Del Paso or bust
SN&R’s director of nuts and bolts recounts the long andwinding road to our new sustainable north Sacramento home
I’m a worrier by nature, and a few years ago, I had plenty to worry about. The Sacramento News & Review had outgrown its Midtown office, and we were on a month-to-month lease, searching for a larger building we could own outright. We’d found a leaky old supermarket on Del Paso Boulevard to fix up, but unfortunately, we’d never renovated a building before. Complicating matters further, in keeping with our stance on supporting sustainable communities, we wanted our new dwelling to be green and energy-efficient, but no one could tell us what that entailed, except that it would cost us more money.
As SN&R’s director of nuts and bolts, the task of sorting all of this out fell upon me. In the beginning, I didn’t even know what a sustainable building was. I had visions of solar panels and a roof garden. I’ve since learned that there is a wide range of sustainable or “green” building options on the market, as well as some allegedly green upgrades that aren’t sustainable at all. Separating the improvements that were efficient and within our budget from those that were either too expensive, inefficient or both gave me green nightmares for months.
The nightmares weren’t the only thing I had to worry about. A significant amount of environmental testing had to be conducted before the north Sacramento location could be approved. As our plans progressed, the economy took a dive, we lost our financing and the project momentarily appeared doomed. Convincing our own employees that a move to Del Paso Boulevard made sense may have been a tougher challenge than the economic downturn. After being surrounded by restaurants and night life in Midtown, would our staff be happy on the boulevard? Considering I ride a bicycle to work and there have been occasional attacks on bicyclists on the trail near the new office, would I feel safe?
The answer is, so far, so good. We’ve been in our new digs on Del Paso Boulevard for one month now, and while we’re all still settling in, I’m happy to say I’m not having nightmares anymore, green or otherwise. I love our big, new, red building; we’ve been warmly welcomed by the neighborhood; and I’m even enjoying my twice-as-long bicycle commute over the American River bike bridge. It’s been quite a journey, with many ups and downs, and we’ve learned a lot. Perhaps the most important lesson we learned is that there’s no reason to go it alone. The help is there, if you ask for it, and sometimes even if you don’t.
When City Councilwoman Sandy Sheedy heard we’d been exploring her district, she immediately came to visit. SN&R could help economically jump-start the area, Sheedy said, suggesting that we call the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency, which has been trying to rehabilitate north Sacramento for more than a decade. Because we were looking at a redevelopment area, we were eligible for advice, loan assistance and construction oversight from the SHRA. The agency helped breathe life back into our effort; without their help, the project wouldn’t have happened.
As mentioned above, I’ve never directed a project of this scope and magnitude. The amount of money involved was huge—several million dollars. That’s a lot of nuts and bolts. One wrong decision could have jeopardized the future of our company. We couldn’t have succeeded without the help of SHRA’s Molly Oser, who guided me through the maze of regulations required for publicly funded redevelopment projects. In fact, Oser was just one of scores of people who helped bring our new building to fruition.
One of the first bits of advice I received came from local architect David Mogavero, before we even settled on the Del Paso location. Mogavero taught me the most important requirement for a sustainable office, that where a company locates has a huge impact on its carbon footprint. For example, the energy used by a company’s staff to commute to and from work can be up to twice the amount of energy expended by modern, efficient buildings. So we put the addresses of all our employees on a map and looked for locations that would minimize the commute. We looked for locations near light rail and bus lines. North Sacramento fit the bill.
Also very early in the planning stage, we met with energy experts at SMUD’s Savings by Design program, which offers technical support and financial incentives for energy-efficient design. Brian Sehnert, a SMUD architect, walked us through the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Green Building Rating System. We learned that while it might cost us more to design an efficient building, it could save us up to 10 times the price in reduced energy costs over time. Jim Barnett, SMUD’s photovoltaic program manager, encouraged us to think about ways to make the building environment healthier, suggesting that we include as many skylights as possible to bring daylight into the building.
