Architect Robert Swatt, designer of the GreenCity Lofts condo complex on the border of Oakland and Emeryville, California, makes no claim to longstanding environmental expertise. Standing in front of a model in his East Bay office, he says, “We’re not one of those firms who make green building the hallmark of our work. There are firms out there like that, but we’re not one of them. For us, design will always be the driver.”
When Swatt began GreenCity Lofts, he had little idea what it meant to be green. In fact, his firm, Swatt Architects, had never done an eco-friendly project of this magnitude—a 62-unit complex split into five separate buildings. “The green aspect was completely educational for us,” says Swatt, who credits an “enlightened” developer with the concept. “At first, it was like a seminar, where you learn about products and practices.”
In some ways, though, Swatt’s inexperience with sustainable building techniques made him the ideal architect to build the units. A multifamily condominium dwelling poses different design challenges than an eco-friendly single-unit house: It has to make money for the developer at the start, rather than pass on savings to the residents in the long term.
GreenCity Lofts didn’t begin as a green project; it just started off as tall. The location the developer, Martin Samuels, chose fell squarely between the city lines of Emeryville and Oakland. To build something on the scale he desired (75 feet high), Samuels and the architects at Swatt had to go before both city zoning boards to get an exception on the 30-foot height limit in Emeryville and the 65-foot limit in Oakland. In 1998, Oakland’s then mayoral candidate, Jerry Brown, told them that to get a permit to build, they would need something “compelling.” Samuels credits Brown for the idea of making sustainable condominiums, which in 1998 wasn’t exactly on the tip of everyone’s tongue.
Swatt brought in environmental and marketing consultants to develop a plan; business concerns frequently competed with environmental features. “We went down the LEED matrix [the voluntary guidelines used nationwide for green building] item by item with the developer to figure out what we could and couldn’t afford.” And although the architects planned for the lofts to meet LEED’s platinum level, the hefty cost of attaining LEED’s stamp of approval proved prohibitive. For instance, photovoltaic panels to provide solar energy for residents would have been a “no-brainer” if Swatt were designing for an individual home, but the developer had no incentive to invest in it. “We had to make green a good business decision,” Swatt says. “The developer is not totally altruistic.”
Swatt has no firm numbers on how much green features might have added to the building cost—he has heard between 2 and 12 percent—but many of the environmentally sound features were both practical and inexpensive due to the increased market for such wares. Items like low-VOC paints, used in the project, and recycled-content carpeting are becoming standard. It’s a testament to how mainstream green living has become that GreenCity doesn’t “wear its green on its sleeve,” says Swatt. “You won’t find any straw bale here. It’s not really obvious.”
Indeed, the complex gives no visual cues to its sustainable underbelly. In the five structures, there are three scales of units for sale: studios, townhouses, and lofts, which run from about 500 to 2,000 square feet. Standing in a courtyard of GreenCity, one is struck by the rigid angularity of the buildings, which stand out among their surroundings. Lined with steel staircases and girded by cement walls, the units have an unquestionably industrial feel. However, colorful touches like the mustard-yellow doors and lantern-red bay windows balance the Gotham metal with California whimsy.
As for the sustainable specs, GreenCity is impressive. It exceeds California Title 24 energy requirements by 15 percent. The building process was vetted for its sustainability—95 percent of the demolition waste from construction was recycled, surpassing Oakland’s legal requirements of 50 percent. The steel superstructure and interior framing contain as much as 90 percent postconsumer recycled content. The cement pours contain at least 25 percent fly ash, and the roof was painted gray, not black, for its cooling benefits.
For Swatt, designing such a large structure was a professional trade-off. On one hand, he didn’t get the same freedom to take the kind of artistic license with details that he does when working on a single-family home. On the other hand, GreenCity Lofts allowed his firm to master sustainable building techniques, which both he and his partner Steven Stept agree are the future of home design. Swatt says his firm has already received offers to build more green apartment complexes, in the Central Valley of California, which they are weighing. “It’s a chance to make a difference in a community, make a public impact. It’s an aspect that I find to be…” He pauses for a second, looking at the skyline, before settling on a word. “I find it to be good.”