Opinion

Santa Monica wants to build the greenest structure in California's history. Can they pull it off?

On a small and skinny lot wedged behind its historic city hall, Santa Monica is trying to accomplish something that has never been done before in California. By 2020, the city hopes to construct a 50,000-square-foot city services building that will meet the requirements of the International Living Future Institute’s “Living Building Challenge” — the most stringent environmental building standard in the world.

As if building on an odd-shaped lot next to a protected landmark isn’t difficult enough, constructing a Living Building requires net-zero energy and water usage; buildings must generate all of their own power sustainably, as well as collect and treat their own water. Beyond these conservation imperatives, Living Buildings must also be equitable and beautiful. “Imagine a building designed and constructed to function as elegantly and efficiently as a flower,” as the challenge reads, and you can begin to grasp the scale of the task.

If all goes well, Santa Monica will have built the most sustainable structure in California’s history.

So far, only 11 projects in the world can boast Living Building certification — though not for a lack of will. Building green, as it turns out, is far more challenging than simply finding a willing developer.

I visited the world’s largest Living Building, Seattle’s Bullitt Center, earlier this year. A six-story office owned by the conservationist Bullitt Foundation, it has a frame made of locally sourced, responsibly managed timber and built to last 250 years. Its restorative greywater system and composting toilets conserve water and repurpose all the building’s human waste. In lieu of car parking, it has a 29-bicycle garage and accessible showers in every bathroom. No workstation is more than 30 feet from an expansive, heat-regulating window. And 575 solar panels allow the Bullitt Center to generate more energy than it uses — even in rainy Seattle.

The real triumph of the Bullitt Center, however, arguably has less to do with its sustainable technology than its ability to overcome onerous regulations.

To produce enough energy to offset the building’s use, the Bullitt Foundation had to get creative; they designed a large overhanging roof to fit as many solar panels as possible. In the process, however, they found out they’d have to lease the sidewalk underneath — city laws label such awnings as obstructions of the public right-of-way. When that proved too costly, the building had to negotiate an exception to the municipal code to preserve its solar canopy.

Net-zero water, too, proved a serious problem — one that the project still hasn’t completely solved. Though the Bullitt Center is fully capable of catching rainwater, storing it in a cistern and treating it to potable standards, city and state regulations don’t allow a commercial building to disconnect from the municipal water system. Until the Bullitt Center negotiates exemptions, it will continue to rely on a chlorinated municipal water system it doesn’t technically need.

The biggest bureaucratic obstacles were reserved for the building’s most innovative ideas — such as its greywater filtration system, which funnels sink and shower drain water through a constructed wetland and into the soil for reuse. Though this helps the Bullitt Center recycle 60% of its water, city officials had pollution concerns, and conducted months of inspections before giving the green light. Three years later, the building is still subject to routine water testing.

Green building regulatory challenges are even more daunting in Southern California. Several months into its design phase, Santa Monica is just starting to navigate the regulatory landmines it will have to negotiate before groundbreaking.

Net-zero water is undoubtedly the most problematic for a variety of reasons, not least of which Southern California’s drought. Beyond the challenging environmental conditions, though, collecting rainwater for treatment and reuse would be a first for California. Santa Monica has to design a system that isn’t just workable, but allows California’s Division of Drinking Water to permit its use. Joel Cesare, a sustainable building advisor for the city of Santa Monica and a rep for the project, says that although the 2013 California Plumbing Code allows rainwater collected onsite to be a source for potable water, “there have not been any systems permitted in the state to date.” 

Though you might expect solar power to be the least of the project’s worries, given L.A.’s near-constant sunshine, achieving net-zero energy will be a challenge. Rooftop solar on the building alone won’t produce enough electricity to power the entire facility. While planners hope to install additional panels elsewhere — like on the parking lot and roof of city hall — they face potential pushback about preserving the historic landmark and its facade.

Even the Bullitt Center’s foam-flush toilets, which would save Santa Monica more than 270 thousand gallons of water a year, need to be approved by Santa Monica Building and Safety and the L.A. County Health Department before Santa Monica can even consider installing them.

How planners handle these challenges will set precedents for other green buildings in Santa Monica, L.A. County and California as a whole. According to Cesare, regulators are receptive to making the project happen. Should the city succeed it will prove that net-zero water is possible in our arid climate, even in a drought — and that if we’re serious about staving off the effects of drought and climate change, we should settle for no less. It will also familiarize code officials with new innovations, making it easier for developers to build sustainably.

Should Santa Monica’s project fail to jump its hurdles, however, it could signal to sustainable developers around the world that California’s red tape is tougher than its commitment to going green.

During my visit to Seattle’s Bullitt Center, I met with Denis Hayes, chief executive of the Bullitt Foundation. Though proud of his organization’s accomplishments, he made it clear that the Bullitt Foundation has no interest in standing alone on top of a green hill.

“Last year, we produced 54% more electricity on the rooftop of a six-story building in the cloudiest major city in the contiguous United States than we used,” he said.

Then he quipped, “So, what’s up, Los Angeles?”

Ali Swenson is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter @AliSwenson.

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