Green project wins on its own terms

Special to The Times

E.J. Spalding didn’t expect quality housing when she applied for an apartment at Colorado Court, a housing complex in Santa Monica.

But the 80-year-old, who rented in Brentwood before her late husband’s nursing home bills ate up their nest egg, has been pleasantly surprised by her $337-a-month rental.

“I never thought I would get anything so lovely,” Spalding said of her 370-square-foot studio apartment with its high ceiling, efficiency kitchen and ocean view.

Colorado Court, consisting of three five-story buildings developed by the nonprofit Community Corporation of Santa Monica, was built as a demonstration project to test the installation and performance of green technologies and systems in a real-world setting. It is one of the first relatively inexpensive rental properties in the country to generate more than enough electricity for its own uses.


The project so successfully fused design and green features -- energy efficiency and use of recycled and natural resources -- that it was voted one of the Top 10 Green Projects of 2003 by the American Institute of Architects.

Spalding rarely hears her neighbors next door, seldom needs a heater and doesn’t have air conditioning. Because of the way the structures are situated on the lot, prevailing breezes flow through the 44 studio apartments, creating natural ventilation. The indoor air quality is better than in other buildings because the materials and paint have fewer toxins than those used in conventional construction, according to the corporation. “I breathe easier here,” Spalding said. “I feel healthier here.”

The Santa Monica project is on the cusp of a trend to design green homes for low- or moderate-income residents to help lower monthly utility bills, which are the second-highest housing expense after rent or mortgage payments. The electricity savings alone at Colorado Court, where rent includes utilities, is estimated at $10,000 a year.

In other green developments, the savings to residents can be significant. Village Green, a 116-home project that opened in Sylmar a few years ago, included solar panels on each house. According to statistics from Fannie Mae, utility bills for these homes average $20 a month, one-tenth of the $200 a month for comparable conventional homes.


Casa Verde, a development in Hollywood, was designed to have good natural light, air circulation and maximum energy efficiency. And recently the California Energy Commission has begun offering to pay 75% of the installed cost of solar power systems used in new low-cost housing projects.

Colorado Court is at Colorado Avenue and 5th Street, a few blocks from the ocean and just north of the Santa Monica Freeway. Its three towers glisten with facades composed of deep-blue photovoltaic panels that look more ornamental than functional.

“A lot of people don’t know they’re solar panels,” said project architect Angela Brooks of Pugh Scarpa Kodama in Santa Monica. The electricity generated by the panels provides power to the apartments. The community corporation earns energy credits for any excess electricity that is sent to the city’s electric grid. During peak-use times -- morning and evenings -- a gas-powered turbine on the roof generates more electricity.

The AIA jury wrote that the solar panels integrated into Colorado Court’s architecture demonstrate “extraordinary design sophistication, especially for an affordable housing project.”


Hundreds of people, including university students, architects, builders and developers, have toured the property since its opening in spring 2002. So many people have wanted to see the development that tours are now limited to one Sunday a month.

The attention hasn’t bothered resident Richard Garcia, 37, a recovering alcoholic who lived in a group home before moving to Colorado Court a few months ago. He feels lucky to have the apartment. “The location is to die for,” he said.

There’s an elegance about Garcia’s apartment, partly from the natural linoleum kitchen and bathroom floors, the formaldehyde-free solid cabinets, the quietness from blown-in wall insulation made of recycled newsprint, the quiet and energy-efficient refrigerator, and high-efficiency windows that repel summer heat.

Cooling ocean breezes flow through each apartment by way of the transom windows above the front doors. There are recycling stations on each floor and motion-sensitive exterior corridor lights.


“This cutting-edge building gives a lift to the residents who live there,” said Joan Ling, executive director of the community corporation. “It is good for business and good for morale.”

At the beginning stages of the project, the corporation had a budget of $4 million for a pretty much conventional development. Then the city of Santa Monica requested that Colorado Court be a green building, and planning shifted midstream. An additional $400,000 was raised through grants and rebates -- for solar panels, the gas turbine and a drainage system that flows storm water into an aquifer -- to finance the various sustainable products and systems that were included.

While the solar panels attract attention, the positioning of the buildings had more of an effect on making it a green project. Before Pugh Scarpa Kodama became involved, a preliminary design had already been approved by the Santa Monica City Council that did not take advantage of the natural conditions of the site and would have required air conditioners to cool the buildings.

“It was oriented all wrong,” said Lawrence Scarpa, a principal in the architecture firm. Orientation is the single most important factor in creating a comfortable and energy-efficient building, he said. “And it’s free.”


The current configuration shields the buildings from the direct heat of the sun. Walkways on the south sides, which receive the most sun, provide shade. The east and west sides have a minimum number of windows to reduce exposure to morning and afternoon direct sunlight. The north sides, which receive the least amount of direct sun, have lots of windows.

To take advantage of airflow, the three buildings resemble three fingers reaching toward the bay to catch prevailing winds. The solar panels are on the west and atop the buildings.

There were some construction challenges. One delay came when the solar panels that conceal the outdoor stairwells were approved during the plan-check process but later challenged by the final inspectors. Ultimately, a safety barrier had to be installed anywhere a person might reach out and touch the panels.

Moreover, some subcontractors were unwilling to work with unusual materials. According to Brooks, two insulation subcontractors said they do not work with blown-in insulation, and another stated he wouldn’t work at all in Santa Monica, which is known for its stringent building standards.


Now the architects have submitted documentation to the U.S. Green Building Council to qualify the project for a gold rating by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) system, the council’s voluntary rating program. The rating indicates a high level of resource and energy efficiency and healthfulness for tenants.

The Community Corporation, which owns and manages 1,200 rentals, will use solar panels and incorporate other green features on other affordable projects -- 44 units at Pacific Street and Main Street, 41 units at 26th Street and Santa Monica Boulevard, and 44 units at 15th Street and Broadway.

“We are applying our newfound knowledge to include cost-effective green measures in every one,” Ling said. “There is no going back.”




‘Green’ cannot always be seen

Although Colorado Court is sheathed in solar panels, many green building techniques are not readily apparent. Among those used at the complex:

* The buildings are oriented on the site to maximize sunlight and use prevailing breezes.


* High-efficiency windows repel heat.

* Transom windows above front doors increase air circulation.

* Blown-in wall insulation is made of recycled newsprint.

* Cabinets are made of formaldehyde-free solids.


* Corridor lights are motion-sensitive.

* Refrigerators are energy-efficient.

* Permeable gravel alley and underground storm water retention system retain 95% of site’s storm water.

* Each floor has a recycling center.


* Plantings are drought-tolerant.

* Carpeting is made of recycled products.

* Bicycle racks and storage are provided to promote alternative transportation.




And the green medal goes to ...

For its 2003 awards, the American Institute of Architects and its Committee on the Environment selected 10 examples of architectural and “green” design solutions that protect and enhance the environment.

In addition to Santa Monica’s Colorado Court, winners included the Argonne Child Development Center in San Francisco, the Chicago Center for Green Technology, Cusano Environmental Education Center in Philadelphia, Fisher Pavilion in Seattle, Herman Miller Marketplace in Grand Rapids, Mich., Hidden Villa Hostel & Summer Camp in Los Altos Hills, the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Forensic Laboratory and Coroner’s Office in San Mateo, the Steinhude Sea Recreation Facility in Germany and Wine Creek Road residence in Northern California.


Kathy Price-Robinson can be reached at