By Katelyn Jacobson
City on a Hill Press Reporter
At first glance, the rooms and corridors of the Santa Cruz City Water Department (SCCWD) appear stark. A few meager fluorescent lights shine on the blank white walls, but the majority of the pale light filters down from a collection of portholes in the ceiling — sunlight diffuses through the rooms, routed from the roof through reflective aluminum-lined solar tubes.
In renovations completed March 2008, the SCCWD has implemented innovative, energy-saving features at its city offices. The result: a structure that is almost 100 percent green.
According to Joseph Fullerton, green building and environmental specialist for the city of Santa Cruz, achieving this meant that nearly everything in the building had to have a double design, aimed at increasing health and sustainability.
Windows reaching toward the ceiling allow sunlight to permeate offices. High-efficiency solar panels provide 30 percent of the building’s energy. The walls are insulated better than a polar bear and were finished by using nontoxic paint and recycled structural components.
“When they were building they couldn’t smell the paint, and when they put in the carpet, you couldn’t really smell it either,” Fullerton said. “The painters didn’t even have to use masks … you didn’t have to be as conscientious about breathing in the paint fumes.”
Fullerton stressed that a better atmosphere for employees is a third aspect of enviro-friendly designs.
“It’s a biological principle of having a view, or at least natural sunlight,” Fullerton said. “Essentially, people respond well [to] having the outside where they’re working.”
Deeper into the building the hallways began to light themselves, with sensors that tell light bulbs to illuminate for oncoming foot traffic, and dim once it has passed.
“It’s a pretty tricky system,” said Fullerton, and he paused at the end of the corridor to watching his light escort disappear.
On the roof of the building, a spread of solar panels collects a supply of 80 percent of the building’s energy. The panels, made of polycrystalline tiles, Fullerton explained, were a little more expensive — but a lot more efficient — than run-of-the-mill solar panels.
From July 22 through Oct. 27, the building used 54 percent less energy than dictated by Title 24, which outlines energy efficiency standards throughout California. In financial terms, the building’s kilowatt-hour PG&E usage was 95 percent less than normal, equating to a $3,250 savings within that time period.
When asked how she liked the beams of natural sunlight blanketing her office, Harmon motioned to a leafy plant situated under the light tube.
“Well, my plants are doing well,” she said, “and I told people that would be the real test.”
A few streets from the SCCWD sits Greenspace, purveyor of fine “green” products, ranging from eco-wood to elephant dung paper.
According to owner Lydia Corser, one of the simplest things people can do to go green is to paint eco-consciously. She stocks a wide range of paints, but whether they’re interior or exterior, all are low-odor and contain zero volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which usually take the form of inhaled formaldehyde compounds. Even better: prices for her paints are equal to those of most common, carcinogenic paints.
“We want to make it easy for people by providing a lot of what they need to go green in their homes and in their own lives,” Corser said. “There’s no reason, really, for people to not go green.”
But going green is about more than slashing bills by installing solar panels and painting with more environmentally friendly substances. According to Corser, it requires changes at many levels. Therefore, Greenspace stocks hundreds of different items designed to facilitate a transition into the green lifestyle. And Greenspace, like many other green-product companies, promises to customers that anything sold to them was sustainably grown, locally made, recycled, or certified organic — and sometimes, all of the above.
“There are a million reasons to go green. I think the future of our species, of our planet depends on it, and that we just have to wake up and make some changes,” Corser said. “But you don’t have to turn into some naked person running through the woods, you know?”
In addition to working with Greenspace, Corser works as an interior designer, helping people build green for the past 14 years. Her own kitchen is nationally recognized for eco-friendliness and has been featured in home magazines across the country.
Her designs are simple; they make being 100 percent green look surprisingly close to “normal.”
“When I first started designing, people would say, ‘Well, does that mean you only work with the color green?’” Corser said. “But now everybody knows what it means, which is huge.”
Santa Cruz was among the first communities to catch on, and now every organization applying for a building permit within the city’s jurisdiction is required to do its part.
In 2007, green construction components were made mandatory for Santa Cruz residential structures taking up 350 square feet or more, and for non-residential structures taking up 1,000 square feet or more. Essentially, the bigger you are, the greener this city makes you. Santa Cruz also provides various energy-saving amenities to owners so they can meet their structure’s sustainability quota.
A point system designates the amount of green building materials and fixtures that must be incorporated into each development project, with higher points meaning greener construction. The most points are awarded to buildings that reduce lumber framing by using alternative wall construction materials like bamboo, straw bales, and rammed-earth or pressed-earth blocks.
Other innovative building materials include fiber cement siding and photovoltaic installations. However, not all of the city’s attention is on using green building materials. According to John Ancic, deputy building official for the city of Santa Cruz, simply protecting native soil and composting are just as important.
“There’s a need to reduce the environmental impact of construction,” Ancic said. “We do so by using green building materials, and by conserving natural resources and improving interior environment — ultimately reducing operating costs of the building.”
Amid these citywide regulations, however, one institution remains immune to the rules: UC Santa Cruz, situated atop its autonomous hill, responds not to the demands of Santa Cruz, but to the equally stringent requirements laid down by the state of California and the Board of Regents.
For UCSC, the need to build new structures and upgrade old ones within a protected environment can create constant conflict. Nonetheless, the university’s physical planning and construction department is trying to limit its environmental footprint.
Felix Ang, Jim Dunne and Alisa Klaus, all employees of Physical Planning and Construction, elaborated on some aspects of the current green game plan for the campus.
“We have two projects in design,” Dunne said. “One [involves] the West Field House, and the other involves solar installation in the East Field House to heat the pool. So we may soon have our own energy produced on campus.”
Despite the apparent ease of harnessing elements like the sun at the SCCWD, actually putting the elements to work is easier said than done in the case of UCSC. Implementation of such systems on campus is not scheduled to start until next summer at the earliest.
A similar schedule is planned for setting up a system to capture and reroute rainwater. This would lessen some of the strain placed on water supplies during current and continuing university expansion while upholding a university commitment of nondependence on the water system supplying the rest of the city.
This also proves a tall order, since, as Dunne revealed, each student on campus used about 70 gallons of water per day in 1980. For 2009, low-flow showers, more efficiently flowing systems, and toilets that use less water per flush have helped cut that number to 65 gallons.
Other positive changes have been made, involving things as ordinary as light bulbs.
“We recently lowered the mercury content in bulbs,” Dunne said. “Putting less mercury in the landfills [from discarded light bulbs] means less mercury that has to be dealt with in the environment.”
Despite these successes, though, the Long Range Development Plan has been a source of environmental conflict since the fall of 2007. Nonetheless, Klaus noted that building plans remain intact, along with a map of future sites where growth could be absorbed.
“Even if there’s a lot of protest because of the sheer fact that we’re going to build it, we are as sustainable as we can be in terms of the site,” Klaus said.
Beyond lower-mercury light bulbs and water rerouting and conservation, Klaus cited techniques such as infill building and construction between existing buildings — as opposed to building on entirely new plots — that help to ensure earth-friendly construction.
And there are extensive discussions at various levels, Klaus said, every time builders want to take down a single tree.
Ang, one of the construction workers on the project, approaches his work holistically, emphasizing that the greenest things that can be done are often done in the planning stages before construction ever begins.
“You could limit the amount of newly built square footage by the way [a building] is programmed,” Ang said. “[Asking], ‘Can this be a multiuse space?’ — that’s a way of being green even if you’re not using green building materials.”
“In my opinion it’s really about site planning and programming,” Ang continued. “You kind of have to set up a structure that encourages people to live green, as well.”