Our design team transformed all of the expert advice we received into reality. The team included our architect, contractor, mechanical engineer (for plumbing, heating and air conditioning systems), electrical engineer (for power and lighting) and a landscape designer. We looked for LEED Accredited Professionals where possible. Several members of our team came along on our many field trips to energy-efficient buildings in Sacramento. Our contractor, Mark Wright, was so committed to sustainability that he completed his LEED accreditation while working on our building.
Since we reused an existing building, we automatically saved resources, compared to building from scratch. We were able to preserve the existing exterior walls and structural components, as well as some of the interior walls and the concrete floor. Building codes in California require a cool roof; energy-efficient heating, cooling and lighting; and insulation. Our design team gave us options to choose from so we could balance the budget vs. energy savings, and our completed building is 27 percent more efficient than the codes require.
Our building is constructed of thick concrete block, so it would have been expensive to add windows. Instead, we followed SMUD’s advice and added skylights. The natural light creates a more comfortable and healthy work environment. We also installed solar tubes in many of the offices. These affordable skylights really bring the outdoors into the building, and make a huge impact.
One of the first things people notice walking into the new building are the sparkling glass countertops at the reception desk. Staying with the recycling theme, the countertops are a mosaic of brown and green beer bottles and blue Skyy vodka bottles.
Look overhead and you’ll see “blue jean” insulation in our open ceilings. Some folks see it as a nod to the Woodstock generation. It’s made from natural denim and cotton remnants from the manufacture of blue jeans. It absorbs sound well and contains no chemical irritants, no carcinogens and no harmful airborne particles. Blue jeans just seem to “fit” the new SN&R building.
In our restrooms, there are dual-flush toilets. Many older toilets use as much as 3.5 gallons per flush, but ours use only 1 gallon to flush liquids (you push the handle down) and 1.6 gallons to flush solids (you pull the handle up). We have a shower in the building to encourage bicycle commuters. Men may marvel at the waterless urinal, which required special permission from the city. It also requires special maintenance, but it uses no water!
We all may have to learn when to flush up and when to flush down, but we can forget about turning off the lights. The new building does it for us, with motion detectors that switch off the lights after everyone’s left a given room, and timers that shut off the lights every evening. The LED bulbs in our parking-lot lights last longer and are brighter than standard outdoor lights, making that nightly walk to the car safer. The LEDs cost more, but eventually pay for themselves many times over in reduced energy use and maintenance costs.
There are many more sustainable features in our building, including the use of Energy Star appliances, overstock tile and flooring in our restrooms and storage area, overstock sinks from the Habitat for Humanity ReStore, low-emitting paints and solvents that improve the indoor air quality and eco-friendly cabinetry.
The landscaping will be completed in the spring. For businesses without a shade-tree requirement, the Sacramento Tree Foundation, in coordination with SMUD, will donate shade trees. Individuals can also get trees through the program. I hope to have a tree-planting workshop here in the spring.
Among our new neighbors on Del Paso Boulevard, we’ve already met many small-business owners who are committed to restoring north Sacramento to its former vibrancy. We purchased a “pleather” couch for the office from Rhoda Santamaria and Shane Curry at Casa Bella Galleria. We learned all about graffiti-resistant green toilet partitions from Richard Meeker at American Sheet Metal Partition Company, just down the street. And Carol Massa from Massa Peal Catering visits our building every morning with an assortment of muffins and coffee to help us start the day.
Our sustainable-office project is a work in progress. If we don’t continue to look for more efficient ways to do things, our building will not be truly green. We need to encourage light-rail use and bikepooling. We have to remember to use the cans beneath our desks for recycling only. We need to adjust to the new paperless fax machines and the cloth towels in the restrooms. If we power down our computers when they’re not in use, we can reduce our computer energy use by up to 70 percent.
Several years ago, I was having green nightmares. Getting here was no easy task. Now, I’m inspired to explore ideas about how we can work in an even more sustainable manner. I’m excited about working with our neighbors on the boulevard to improve the neighborhood. The nightmares have passed. I’m having green daydreams!
We’re hoping to have an open house here some time in the late spring or early summer. Please watch these pages for an invitation. I’d love to meet you and show you our building and hear what you think about the future of green building and our new neighborhood.