Sky’s the limit

Green-building advocates say ‘Let there be light’

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

The sun beat down that August afternoon, causing me to sweat more than usual when meeting new people. The heat reflecting off the asphalt street didn’t help the situation. As my boss and I headed to two trailers located off 27th Street in south Sacramento, I discreetly lifted my elbows every few seconds, welcoming the cross-breeze. I had to be careful: New to the job, I wasn’t prepared to embarrass myself quite so early in the game. Why did it have to be so hot? My self-consciousness made me sweat even more.

Once inside, a middle-aged man approached. He had short, graying hair and was dressed in a long-sleeved blue button-up shirt, tan Dockers and penny loafers. He introduced himself as Jim Blomberg, president of Sunoptics Prismatic Skylights. He then introduced us to an older man, his father, Jerry, who founded the family-run business.

We hoped to use their products in the building SN&R’s renovating on Del Paso Boulevard. Tell us all about your products, we asked, but the Blombergs weren’t having it. Not yet, at least. Jim ushered us into another (thankfully air-conditioned) trailer and, after overcoming minor technical difficulties, showed us Internet footage of a conference presentation that deeply moved him, in which a Silicon Valley investor urged people to take action to fight global warming.

“I’m on a mission more than I am trying to make money,” he explained, our faces revealing our confusion. Businessmen less inclined to discuss business than to talk about climate change? Interesting.

Jerry—a former windows-turned-skylights entrepreneur—started his company in 1978, during the height of the U.S. energy crisis, with the sole purpose of turning lights off in buildings. The master plan: Reduce peak demand on the electrical grid by daylighting facilities. Sunoptics has installed skylights in schools, government offices, houses and retail centers—including about 400,000 in 1,600 Wal-Marts nationwide, which is especially critical, as the chain is the largest private user of electricity in the United States. Sunoptics skylights can also be found at the Boys and Girls Club on Lemon Hill, St. Francis High School and in a Folsom sports complex.

Several years back, after reading a book by paleontologist Peter Ward, who argued that all mass extinctions have resulted from the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (with the exception of dinosaurs that bit the dust when an asteroid rocked their world), Jerry had an epiphany to develop a business plan that promoted energy efficiency through daylighting as one of the most cost-effective ways to reduce CO2 from entering the atmosphere.

Considering that lighting accounts for about one-fourth of a typical building’s energy use, Jerry’s belief in the importance of skylights makes sense. Daylighting, as it’s called, involves windows, light shelves to reflect light into space while shading windows from the summer sun and skylights. New and improved skylights provide indirect light without glare or heat and allow occupants to turn off inefficient overhead lighting and, if needed, pair natural sunlight with efficient task lighting. Daylighting is much less expensive than building new power plants and doesn’t pollute.

With California aiming for a 25-percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2020, energy conservation is a simple way to reduce carbon. In a letter to the state regarding revisions to Title 24 California Building Standards Code, Jerry wrote that energy efficiency doesn’t reduce quality of life, rather “[It] improves our quality of life, with less dependence on foreign energy sources, cleaner air, less water pollution and when daylighting is used … [it] improves the spaces in which we work, shop, learn and play.”

Yes, that’s all fine and dandy, but enough already with the deeply held convictions and positive thinking—my boss and I wanted to help increase your profits. Sensing our vibe, the Blombergs led us to a warehouse.

“You generally want 5-percent skylight coverage,” Jim said, noting that one four-by-four skylight brightens about 600 square feet of space.

Back outside in the unbearable heat, we stood in front of a skylight on a work station, and Jim handed my boss a sledgehammer. Our skylights can handle the worst hail, he said. My boss lifted the hammer and—bam!—mightily struck the skylight. Nothing happened. Not a break or scratch, barely a sound. Jim smiled proudly.

We Californians have it pretty easy. We choose excessive lighting levels, turn lights on whenever we want and too often forget to turn them off.

“We’re going to run out of a choice,” Jim said earlier that afternoon. “And we won’t be able to turn the lights off quick enough.”