Green Building in Santa Barbara? It’s Not All That Easy

What does it take to build a very green infill condominium project in conservative, tourist-driven, image-conscious Santa Barbara, where detractors argue that solar panels on red-tile roofs create visual blight?

“It takes explaining and patience,” says Dennis Thompson, AIA, the architect charged with shepherding a four-unit project through the seaside hamlet’s notoriously picky boards, commissions, committees and bureaucracy. “Anytime you do something innovative, you’ve got to be prepared for that.”

And the project certainly is ground-breaking, involving structural insulated panels rather than conventional framing, grid-connected solar panels to produce 100% of the electrical needs, and cutting-edge gypsum wallboard infused with microscopic beads of encapsulated wax that melt or harden with the weather to create a thermal barrier.

Most controversial is a parking system that uses hydraulic lifts to stack autos in space-saving garages. Indeed, it is the parking spaces created by the system that allow for four units on the lot, rather than three.

And that extra unit is pretty significant considering that it will have a market value of about $1.5 million. With the lifts costing $6,000 each, even with a lot of explaining to the city planning department, that’s not a bad investment, Thompson told me.


You can see the four two-level garage spaces at the back of the lot in the NEW SITE PLAN image, which gives the lot 56 percent open space rather than the 39 percent open space they would get with a CONVENTIONAL SITE PLAN.

As green-leaning developers know, projects intended to be models of sustainability can get watered down during the design, permitting and construction processes if there is not what Thompson calls a “champion” to keep the green elements in focus.

The champion of a green project is typically the owner, the architect, or the builder. “In this case,” Thompson says, “we have all three.” The project is a collaboration between three baby boomer-era couples, two from Santa Barbara and one from Claremont, who seek to create for themselves a downtown “mini community” where they can, in Thompson’s words, “help each other grow old.”

Central to this theme is a natural courtyard, in between the existing vintage home on the front of the lot and the new three-story condo unit in the back, where the couples can gather and garden together.

One of the principals, Dennis Allen, is president of Allen Associates , an upscale Santa Barbara construction firm that aggressively pursues a sustainable agenda. “My passion is green building,” Allen says, “and I am getting the sense that we are just about to the tipping point of changing our building practices to take the earth and global warming into account.”

Goals of the Project

Last year, Allen was asked to present the project, called “Victoria Garden Mews,” at the West Coast Green conference in San Francisco, which drew more than 5,000 building industry professionals. As Allen explained to the attendees, the goals and principles of the project are:

• Maximize quiet garden space in an urban setting, thereby creating a place for food-producing and native plants that are attractive to insects, birds and wildlife.

• Minimize the space allocated to cars. This is accomplished by placing two double garages (four spaces with a capacity of eight cars using the lift systems) at the back of the lot, accessed by an existing alley. While a conventional design would allocate 21 percent of the lot to driveways and 39 percent to open space, this design allocates just 2 percent to driveways, which leaves 56 percent for open space.

• To encourage walking, biking and bus use. The lot chosen by the team is near public transportation, which is one of the basic tenets of sustainable housing.

• Retain rainwater onsite, harvesting it for site irrigation. • Scale down buildings to conserve resources. Again, this is one of the most overlooked green housing attributes, to create smaller units that will use fewer resources to build and operate.

• Harness the power of the sun with passive solar design and a photovoltaic array producing 100 percent of electrical demand.

• Create an indoor environment that is quiet and clean, that avoids chemicals and encourages natural ventilation with attention paid to the direction of prevailing winds.

Also, the team wants to pursue the “2030 Challenge” as defined by architect Ed Mazria, which aims to make buildings carbon-neutral, producing no global-warming carbon emissions, by 2030. The impact of sustainable building could be significant.

According to the American Institute of Architects, buildings in the United States consume 17 percent of the water used, 33 percent of the energy, 40 percent of the raw materials, and 66 percent of the electricity. They produce, directly or indirectly, 40 percent of the landfill waste, 33 percent of the carbon dioxide, 49 percent of the sulfur dioxide, and 10 percent of the particulate emissions. And finally, the project is designed to livable even when the utility grid goes down — due to wind, storms, or other factors — thanks to a modest bank of batteries fed by the solar panels

Selected Green Features

Passive solar design — While immediate profits on this project are not what drives it (because the developers will live in it), those considering a for-profit project often have one overriding concern: How much extra will it cost to build a sustainable project compared to a conventional project? In the case of passive solar design, there is virtually no cost involved, other than the cost of hiring an architect who understands passive solar principles. The windows, overhangs, wall mass and even the flooring are all designed to collect and retain heat during cool weather, and to deflect heat and retain coolness during hot weather.

Structural insulated panels (SIPS) — With conventional framing, the 2-by-4 or 2-by-6 studs act as a thermal bridge that allows unwanted heat loss from the interior to the exterior. SIPS, on the other hand, use a system of rigid foam insulation sandwiched between engineered wood panels, which act as a barrier to heat loss.

Space heating — The top two units of the three-unit rear structure will use condensing gas-fired, high-efficiency boiler radiators for space heating, while the ground unit will be heated with a closed-loop radiant floor piping system.

Water heating — Hot water will be provided by three solar thermal collectors with 120 gallons of integrated storage.

Energy efficient appliances — To avoid interior air pollution from burned gas, the cooktops will be magnetic induction, coupled with combination steam and convection ovens.

Extensive use of daylighting — Another basic tenet of green building is to reduce the energy demands, as well as generating energy on-site. In this case, the condos are designed so there are tall windows on two sides of every room, coupled with light colored ceilings and interior walls. For artificial lighting, LEDs will be used for halls, closets, laundry rooms, and so on. Fluorescents and infrareds will be used for task and general lighting.

Indoor air quality — This will be accomplished by banishing dust- and mite-collecting carpeting in favor of tile and wood floors. Central vacuum systems will be installed, formaldehyde-free materials will be used, and minimal finishes will be called for.

Water efficiency — In addition to the rainwater retention system, and the use of drought-tolerant plantings, water efficiency will be accomplished with Sustainable Solutions International shower heads, and Caroma dual-flush high efficiency toilets. The project has been winding its way through the approval process for a year, and will take another year to construct.

Perhaps the most unusual factor in the project is that the contractor, Dennis Allen, is driving the green-building focus. Traditionally, architects have been more open to innovative design and materials, while builders have been conservative. Not this one.

“He wants to be out in front,” Thompson says of Allen. “He is very proud of his distinction of being the greenest builder in Santa Barbara.”