THE CUTTING EDGE : Exercise in Utility : Gas Co. Hopes ‘Green Design’ Building Will Set an Example


In January, when visitors step into the lobby of Southern California Gas Co.’s newly opened Energy Resource Center in Downey, they’ll find themselves standing on the wreckage of a condemned San Francisco warehouse, surrounded by a junkyard of smashed windows, wrecked airplanes and worn car tires.

But they won’t see any of this detritus. What they will see is a relaxed, graciously appointed entrance area--quiet, airy and plant-filled, illuminated by indirect sunlight and subtle electric bulbs.

There’s no contradiction: The Energy Resource Center, now under construction, will be one of Southern California’s first recycled buildings. It is also one of the world’s most ambitious high-tech examples of the architecture and construction communities’ new interest in what is known as green design, or sustainable architecture.


“There’s been a recognition that our environment is fragile,” said Larry Wolff, principal of Wolff/Lang/Christopher Architects Inc. of Rancho Cucamonga, the design leader on the project. “People are now realizing that we have to start facing the music and do business a little differently.”

The ERC, a demonstration building, is not just using a few recycled products here and there. It is being built mostly from parts of the Gas Co. office building that once stood on the site. Instead of demolishing the old structure, the company dismantled it and reused roughly 400 tons of material.

The rest of the 43,000-square-foot building will be composed of hundreds of innovative recycled products, ranging from nontoxic paints to new environmentally sensitive heating and air-conditioning systems to benches made from recycled plastic.

Gas Co. officials and environmentalists hope the ERC will demonstrate to the public and the building industry that energy efficiency and environmental sensitivity can be not only effective and aesthetically pleasing, but also affordable.

“There’s a perception out there that these things are horrendously more expensive to build,” said Bill Browning, director of the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Green Development Services, an environmental think tank in Old Snowmass, Colo. In fact, Browning says, the higher initial cost of sustainable architecture is often more than made up for in reduced energy and maintenance costs.


The Gas Co. estimates the ERC will cost between $5.9 million and $6.5 million to build--a figure that does not include an estimated $3.2 million saved by using materials from the old structure and by building on a site the company already owned.


Wolff said the specifically green characteristics of the building will add somewhere between $225,000 and $275,000 to the final price. But features ranging from super-insulating windows to digital sensors that raise and lower the lights according to sunlight level will cut energy costs by an estimated $25,000 a year, thus canceling out the added expense in about 10 years.

“Every major feature had to be just as financially feasible as it was environmentally correct,” said John Picard, president of E2 Environmental Enterprises Inc., a Marina del Rey-based consulting firm that is the environmentalist on the ERC design team. “We’re not painting a future that’s out of reach. This technology is available for people who are building right now.”

Sustainable architecture first became popular for a brief period in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but interest soon dwindled as the energy crisis of 1973-74 faded from memory. Recently, though, there have been signs that green design is again gaining attention as a way to reduce environmental destruction and rising energy costs.

“You can see a groundswell (of interest in green design) taking hold right now,” said Carl Costello, director of the Center for the Environment, a division of the American Institute of Architects in Washington. Costello’s committee is only a few years old, but it already has 2,000 members.

And though the total number of sustainable design projects apparently remains small--the Rocky Mountain Institute is tracking about 80 notable projects around the world--they sometimes have a high profile: No lesser building than the White House itself was recently greened. The Gas Co. aims to gain more than good publicity from the ERC. When the California Public Utilities Commission deregulated the state’s natural gas industry in 1988, large segments of the Gas Co.’s business were opened up to competition, forcing the utility to look beyond its traditional business.

As part of its expanded mission, the company hopes to advise building owners not just on natural gas issues, but on a whole range of energy problems, including design issues that affect energy consumption.


If all goes according to plan, the ERC will never really be finished, Picard said. The ERC will adopt new lighting, air conditioning and other technologies and materials as they come to market. Innovative leasing agreements with an air-conditioning company and a company that makes carpeting from recycled materials call for the vendors to replace old equipment or worn carpeting over the years.


Robert Goulden, the Gas Co.’s senior project manager for the ERC, has worked on dozens of construction projects during his 25-year career, but he considers the ERC building one of the most exciting and important.

“We can’t afford to continue to do things the old way,” he said. “The cost to the environment, to the Earth, is too high.”

Recycled Building

The Gas Co. is using a wide array of recycled material for its Energy Resouce Center in Downey, due to be completed in the spring of 1995. An existing office complex is being dismantled piece by piece and 60% to 70% of the old building will be incorporated into the new construction. Here’s a look at how the company is using recycled or reused material: *A The Building

Part of a retired World War II Navy attack submarine will be melted down and used to make part of the building’s steel frame. In addition, weapons confiscated by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department have been melted down and will be used to make reinforcing bars. Recycled newspapers will make up the wall paneling, and the panels will be covered with sisal, a fabric made from recycled tropical plants. *B The Entry Walkway

Scraps of orange polyvinylcloride pipe that was used to transport natural gas underground will be chopped up and thrown into the concrete mix to add color. Hundreds of bricks from the original building facade will also be used on the walkway. *C The Parking Lot


Rubber automobile tires will be boiled and used as a slurry coat to resurface the parking lot. The rubber is expected to produce higher wear resistance and skid resistance, and reduce noise. *D The Reception Area

The floor will be made of Douglas fir beams and posts from the old Banana Republic warehouse in San Francisco, which was built in the 1890s and condemned after the Loma Prieta earthquake. An accent wall will be made entirely of recycled aircraft aluminum. The countertop of the reception area desk will be made of recycled tempered glass.