There’s a smaller number who get into design, writing up house plans, or going on to more unique jobs like monitoring energy for utility companies to make sure structure meets code.

By Andy Milone, Waterloo Courier


  1. Sustainable Construction and Design
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