Green building, where are you?

What works for one may not work for all

SN&R buys a building, wants to make it green and pays Sena: Eco Warrior Princess to write a weekly column about it.

Hundreds of turbines harvest energy from the winds in Altamont Pass, where a thermal low brings in cool coastal marine air, making the wind farm’s productivity fruitful, though sometimes inconsistent. This country has generated wind-powered electricity since the 1970s energy crisis, and several large-scale wind farms now exist in California, with one of the oldest and largest being Altamont Pass. In some parts of the world, wind power supplies the majority of energy needs.

Wind farms may be an amazing technology, but it’s not one you’ll see everywhere. You likely won’t see a large turbine in regions with low average wind speeds or in cities where sky-rise buildings prevent adequate wind flow. Wind turbines aren’t appropriate for all geographical places and applications because, just like your underwear, clean technology is not one-size-fits-all.

Neither is green building. With SN&R attempting a green renovation of a building on Del Paso Boulevard, I’m asked repeatedly: What exactly does “green building” mean? Sorry to disappoint, but to my knowledge a specific, agreed-upon, essential meaning of green building does not exist. Instead, “green building” refers to a conceptual framework with commonly held principles. There is no universal green building guide, in part, because different geographies and climactic activities—average temperatures, wind speeds, sun angles, annual rainfall percentages and so on—determine sensible options.

Take Oregon Health and Science University’s Center for Health and Healing building in Portland, Ore., which received a LEED-platinum certification in February. As part of the $145.4 million budget, the architect aimed for 100 percent recapture of rainwater falling on the building for reuse and to reduce stormwater runoff. Rainwater harvesting is fabulous. But try incorporating this technology into a building situated in the Mojave Desert, with an annual precipitation of about 5 inches. Simply put: You’re fired, now get out of my face. The system makes sense, though, in Portland, where cumulative annual rainfall averages 36 inches.

I dabbled in East Coast living and, as luck would have it, suffered through an unbearably humid summer where walking 12 minutes to work each morning morphed me from a fresh-faced, eager young professional to a sweat-drenched, demoralized weakling just trying to earn an honest wage. The last thing I wanted was to enter a stuffy office. My supervisor limited air conditioning use to conserve energy, which was great, but we couldn’t even use a night-flush system (fans that circulate cooler night air through the building and exhaust warmer air to pre-condition the building to comfortable levels for the next day) because the temperature didn’t cool down substantially enough at night.

When the time came, I happily returned to California.

I like the Golden State because its uniqueness hinges not only on our collective identity as tanned, surfer dudes, but also on our climate, which affects our buildings. For instance, here we can typically turn off lights and open shades to let in an abundance of natural daylight. For Alaskans, opening the shades during those long dark winter days may be a rocking good time, but won’t do much to save electricity. As a rule of thumb, passive solar design incorporates sunlight and natural ventilation, and works best in hot, arid climates, like the American West and Southwest. In cooler climates, ventilation systems should be paired with heat recovery systems.

Stare directly at the sun (now jump off a cliff!) and you’ll understand the basis of California’s “Golden State” nickname. We get plenty of sun, which emits a beautiful golden hue. OK, fine, maybe the nickname originated with the discovery of gold, but the point remains: California could be the skylight capital of the United States because of all our sunshine. Our state’s also conducive to rooftop photovoltaic solar panels, and one day we may fly over Palm Springs subdivisions and see nothing but the glistening reflection of semiconductor-grade silicon cells converting the sun’s energy into electricity.

Sacramento’s microclimate also presents a telling case study. Consider Midtown versus Cal Expo. In Midtown, trees cast a shade over houses and streets, cooling the air even during ridiculously hot summer afternoons. In Cal Expo, wide streets of black asphalt with low light reflectivity (albedo) and minimal tree canopy raise the temperature several degrees. This is called a heat island effect and if you’re renovating a building in Cal Expo, you might want to invest more in light-colored concrete or cool roofing to mitigate this temperature increase.

Green building may not be universally and uniformly defined but we should not let semantics distract us. Wherever your green building may be, figure out what works best for that climate. Or you can move to California and enjoy life as a tanned, surfer dude, like the rest of us.