Santa Monica Builds Green Affordable Housing

Building is designed to be off the grid

source: Julie Goodman GRID Oct-2001

As you coast off the Santa Monica Freeway at Fifth Street in
Santa Monica, California, nothing about the construction
site on the corner of Fifth and Colorado Avenue appears
unusual. But the structure there is the skeleton for a super-energy-efficient,
environmentally friendly piece of architecture, largely funded
by a city that is making “green” building a priority.

Colorado Court is a 30,150-square-foot, five-story, 44-unit
affordable-housing development designed by the Santa Monica
architecture firm Pugh Scarpa Kodama (PSK) and developed by
the nonprofit Community Corp. of Santa Monica. Slated for
completion in December, the cutting-edge proj-ect will be one of
the first affordable-housing developments in the U.S. to generate
enough energy to meet nearly all of its own power needs.

Two years before California’s energy crisis hit the headlines, the
city of Santa Monica’s Housing Division, which funds construction
of low-income housing, and representatives of other city
departments had met with members of the nonprofit conservation
group California Energy Coalition to discuss the potential for
energy-efficient residential projects. The city’s energy policy
already mandates efficiency well beyond the requirements of Title
24, the California Code of Regulations’ -energy–efficiency
standards for residential and nonresidential buildings.

“The bottom line is that we have committed every qualified city
building to be LEED silver–certified,” said Susan Munves, Santa
Monica’s energy and green-building program coordinator, referring
to the U.S. Green Buildings Council’s Leader-ship in Energy and
Environmental Design voluntary rating system (“Sustainable
Building by the Numbers,” page 78). Aware of the city’s interest
in investing in such projects, Community Corp. and PSK
proposed that Colorado Court be designed to meet the
requirements for LEED gold certification.

As is typical for affordable housing, the $2.8 million funding for
Colorado Court is complex, combining tax-credit allocations,
state funds, city funds and other grants and subsidies for
-energy-efficient initiatives. “It’s hard to put -[affordable–housing]
deals together. It’s common to have to cobble together six or
seven sources,” says Joan Ling, executive director of Community
Corp., which has developed approximately 1,400 units of
affordable housing in 80 properties in the Los Angeles area since
1982 (“Scrambling for Crumbs: The Affordable Housing Maze,”
GRID, January + February 2000). “The city, as our financial
partner, has really been committed to affordable housing.”

For Colorado Court, the Regional Energy Efficiency Initiative
(REEI) – a partnership formed by the cities of Santa Monica and
Irvine, the California Energy Coalition and the utility Southern
California Edison (SCE) – contributed $250,000 for energy-saving
devices, which also were eligible for significant rebates from other
state and private programs. These special funds covered most of
the approximately $13,000 to $14,000 cost per unit added by the
energy–efficiency measures incorporated into the project. Santa
Monica funded the rest of the added costs through its various
redevelopment funds.

The affordable-housing development will generate “green
electricity” from dual sources, neither of which releases pollutants
into the environment. A photovoltaic array of 199 solar panels on
the building’s facade and roof will supply most of the peak-load
energy demand. A natural-gas-powered microturbine generator on
the roof will supplement the solar array and will also capture its
own waste heat to use for residents’ heating and hot water. If all
goes according to plan, the building will produce 92% of its own
power, with SCE supplying the rest.

Passive solar strategies guided the design of the building, which
is oriented to take advantage not only of the sun but also of prevailing winds
for natural cooling and ventilation. The interior is planned to optimize natural
light and airflow. Ten-foot-high ceilings make the small (375 square feet maximum) 
single units feel more spacious. Other environmentally friendly features include
energy-saving refrigerators that do not use chlorofluorocarbons,
insulation made from recycled material, double-pane windows
sandwiching a layer of heat-retardant krypton gas and
energy-saving fluorescent lighting that shuts off automatically
when a room is not occupied.

With its giant mosaic of deep blue, shimmering
five-inch-by-five-inch solar panels, Colorado Court will look great,
too. Visually striking vertical fins will shade its south face from
direct sunlight. Its facade of concrete block, recycled light-gauge
steel and galvanized sheet metal will contribute a cool and
contemporary urban element to the Santa Monica streetscape.

Community Corp., which will own the project, anticipates that the
electricity generation and conservation measures will save more
than $6,000 annually in energy costs. This summer, the
Califor-nia Public Utilities Commission (PUC) announced higher
rates for electric power, with progressive increases tied to
consumption of as much as 37% for residential customers and
49.5% for commercial customers. Natural-gas bills have already
skyrocketed, rising nearly 70% in 2000 alone.

The development-and-design team hopes that the experimental
building will serve as a flagship for sustainable development.
Although many of the green technologies it incorporates have
been around for some time, they have not been used together in a
project of this scale. However, such measures add to building
costs and do not attract conventional commercial developers,
many of whom regard the technologies as unproven (“Design du
Soleil,” page 60).

The design and engineering of the building encountered a number
of hurdles, some caused by building codes and regulations that
lag behind its innovative technologies. For example, PSK had to
obtain special permission from city officials to hang the solar
panels on the exterior; the panels did not comply with the safety
code’s fine print concerning fire ratings for enclosed exterior
stairwells. Potential noise from the gas turbine on the roof has
also caused concern. “Because none of these microturbines have
been installed yet in Santa Monica, we don’t know what the noise
level will be,” says PSK senior associate Angela Brooks. “We
will have to wait until after it is installed to see if we have to build
an enclosure to mitigate the sound.”

The sound issue may be moot. Implementation of the project
team’s ambitious scheme to return excess power from the solar
panels and microturbine to SCE’s grid during daytime hours, to
be retrieved at night as needed is key to the building’s near
energy independence. It also requires the installation of a
“net-metering” system. “If we net-meter, our utility bills will be
zero. If we don’t net-meter, we’ll have a small energy bill,” says

When use of the net-metering system was prohibited by the
utility’s regulations, which had been drafted to conform to PUC
mandates, the city of Santa Monica jumped into the fray. “The
city has taken this project on as its little baby,” says Lawrence
Scarpa, the PSK principal in charge of design and production.
“The head of public works loves this [energy-efficiency] stuff.” The
city’s lobbyist, working with state senator Sheila Kuehl, went all
the way to the California legislature to get the regulations

Nevertheless, SCE inserted a sentence into the revised
regulations that prohibits net metering when the project is using
more than one source of generation. Unless a compromise is
found, this may effectively eliminate the microturbine from the
project. An irony not lost on members of the project team is that
the utility company is one of Colorado Court’s sponsors.

But nothing seems to dampen the designers’ enthusiasm for
pioneering sustainable building solutions. “I’m telling commercial
developers, ‘Look at this [solar-paneled] facade. It’s incredibly
beautiful. You’re going to spend a bunch of money anyway, and
this is a great look – and you can do something good for the
environment,’” says Scarpa. “People say it’s expensive to
integrate solar power. But I believe it should be done. Third-world
countries can do it. We are the most technologically advanced
country in the world. Why can’t we do it?”