Money and Energy in Santa Monica

For years Santa Monica has been a willing participant in a variety of urban and civic experiments. These range from widespread rent control to sustainable buildings, to the comprehensive (and controversial) LUCE masterplan for much of the city. Now the city is embarking on a new experiment: the new City Services building, to be constructed on a narrow lot behind City Hall. A 50,000 square-foot example of advanced building technology, the project intends to meet extremely tough environmental building standards. The plan is to make a building that will use solar electric panels to be self-sufficient in energy, collect and treat its own water for use and re-use, including the potential installation of a well, and composting toilets to convert waste to fertilizer. According to city staff, only 11 projects in the world can match the very challenging standards intended for this building.

The project represents a very advanced view of government projects and their purpose. Not only will the building be used to provide services to City Hall and local citizens, it will serve as an example of what can be accomplished by a city government that is driven by a particular vision of the future. It is a project colored, also, by optimism that technology will help solve our environmental problems, and by a sense that local government can set an example that will propel private industry to new heights of environmental sensitivity.

The project faces serious challenges. The building’s roof is not big enough to accommodate all the solar panels needed. The plan called for installation of additional panels on the existing City Hall building, but this ran into opposition from advocates of building preservation looking to protect the historic building. It appears to be unclear whether the well can provide the water needed. Will the health authorities allow the installation of the composting toilets included in the program? That is still uncertain.
The costs of the project have increased to new highs for municipal support buildings. The City expects the 50,000 square-foot building to cost nearly $85 million, or about $1,700 per square foot. Besides the building itself, the project includes deep changes to the way City Hall staff perform their jobs, with new methods of collaboration and teamwork, the use of large common spaces, and a highly-mobile staff using tablets and laptops working in many places throughout the building.

To be fair, not all the money will be spent on the new building. Considerable funds would be invested in modifying and upgrading the existing City Hall building. Money will be spent to improve fire safety, redesign office space in the existing building, new fire sprinklers, efficiency upgrades to the existing Heating, Ventilation and Air-Conditioning systems, new roofing that allows rainwater to be re-used, and many other items. Most of these are the result, at least in part, of the need to integrate the new building with the old, and combining them into an environmentally-efficient package.

City Hall currently rents 50,000 square feet of office space around the city, and the rents are constantly increasing. In 2013 the City spent about $2.4 million on leased office space. Moving staff from rented spaces to the new building, the thinking goes, will help reduce the cost of the project.

Are there better ways to spend the money? Perhaps a simpler, more conventional building could be built–still efficient, but without the cutting-edge experimental combinations we see in this project–thus releasing funds for other energy and water projects that could benefit the entire city and its residents.

The city’s new energy standards this coming year will help reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions. Future buildings will be much more efficient, for sure. But the bulk of the effort will fall on small projects, largely residential, such as single-family homes and small apartment and condominium buildings. Those will have some impact, but it will be limited due to their smaller scale and fewer number. While important, these new regulations will not make much of a dent in consumption by the city’s primary user- the large commercial sector. This is where the City’s efforts might be more productive.

The Public Services building is an interesting project, a fascinating experiment across different disciplines (including local government), and an exciting focus for any architect (such as this writer). But the solution to our city’s energy challenges will not come from ‘one-off’ projects, a few single-family solar homes, and some small low-rise condominiums. The solution should come from a systemic, concerted effort on a much larger scale, because it is only through economies of scale that we can begin to address our real water and energy needs city-wide. This effort must include not only the residential sector that currently shoulders much of the burden of the new regulations, but also the commercial enterprises that are the major consumers of our City’s resources.

We need a real energy and water independence master plan for the city, with an action plan that includes a timeline, cost analysis, allocation of resources and plan of execution. If this means pushing for an independent power utility and new sources of potable water, then let’s study and plan for that, and not confine much of our effort to expensive, limited-scope projects that look good and provide some improvement, but don’t solve our underlying challenges.

Daniel Jansenson, Architect, for SMa.r.t.