Gang Green

If Cameron Diaz and Leonardo di Caprio both drive environmentally conscious cars – those super-efficient rides that combine a gas engine with an electric motor, does this mean that pop culture is ready for green to go mainstream?

How to Build Green without Going into the Red was the title and subject of a workshop on sustainable affordable housing held May 2002 in Santa Monica. Lining up to take a stab at how to D.I.Y. green, the symposium was sponsored by two local non-profit organizations dedicated to the development of economically and environmentally sound affordable housing: Southern California Association of Non-Profit Housing (SCANPH ) and Livable Places. A development and architecture heavy audience participated in the event. The agenda was straightforward, consisting of two case study presentations by the project developers, followed by a tour of one project and additional comments by one of the architects and an energy consultant. All the speakers focused on "lessons-learned" in order to outline the challenges and rewards of building sustainable architecture. The idea was to leave prospective green professionals with some hard numbers, direct contacts and a game plan for pursuing sustainable building projects.

Two case studies lay out strategies for building green housing: the Village Green presented by developer Jeff Lee of the Lee Group and Colorado Court by developer Joan Ling of the Community Corporation of Santa Monica. The projects share many of the same technologies but their differing typologies, scales, project timelines, government affiliations and subsidies result in varying expressions for their green measures. Made up of seventy-seven single-family houses located in Sylmar, North of downtown Los Angeles and was designed by Van Tilburg, Banvard & Soderbergh, AIA, Village Green is the largest photovoltaic community in Southern California and was the first national Partnership for Advanced Technology in Housing (P.A.T.H.) pilot site. Colorado Court, designed by Pugh + Scarpa Architecture, is a forty-four unit sustainable demonstration project for the City of Santa Monica and the developer and architect hope to gain a gold star Leadership in Energy Efficient Design (L.E.E.D.) rating for energy efficient design.

A sustainable retrofit of a traditional affordable suburban housing development, the Village Green integrates green measures as with the standard tastes of suburban homebuyers. Ultimately, the design goal is that the sustainable measures blend seamlessly with standard home design package. By contrast, sustainability was integral component to the design and coordination process of Colorado Court. Further, as a highly visible demonstration project, the architects were able to incorporate the green measures with a great deal of innovation. For instance, running the photovoltaic panels vertically on the exterior stairwells at the front facade is as strong a design statement as it is green. This billboard bravado challenges existing expectations and preconceived notions of sustainable design.

Coordinating the sustainable measures for both of these projects also required a new layer of consultants and in the case of Colorado Court, a new set of specifications. The Village Green looked to Building Sciences Corporation which recommended their six main energy conservation and production measures of Advanced Framing, Cellulose Insulation, Gas Chilled Air Conditioning, Photovoltaic Cells, Low-E Glass, and Energy Star Refrigerators. After rebates and subsidies the net cost to the developer totaled $16,100/unit that translated to $93.87/mo additional mortgage increase to buyers. However due to affordability lending agreements the developer was not able to raise the home prices to cover the green expenses. Colorado Court worked with a private energy consultant, Helios International, Inc. that helped them to research and receive a range of grants, rebates and subsidies that covered the $500,000 or 10% budget increase for the main green measures including the photovoltaic panels and the gas powered micro-turbine co-generation system.

As the workshop wrapped up, it seemed that while sustainability is clearly the future, it is not yet economically feasible for production housing development. As energy efficient measures and products become mainstream and cost effective (such as high efficiency glazing and cellulose insulation) their applications will widen. Angie Brooks, Colorado Court project architect for Pugh + Scarpa, suggests that there were endless innovations to be made through dogged product and subsidy research and development. Sustainability is conceptually integral to the design practice.

After the workshop, in several individual interviews I asked the architects and developers involved in the symposium a few more question regarding issues regarding sustainable design. Jay Stark of the Lee Group, Joan Ling of the Community Corporation of Santa Monica, Larry Scarpa and Angie Brooks of Pugh + Scarpa and Sasha Tarnapoloski of Dry Design the Landscape Architect for Colorado Court took the time to answer my queries.


Joan Ling: Colorado Court is first comprehensive green project for CCSM. We are now working on a lot of retrofit measures for our existing projects. We are interested in providing examples that set high standards for environmentally sustainable housing.

Angie Brooks: Colorado Court is the largest project for Pugh + Scarpa. The first project was a small electrical vehicle charging station for the city of Santa Monica done in collaboration with Tony Loui 6 years ago. Currently our single family home the Solar Umbrella House is in the city for plan check and the Euclid Solar duplex in the drawing stage. We do not distinguish formal design issues with sustainability. Passive elements are always incorporated in all our designs and we are continually educating ourselves and our clients on energy rebates, materials and programs.

Larry Scarpa: Sustainability is a new paradigm for Architecture. It is an integral tool in our design process and is never a paste-on element.

Sasha Tarnapoloski: Sustainability a core and integral to all the design at Dry Design. We’re interested in a symbiotic and circular relationship for people and buildings in the landscape.


AB: The hardest lesson was changing people’s perceptions in the design process and dealing with the utility infrastructure. For example the engineers were not readily sizing and scaling down their systems to adjust for the new conditions. We had a lot of meetings that included our energy consultant explaining the exact conditions and precise calculations. More often than not we met in the middle between the engineers and the energy consultant. Contractors also did not have experience or fluency with a lot of the sustainable elements. As well we ran into complications at the sub-contracting level when for instance there were only three companies experienced with blown-in insulation. One was too busy, one wouldn’t work in Santa Monica and the other wouldn’t do walls.

JS: In general the biggest incentive for sustainability in production housing development is expedited processing with the city, reduced fees with the city and subsidies for technology. The particular incentive for Village Green was the participation in the P.A.T.H. pilot program. The biggest disincentive is the additional cost. The life cycle for these costs does not pay back to the developer in "for sale" properties. Sustainable systems could be offered as options but most production housing is built before the buyer gets on the scene.


JL: I think that passive design features should always be incorporated into any project. I think that the active design features at Colorado Court were chosen because of the project’s high profile and location. But the active design features are not necessary in every case. The most important thing is for the design and project expression to be contextual.

LS: The passive design elements are the single most important element in any sustainable design initiative. They are free and they have the biggest impact on the overall energy issues for a project. In terms of the active elements we have just begun to scratch the surface. We are climbing the ladder one step at a time and there is a lot more innovation and invention potential in this area.

JS: The idea for our project was to make the home designs seamless with the efficiencies. People don’t want to see technology in their homes. Sustainability is not really a selling point. At the Village Green affordability was the key issue and the energy saving were a bonus.


JL: That it’s built! Actually the greatest feeling is seeing the people move in and seeing how impressed they are with their new homes.

AB: Everyone loves the building. I think it’s beautiful without even considering its 90% energy efficiencies. People who live there love it and have a home where they can live with dignity.

LS: I love the edge of blending Affordable Housing with the Hi-Tech Solar Cell Innovations. The project overcomes the "cheap building" standards associated with affordable housing and achieves a kind of wonder and amazement that few of us get to experience in our everyday lives.

JS: What interests me most about sustainability is that it is the future and it is the right thing to do. I look forward to the day when this technology really becomes "Plug and Play" so that we can get in place more effectively.