EcoCenter Is Window Into Possibilities For Home

By E.Q. Lam, Sierra Club Green Home

The EcoCenter at Heron’s Head Park is San Francisco’s first building that is completely off the power grid. It features on-site solar energy generation, rainwater collection, and sewage treatment—taking advantage of the sun, the rain, and the natural surroundings. “We don’t want to connect to the grid,” says Tracy Zhu, EcoCenter program manager.

The self-sustaining EcoCenter uses sustainable landscaping around the building and on the “living roof,” in addition to the solar array, rainwater storage system, and wastewater treatment system. The community center is run by Literacy for Environmental Justice (LEJ), which for the past 10 years has been restoring and managing the land at Heron’s Head Park.

image via Sierra Club Green Home

LEJ (pronounced “ledge”) also has built a connection with the people in the historically polluted southeast part of the city and beyond. In constructing the EcoCenter, LEJ incorporated the voices of hundreds of community members and built relationships with dozens of industry and government partners to make the center a reality, Zhu says. Companies such as Andersen Windows also joined in contributing to the construction of the center.

The EcoCenter, which opened in April 2010, serves as an example of sustainable building, community support, and cooperation with government and business entities. It is a green symbol in an otherwise lackluster industrial area. Even though San Francisco is known as one of the greenest cities in the country, Zhu points out, “Who is it green for?” Most parks lie in other parts of the city, while Bayview-Hunters Point bears the brunt of environmental neglect, she says.

“If we look on the east side of San Francisco, the demographic tends to be families of color, low-income families, many more public housing projects than the west side of town,” Zhu says. “So we see this inequality and injustice within the city in terms of distribution of open space. We want to make sure this low-income community is benefitting as much as everyone else.”

Neighboring the EcoCenter is Recology, the recycling company which sorts and ships used materials such as paper and electronics to other countries. Other industrial neighbors of the EcoCenter are Bode Concrete, a factory; Darling International, a meat rendering facility, and PG&E, a utility company. Also nearby are bus depots and a sewage treatment plant, Zhu says.

“There’s a lot of respect for this building,” says Zhu about the EcoCenter. She points to the absence of tagging, scratching, or other graffiti as evidence of the community’s acceptance of the center.

More than 1,500 students, who LEJ sees as the green generation, visited the EcoCenter even before the building existed. Since the completion of the building, traffic of adult visitors in particular has increased, including policy makers and teachers, Zhu says.

“This area seems hard to reach, but for people who live here, it’s very accessible,” says Zhu. “Our main goal is to connect the local people to local resources. But we go above and beyond that.”

The community has responded positively to the youth employment, free education, and teacher training services that LEJ makes available at the EcoCenter. The center hopes to partner with businesses to offer green jobs training, Zhu says.

Replicating EcoCenter Features at Home

The center demonstrates a multitude of eco-friendly features that can work for the home as well. The environment around the EcoCenter influenced the decisions on what features the building would have, Zhu says—from energy and water sources to building blocks such as energy-efficient windows.

See a tour of the EcoCenter, led by Zhu:

As an energy conservation alternative, the center has a passive solar system which feeds into a battery bank. The center puts to use sunlight, which penetrates through the passive solar glazing on the center’s many windows.

“This forces us to live off the seasonal cycle,” Zhu points out. In the winter, the center would conserve more. The primary consideration for planning the center’s energy use, she says, was the windows and doors.

“Because that’s where you lose it and gain it,” explains Blain Beckmann, a certified green building professional with Andersen Windows. Andersen provided the energy-efficient windows at the EcoCenter.

Andersen, which has a track record as a green company, uses third-party certified sources for its materials, such as forest-harvested materials that are Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified. “Over 70 percent of what Andersen purchases is from FSC sources,” Beckmann says. “Being environmentally conscious, it’s no new thing for us. We’ve been around since 1903.”

The company installed two types of sustainable windows at the EcoCenter. The indoor windows, which separate the rooms yet allow heat from the south-facing room to travel through, are made with FSC materials, while the outside, south-facing windows are Fibrex with glazing that allows the path of solar heat gain to pass through. Heat regulation is achieved by closing off sections of the interior windows.

Andersen developed Fibrex windows by looking to re-use material left over from other operations within the company. Forty percent of the fiber in the windows is reclaimed from milling operations and the factory. “We take the sawdust on our floors, we suck it up and use it,” Beckmann explains.

Fibrex windows are three times as rigid as hollow vinyl. The cost of Andersen’s environmentally friendly windows, however, is comparable to the traditional hollow vinyl ones, Beckmann says. “It’s a responsible product for about the same price as regular [windows].”

A major advantage to these windows is that they require no painting. The color will endure for the lifetime of the windows. “These windows should last the life of a home—at least,” Beckmann says. And because they do not need painting, it eliminates one source of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) contributing to bad air quality.

Andersen windows are warranted against rotting and peeling. Dual windows can fail over a longer term due to the expansion and contraction from weathering, Beckmann explains. “By being so stable, we eliminate a lot of that movement,” he says.

With so many windows, the EcoCenter is perfectly situated in one of the sunniest parts of San Francisco. “The number one compliment about this building is how much sunlight it gets and how gratifying it is,” Zhu says.

Other features at the EcoCenter include exposed electrical conduits. They required more planning to bury in the walls during construction, Zhu explains. More importantly, the conduits serve as a teaching tool about the electrical grid, as visitors can follow the energy back to its source. “This is our way of making visible the electrical grid,” Zhu says.

Permeable pavements on the park grounds help capture and filter water. Low-impact landscaping features native plants, which are irrigated with a subsurface system to efficiently feed plants at the roots. The countertops are recycled from bottles, the building façade is reclaimed wood, and the cabinets and sliding doors were re-utilized. Recycled materials make up the artwork displayed in and around the facility.

A Challenge but a Success

Regulatory barriers challenged LEJ in bringing all the features it wanted for the EcoCenter, from building on a landfill to obtaining a certificate of occupancy. The on-site wastewater treatment permit was the most controversial issue, Zhu says. The center is the first building in the city with its own system of this type.

The community center has no connection to the city’s storm water drainage system, either. “Right now we’re not using the rainwater to plumb our toilets, because, again, another permitting issue. But in the future it will be,” Zhu says. “It took many years to get to this point, and hopefully, we’re paving the way for others.”

The services of the EcoCenter are available to the greater San Francisco community. This includes giving Bay Area teachers the opportunity to incorporate sustainability into their curriculum through hands-on learning. As a community center, the EcoCenter also makes itself available for event rental, including as meeting space for companies, government agencies, and the community, as well as space for retreats and family celebrations. Companies such as Salesforce.com have sent workers to the EcoCenter on corporate volunteer days, Zhu says.

The center’s accomplishments were recognized in 2010 with an Environmental Justice Achievement Award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The next step is to connect the community with the green building industry, Zhu says, by harnessing investment in education programs.

Editor’s Note: This news story comes to us as a cross post courtesy of Sierra Club Green Home. Author credit for the post goes to E.Q. Lam.

I am the editor-in-chief and founder for EarthTechling. This site is my desire to bring the world of green technology to consumers in a timely and informative matter. Prior to this my previous ventures have included a strong freelance writing career and time spent at Silicon Valley start ups.