Rural Builder Hall of Fame: Steve Hoff

A professor at Iowa State in Ames, Iowa, Steve has made a tremendous impact in the building industry in two main efforts: educating students and assisting builders with siting for new construction. He teaches wood structural design and ventilation design courses, and his students go on to be professionals in the building industry, allied industries, and consulting firms. Steve has helped organize and participated in builder workshops, advising them on ventilation, state regulations, and siting. His work with siting models has helped swine buildings be sited in more suitable locations, minimizing controversy and avoiding situations where builders could face lawsuits.

RB: Tell me about what you’re doing nowadays.
Steve Hoff: I have a split appointment between teaching and research. This semester I am teaching wood structures design course with (fellow Hall of Famer) Jay Harmon, we’re going through some of the basics on load calculations, all of the component design in wood frame structures.
On the research side, where I interact with builders is really in the siting of facilities, not specifically in the field design work, but rather trying to work with producers and commodity groups and neighbors to try to find best location for a proposed livestock operation.

RB: What types of students take these courses?
SH: Right now we have predominantly ag engineers, as well as a couple mechanical and civil engineers. The majority of them will end up with consulting firms, including one in particular in Ames where we’ve placed a couple of our students. They’ll be doing structural design, post-frame design, as well as turnkey operation, ventilation, electrical, things of that nature. Then we have a few of our students who end up with ventilation firms.

RB: Tell me about your work with siting.
SH: It is a very hot button item. We have actually developed through our research a tool that helps to predict how odors and gases travel from the source to a facility. Back in 1998 we gave a talk to our state legislators, who were in the process of drafting regulations for livestock operations, and we had told them we were considering putting together this tool. They urged us to continue on, and have provided us with funding. In the last two years it has started to gain popularity in our state.

RB: How has your tool been accepted?
SH: For the most part it’s been pretty nicely accepted. There are a few instances where no matter what you do it’s not going to be adequate. What producers are doing is, during the planning phase, taking our results to neighbors and saying, “Iowa State has this tool, this is what they’re predicting, for an average year you’ll have X number of hours of odor.” They’re being upfront with them. It’s a public relations tool for the producer, and the neighbors appreciate the fact that the producers have really listened to what our model is saying. If they have a bad location, they’ll look for alternatives. We have a thriving agricultural business here, but we have to expand in a neighbor-friendly way.

RB: How did you get involved in the industry?
SH: I grew up in a St. Paul-Minneapolis suburb, but my grandparents both have pretty good-sized farms in Northwest Minnesota. I spent a lot of time on the farm and got to like it. When it came time for college, I went to the University of Wisconsin-River Falls and got into ag engineering. I’ve always been interested in structures and environment, and specialized in the ventilation end of things.

RB: What sorts of building trends have you seen?
SH: On the ag side, where I used to see a lot more diversity in the building types being built, today I see some “standard” designs going up. Also relating back to odors and cost effectiveness, I’m seeing one-barn, multiple-room buildings. In the past, let’s say we had 4,000 pigs on the site; in the past, we’d have four barns, 1,000 pigs per barn, but now we’re seeing 2,000-head barns split into two rooms, all under one roof. The consolidation is lessening the footprint, and the smaller the footprint, the less odors.
RB: What changes have you seen in the industry over the years?

SH: We’ve seen a lot more sophistication in terms of the control side of ventilation, controls today that will rival most HVAC systems in terms of their ability to control temperature and humidity in barns that have environments that can be very challenging. I see manufacturers getting fans tested and verified, and they publish their results, which gives designers and producers a nice suite of options when it comes to selecting ventilation systems.

RB: What does the future look like?
SH: I think we’re going to have to get really innovative in our barn designs in odor control and do it as cost effectively as possible. Right now we don’t design buildings thinking we need to take care of emissions, gases and odors. We’re going to have to do that. One of the strategies we use now is a bio filter that tries to scrub odors and gases and particulate matter before they get offsite.

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