There's one new office building in Santa Monica that is painted gray from front to back. And portrayed as green from top to bottom.
The three-story structure helps heat and cool itself, provides most of its own light and water, and produces enough of its own electricity to power many of its computers and other office equipment.
Those working at 1314 2nd St. would expect nothing less from their new $8.3-million set of offices. That's because they are environmental lawyers and scientists who say their goal is to help preserve the Earth's natural resources by promoting "green" policies: conservation, recycling and efficient energy use.
The building is the new Southern California office of the Natural Resources Defense Council. It will open today with the ceremonial snipping of a green ribbon by actor Robert Redford, a longtime conservationist who has served as a member of the council's board since 1975.
Redford said the building uses "off-the-shelf technology" that is available to all builders.
"I couldn't be more pleased that NRDC chose Santa Monica, my hometown, for its Southern California base of operations," he said.
Designers say the 15,000-square-foot "Robert Redford Building," as it is being dubbed, is one of the most self-sufficient office structures in the United States.
Its roof is built to catch rainwater and funnel it into underground tanks that store runoff along with captured bathroom "gray water" from the inside. A filtration system in the basement cleans the water so it can be recycled for outdoor landscape irrigation and used to flush the building's toilets.
Lighthouse-like skylight towers poke through the roof in three places, sending sunlight cascading down two-story light wells into interior corridors. From there, natural light pours through glass walls and doors to illuminate individual office areas.
The towers also serve as cooling columns. Low-velocity fans triggered by thermostat sensors draw hot air upward from interior areas and from offices that have old-fashioned transoms over doorways. Exterior office windows can be opened to let in fresh air. Hot water circulated through radiators provides heat.
A rooftop solar array produces 7,500 watts, which the council's leaders say is about 20% of the building's workday requirement. Room occupancy sensors and low-wattage fluorescent lighting fixtures are expected to help cut electricity consumption to about two-thirds that of a regular office building.
Other touches, such as bamboo-laminate flooring and all-natural carpet fabrics, have been used to finish off the building and keep it free of formaldehyde and vinyl, according to Pasadena-based architect Elizabeth Moule, its chief designer.
"This was not an appropriate place to have a marble monument-style building," she said. "It needed a certain modesty."
Moule managed to recycle the basic wooden skeleton of an old medical building erected on the downtown Santa Monica site in 1917. Over the decades the interior of the pink-plaster structure had been extensively remodeled.
"It had been reworked in the '70s and had a zillion little rooms," she said. But the old building had a sufficient setback along its sides to allow light to filter into windows and for a secondary side office entrance to be squeezed in.
Borrowing from the 1920s Santa Monica beach-cottage look, Moule replaced the exterior plaster with a wood-fiber and concrete siding that is painted to resemble weathered gray clapboard.
Santa Monica city officials were enthusiastic about the conservation efforts, although inspectors initially balked at the choice of landscaping.
Vines will eventually cover parts of the front of the building, and bamboo has been planted in side-yard areas. Moule said officials were at first worried that some of those plants were too water-dependent to meet city requirements.
The city relaxed after she and others pointed out that the landscaping would be irrigated with reclaimed water.
Project manager Dimitris Klapsis said soapy wash water collected from lavatory sinks and from showers installed for employees who bicycle or ride scooters to work will be recycled along with rainwater through the seven-step basement filtration system. Waterless urinals and "dual flush" toilets that use either 0.6 of a gallon or 1.2 gallons per flush, depending on the button pushed, are connected directly to the city sewer system.
The attention paid to recycling is not lost on Natural Resources Defense Council employees who have relocated to Santa Monica from a conventional office building near Wilshire and San Vicente boulevards in the Carthay Circle area.
Their new home is a reminder of their philosophy that "sustainability and protection of natural resources" are possible "without sacrificing anything in terms of productivity or quality of life," said Joel Reynolds, a senior attorney at the office.
Andrew Wetzler, another lawyer for the group, was in his new office this week working on a project to protect marine mammals from Navy sonar testing. He said the place is an improvement over the hermetically sealed buildings he has worked in before.
"With the fresh air we have here, there's a noticeable spring in everybody's step," Wetzler said.
Part of that perkiness may stem from staff amenities. The new break room is a fully equipped kitchen that opens onto a rooftop patio that boasts the building's best view: a palm-framed glimpse of the ocean.
Common areas such as the law library and group conference rooms also have window views at the front and back of the building. "It's very egalitarian here," said Daniel Hinerfeld, the organization's Los Angeles communications director.
The clapboard-cottage look continues along the rear exterior for the benefit of guests staying across the alley at a hotel that overlooks the new offices.
The 2nd Street face of the building includes a storefront area that will open in January as a public "environmental action center," featuring educational displays and interactive equipment. With the help of the building around it, the center will show that being green doesn't mean you can't be colorful.