Sacramento’s eco-makeover

Who’s the hottie with the solar panels and recycled carpet?

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

I’m starting to think I may be too much into appearances. It’s not that I’m shallow. I just like staring at pretty things, and we can probably agree that some things are purely and objectively good looking. Jake Gyllenhaal: hot. Cher: hot. Green buildings: hot.

To learn more about green building materials, principles and practices as SN&R renovates a building on Del Paso Boulevard, I’ve toured several green buildings in town and have realized that eco-friendly structures are some aesthetically pleasing beasts.

Last month, I visited the offices of MFDB Architects Inc., which used to be a nondescript 1970s building before being purchased by the firm’s owners, revamped and voilà: an eco-hottie building appeared on a street off Fair Oaks Boulevard. I appreciated the exposed ductwork and large open spaces with natural daylight flowing into every nook and cranny. Indeed, optimizing sunlight and passive solar energy was a priority for this project. Principal architect Tyler Babcock showed us the frosted glass covering the lower portion of the large windows in the main conference room, used to manage parking lot views (block the sight of cars and people walking by), while allowing daylight to breathe through.

Also in the room, large Tectum cloud panels—made of shredded aspen trees, which are a rapidly-renewable resource—hung from the ceilings to help with acoustics. Babcock designed beautiful cabinets made of recycled wood with a clear water-based finish, and recycled carpet tiles covered the floor.

My favorite part? Usually offices are situated along a building’s perimeter because Big Shots think they’re the only ones deserving of an outside view. However, in a wonderful display of proletariat achievement, many green buildings internalize Big Shots’ offices so as not to hog natural light. It’s quite Marxist. More daylight for all means less of a need to turn on lights and waste electricity.

In early November, on a perfect solar day, I hitched a ride to north Natomas for the unveiling of Provence, a community of affordable green houses that qualify for LEED-silver certification. Upon spying the model units, my first thought was, “Gimme, I want one!” Engineers used added insulation, correctly sized heating and cooling equipment, and guaranteed fresh-air ventilation. But because I’m only into looks, none of this mattered to me. The units incorporated many energy-saving measures, none overtly visible (yeah, yeah, energy efficiency shows itself as lower costs on a resident’s electric bill but that’s not flashy). Even the rooftop photovoltaic solar panels weren’t evident. As Bill Kelly of SunPower said, “One thing that’s noticeable is how not noticeable the solar panels are,” because some geniuses decided to add curb appeal by incorporating the renewable energy technology into roofing tiles. The builder partnered with SMUD to make these SolarSmart homes, meaning the utility provider bought down the cost of the photovoltaic systems and provides rebates for energy efficiency upgrades, which may save residents up to 60 percent annually on their electric bills.

Most recently, I toured the 9onF townhouses woven among old Victorians on F Street in downtown’s Mansion Flats district, located about six blocks from the state Capitol. They will be the first LEED-certified houses in the central city upon completion early next year, said developer Jeremy Drucker of 49Mile Inc., a Bay Area-based firm that specializes in urban infill residential and mixed-use projects. Because of its location in a historic preservation district, the two street-facing units blend old Victorian pizzazz with simplified modern architectural touches, while the alley and courtyard units reflect contemporary design; and all nine of them help build up Sacramento’s urban core.

In addition to good design, Drucker ranked sustainability as high on his development’s wish list, particularly in terms of limiting how much energy the houses will draw from the electrical grid. The units combine geothermal (the Earth’s heat) heating and cooling systems with solar panels for estimated energy savings of between 60 percent and 80 percent.

“I think [geothermal] is the coolest technology out there,” Drucker said, adding that it’s exciting to design homes with green aspects in mind because increased market demand and the refinement of eco-friendly products and materials make the process both financially viable and interesting.

The units also use healthy finishes, including paints with low volatile organic compounds, meaning the product won’t off-gas toxic chemicals as conventional versions do. The beautiful wood flooring comes from sustainably managed forests, as certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.

During these tours, as much as I admired the obvious attractiveness of the structures’ interiors and exteriors, I realized I couldn’t keep ignoring the underlying beauty—green buildings save electricity, promote healthier environments for occupants, conserve natural resources and optimize the life-cycle performances of systems. As much as this goes against my understanding of beauty as only skin deep, I’m learning to accept that, OK fine, true hotness means looking out for Mother Earth.