Multi-Family California Housing Complex is Green from the Roof to the Flooring

Oct. 18, 2006

Urban development in the San Francisco Bay area is often met with suspicion and opposition. But, when developer Martin Samuels proposed an environmentally sensitive, multi-family residential project, Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown was extremely supportive. Local residents were, too. Even those who attended a public hearing to protest the project’s height variance became supporters when they learned just how green the development would be.

The attractive and aptly named GreenCity Lofts in Emeryville, CA, not only replaced an 80-year-old paint factory, crews recycled nearly all of the demolition waste and removed contaminated soil from the building site.

Urban Village
Swatt Architects endeared local residents with the design of the 75,000-square-foot development. Rather than defaulting to a traditional, tall monolith, Swatt opted for five buildings connected with open passageways. Varied rooflines, street-side balconies, walk-up stoops, and landscaped courtyards further enhance the neighborhood appeal.

Individual units are ENERGY STAR-certified, so they exceed California’s already-stringent standards for energy efficiency by at least 15 percent. Achieving the certification took careful planning. Steven Stept, vice president and principal at Swatt, highlights the strategic use of perimeter space. Most of the 62 units have windows on two sides; nearly one-third have windows on three sides.

“We didn’t just punch in obligatory window holes,” explains Stept. “We tried to bring as much light and glass into the project as possible. An undulating façade of ‘ins and outs’ along the street breaks up the massing of the building. By making the voids/insets all glass from wall to wall and floor to ceiling, we achieved great openness and light - and created the opportunity for wonderful views throughout the project in all directions. The windows also help save energy by making the most of natural light and cross-ventilation. Owners use daylight instead of flipping on a light switch; they open windows rather than using air-conditioning.”

Green Guru
Marc Richmond, president of Practica Consulting, guided the specification of building and finishing materials. Simply put, he’s a hired gun who keeps construction projects green. “Environmental products and technologies change so quickly, it’s very helpful to have a green consultant,” notes Stept.

“I fight for high-performing materials that are approved by one of the major green certifying agencies,” explains Richmond. “What I don’t do is ask anyone to use a given product just because it’s green.”

He considers the stereotype of poor-quality green materials a complete falsehood. “Green products that don’t measure up from a quality or performance standpoint just don’t survive in the marketplace - and they shouldn’t,” stresses the 15-year industry veteran.

Richmond held particularly firm about GreenCity’s flooring materials. Instead of specifying traditional basic choices and relying on customers to upgrade to green flooring, Richmond insisted that all flooring options meet elevated environmental standards.

To minimize VOC exposure, carpeting is wool or a Carpet & Rug Institute Green Label alternative. Laminate and engineered wood flooring are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, which ensures that the wood came from forests strategically managed for sustainability.

While five brands of engineered wood qualify as acceptable options at GreenCity, only one laminate fulfills all of Richmond’s requirements - Wilsonart Commercial Flooring. Even the adhesives used to bond the planks are VOC-free. Wilsonart Commercial Flooring is also certified by the GREENGUARD Environmental Institute, which assures unit owners that their laminate flooring emits only low levels of VOCs for better indoor air quality. Wilsonart Commercial Flooring also proved to be the most compatible with the development’s hydronic radiant-heat system.

Owners’ Choice
Standard flooring for GreenCity units includes laminate in the kitchen and carpet elsewhere, but almost all owners upgrade to wood in the main living areas as well. Wilsonart Commercial Flooring, for instance, costs $3,500 more for 640-square-foot units; a “level 1” engineered wood costs $4,500 more in the same size unit.

“Owners who upgrade to laminate get a great value,” notes Pam Jacobson, the Design Center coordinator who helps owners select flooring, lighting, appliances, and other finishing touches. “It provides the warmth of wood, but it’s so much more durable - especially with pets.”

Jacobson considers flooring to be the most important selection owners make at the Design Center. Choices are made promptly after purchase so the materials can be ordered and installed during owners’ 30- to 40-day escrow period.

Hot Property
Not surprisingly, earth-friendly lofts within walking distance of multiple mass transit options struck a chord with young Bay area professionals. Construction was complete in May, and roughly half of the GreenCity units were sold by late July.

The project enjoyed favorable buzz in the real estate community and received accolades from the mayor of Oakland, the San Francisco American Institute of Architects, and Alameda and Contra Costa Counties.

While Stept is proud of the manner in which Swatt met the developer’s green mandate, he dismisses the notion that it constrained the design process. “Making it green wasn’t any harder than just providing really good design,” he notes. The benefits to unit owners, the surrounding community, and the overall environment, however, are considerable.  

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