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Sign of the Times

Looking for directions on the road to sustainability? At Leger Wanaselja Architecture's multifamily development in Berkeley, California, all signs point to green.

Purchased by the pound from a local salvage yard, street signs from Reno, Nevada, were crafted into a one-of-a-kind fence.

If you haven’t seen a Toyota Prius on the road, chances are you haven’t been on a road lately. The heralded gas-electric hybrid sedan, with its semifuturistic countenance, leads the world in hybrid sales. Toyota has already sold over 50,000 Priuses in the first half of 2005, outpacing the rival Honda Civic Hybrid by 40,000. If you haven’t noticed many Civic Hybrids out there, it’s not just due to disappointing sales figures, but rather because the Civic looks identical to its gas-guzzling older sibling. If there’s a lesson to be learned, it’s this: If you’re going to go green, it pays to be conspicuous.

But is the same true for architecture? “I think it’s actually the opposite,” contends Katy Hollbacher, program manager of the nonprofit organization Build It Green. “Green building is currently very similar to conventional building as far as aesthetics go.” However, in Berkeley, California, at the busy intersection of Dwight Way and Martin Luther King Jr. Way, sits a notable exception. With a fence made from street signs, awnings crafted from hatchback windows, traffic-sign siding, and a gate fashioned out of Volvo station wagon doors, the Dwight Way, a mixed-use urban-infill project designed, built, and developed by Leger Wanaselja Architecture, is nothing if not conspicuous.

“The response was overwhelming,” says architect Cate Leger, recalling the open houses held for prospective buyers of the condominium units in 2004. “It was a mob scene,” adds her husband and fellow architect Karl Wanaselja. “There was a line around the block.” Although the Dwight Way, with its unusual use of unusual materials, may not be the norm when it comes to sustainable building, the visibility of certain green elements made for lasting impressions and quick sales. Wanaselja reports, “The woman who bought the unit in front told us she changed her route to work so she could drive by every day to check up on the progress.” While green building has pull, especially in left-leaning eco-conscious Berkeley, the resounding success of overtly green Dwight Way (and the Toyota Prius, for that matter) suggests that perhaps the first step to turning around public opinion is to turn heads.

The project, which the architects conceived in two phases (a renovation, followed by new construction), began in 2001 when Leger and Wanaselja purchased a run-down building that was originally a corner store with apartments above. “It was this warren of rooms, where every possible space, even the closets, had been turned into bedrooms,” says Leger, touring one of the now sun-lit and airy 820-square-foot condominiums. “We got mail for 23 different residents the month after we bought it,” adds Wanaselja incredulously.

As soon as the building permits arrived, the pair, who also served as the project contractors, first divided the building into four units, keeping as much of the original structure in place as possible. Although the Dwight Way wears its sustainability on its eaves, throughout the renovation every aspect was considered for maximum eco-sensitivity. Windows were punched into the southern elevation, allowing for greater passive heating. The building was insulated with blown cellulose, which consists of shredded newspapers and phone books. Old-growth Douglas fir and redwood were salvaged during demolition and reused as windowsills, walls, floor patches, and custom doors. Embossed wainscoting, laying dormant under a century’s worth of plaster and bad paint jobs, was restored to offer a historical decorative touch. Terrazzo kitchen counters consisting of recycled glass in a concrete matrix were commissioned from Berkeley-based Counter Production. Low-flow dual-flush toilets and energy-saving Scandinavian kitchen appliances were installed to reduce utility demands.

While these features of the Dwight Way read like a green building checklist, Leger and Wanaselja cross into more experimental territory with their use of recycled car parts and street signs. Being the designers, contractors, and developers offered the couple a unique opportunity to explore their unique ideas. “It’s hard to get a client who says, ‘Do me a place with car parts and street signs,’ but we can do it for ourselves and people can respond to it,” Wanaselja explains. In the estimation of Build It Green’s Hollbacher, it’s a positive move that keeps items out of the landfill and saves resources that would otherwise be used on virgin materials.

In a phase-one condominium, the glass rear hatches of Mazda RX-7s are used as protective railings along the stairs. Wanaselja, obviously no stranger to the salvage yard, goes into further detail. “I look for ones that still have some hardware so it makes it possible to attach to a building—the glass is tempered, so if you try and drill a hole it will break.” “But it meets code!” Leger adds with a laugh. In the bathroom, a closer look reveals that what seem to be ordinary glass shelves are in fact windows from Volkswagen Karmann Ghias. “Those are hard to find,” Wanaselja points out. Furthering the automotive dis-course, Porsche 924 hatches are used as awnings above many of the exterior entrances, and a gate to the parking lot is crafted from hovering Volvo station wagon doors.

Other salvaged materials come in the form of street signs, bought by the pound at the local dump. On the building’s south elevation these are reversed and brushed, creating aluminum scales that reflect brightly in the afternoon sun. Elsewhere the signs are bent into outdoor lights, stair railings, and eaves and fabricated into fences (in one case, reversed one-way signs create a peculiar homage to the picket fence).

The original lot purchased as part of phase one was large enough to accommodate another structure, so construction began on the ground-up phase two in 2003. For Leger and Wanaselja, building green doesn’t just mean using the right materials, it extends into living with smaller, more manageable spaces—a democratizing of resources. Sitting parallel to the renovated corner building, with a narrow garden and pathway between, phase two borrows from and evolves the design vocabulary developed during phase one.

It’s not unexpected, then, that the architects’ ecological approach extends to every aspect of the building. The concrete slabs employed 50 percent fly ash, a waste product of coal burning. The natural plaster walls were left unpainted  and removed the need for caulk and trim. A system of dry wells was dug to keep graywater runoff onsite. Car parts and street signs make appearances throughout—as railings, shelves, awnings, siding, lighting, and fences.

As developers, and green developers at that, the couple took a risk with the Dwight Way. “We were cantilevered way out there,” Wanaselja jokes as only architects can. “The number crunching was scary.” The response, however, has been overwhelmingly positive—a new renovation and infill project is already in the works. “It’s a way of expressing our values,” intones Leger, “and an outlet for our creative channels.”

For anyone who knows Berkeley, a place long associated with vociferous manifestations of counterculture, the Dwight Way, with its overtly green approach, seems a perfect architectural summation of the city’s values. Like so much in this island of blue (the political blue, that is) it’s hard not to wonder how the Dwight Way would be regarded were it built elsewhere: as a mere roadside curiosity, or as impetus for greater, more positive change in the way the public perceives housing? Leger and Wanaselja are positive it’s the latter. We’ll reserve judg-ment until Detroit unveils its first fuel-cell pickup truck.

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