David Baker Architects


S.F. Joins the Green Trend

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By John King
San Francisco Chronicle
February 2007

 Blue Star Corner goes green with the LEED for Homes Pilot Program.

Blue Star Corner's townhouse rows include many sustainable features.

A green approach to development can be as simple as buying fancy toilets -- or as tough as finding a place for 60,000 tons of sand.

Those are the extremes found at two very different Bay Area projects now under construction. One is Blue Star Corner in Emeryville, a collection of 20 townhouses set to open this summer. The other is the $429 million home of the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park, which is still at least 18 months from completion.

Each is an example of sustainable development, and each is seeking the blessing of the U.S. Green Building Council and its LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) program. But where one wants to make a grand statement, the other is simply trying to do the right thing within a set budget.

The statement is the academy, the bones of which now cover more than 4 acres of the park across the music concourse from the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum.

The adventurous design includes ecofriendly elements like operable windows and the use of recycled steel and other materials.

There's also the curvaceous "green" roof that will be cloaked in 1.7 million seedlings, including beach strawberries and golden poppies; Italian architect Renzo Piano imagined it from the start as a symbol of the academy and the park being one.

All this was in the works back in 2002, when the design by Piano and local architecture firm Chong Partners was unveiled. But when academy officials found themselves trying to explain how "green" the building might be, a consultant said the project had a chance to become the largest building in the nation with a top LEED rating of platinum.

The landscaped roof, for instance, isn't just a nice metaphor for nature. It also makes efficient use of water, because the landscaped roof absorbs rainwater that would otherwise run into storm drains. And that's worth points toward a LEED certification level.

Projects also get points for recycling as much of a site's excavated materials as possible. The academy saved all 60,000 tons of sand dug out for an underground level of the new building -- and then reused it on local beaches and within the park.

Once academy officials decided to build as green as possible, the priciest step was spending $2 million to install photovoltaic cells on the rim of the roof to generate 5 percent of the facility's electricity.

Among the initial skeptics: Piano, who had envisioned an airy trellis extending 30 feet beyond the walls.

"Renzo was not interested in solar panels early on," said Patrick Kociolek, who stepped down in June as the academy's executive director to resume work there as a researcher. "Once he saw how the technology had changed, that it was effective and more aesthetically pleasing, he got excited."

The budget is tighter across the bay in Emeryville, where Holliday Development is building Blue Star Corner's 20 townhouses on half an acre near rail lines. It's also a pilot project for a new LEED certification program aimed at home builders.

By the time Holliday decided to join the pilot program, the townhouses were designed and construction were bids in place. So the project was tweaked to get enough points for basic LEED certification; for instance, the toilet budget grew by $2,055 to purchase low-flow toilets.

"We had economics to balance, and we came to this late in the game," said Kevin Wakelin, the chief executive officer at Holliday. "But we could work with a standard townhouse platform and take it to where it's a certified project."

The shift boosted development costs at Blue Star Corner by only $33,000, Wakelin estimates. One reason that winning certification was so easy: The designer of the project was David Baker + Partners, a firm that emphasizes environmental issues.

As far as the Blue Star team is concerned, the key step to sustainability isn't a rating. It's a state of mind: the desire to create healthy spaces that treat their settings and users with care.

"You want interiors that are healthy and designs that aren't wasteful," said Kevin Wilcock, a partner at the Baker firm. "The point's not to tick off items on a checklist."