written by:
photos by:
February 1, 2009
Originally published in All Together Now

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.

GreenCity Lofts exceeds California Title 24 energy requirements by 15 percent.
Photo by 
1 / 4
“We don’t punch holes in walls to create little windows,” he explains. “In most cases, we’ll take as much of a wall as possible and make it glass.”
Photo by 
2 / 4
The interiors fit in with Swatt’s interest in simplicity.
Photo by 
3 / 4
Swatt’s decision to create five separate buildings with open-air corridors incorporates a concern for cooling through cross-ventilation.
Photo by 
4 / 4
greencity lofts exterior
GreenCity Lofts exceeds California Title 24 energy requirements by 15 percent.
Project 
GreenCity Lofts
Architect 

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.”

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

burton residence concrete floors metal panel sliding outside
An easy construction process reduces any drama for a couple in California.
May 31, 2016
Modern outdoor deck with wooden ceiling and metal fence
Working with a limited footprint, a daunting slope, and killer views, architect Bruce Bolander went vertical with a secluded canyon house in Malibu.
May 31, 2016
Sustainable home with galvanized steel shed roof and siding
A rural house in Ontario doesn't fuss around and fits right in the surrounding landscape.
May 31, 2016
Modern prefab summer home in Madeline Island, Wisconsin
Prefab construction simplified the building process of this northern Wisconsin summer home, where all materials required ferrying across Lake Superior.
May 30, 2016
This unrealized plan reimagined the city’s downtown and included a large green area next to the capitol building and paths to bring people to the Delaware River
In her new book, Wild by Design, Margie Ruddick shows us how to get closer to nature.
May 30, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent joa herrenknecht berlin cstudio joa herrenknecht berlin loftsw livingr02 studiojoaherrenknecht 2015
Size doesn't intimidate this ambitious designer.
May 30, 2016
modern fjallbacka sweden pine boxes vacation facade
Architect Gert Wingårdh creates a passionately outfitted vacation home for two midcentury furniture dealers on the western coast of Sweden.
May 29, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent driaan claassen cape town south africa ccourtesy of driaan claasen dualpage82
Driaan Claassen combines a variety of materials and a love of history to create distinct objects.
May 29, 2016
energy star dirk wynants extremis poperinge beligium sustainable farmhouse facade
The owner of an outdoor furniture company updates a 19th-century farmhouse.
May 29, 2016
Modern small sustainable weekend home with flat roof
Two linked 1,000-square-foot pavilions are greater than a sum of their parts.
May 28, 2016
inside out los angeles home barbara bestor hollywood outdoor facade charcoal paint pool
Architect Barbara Bestor transforms a Hollywood Hills home by opening up its interior to the site’s dramatic backyard topography.
May 28, 2016
right of laneway vancouver garden sliding glass western window systems door outdoor
A Vancouver garden blossoms alongside fresh development.
May 28, 2016
20160229 dgd highhouse 1777 1024x683
A toddler, a pup, and their parents fit onto a 16.5-foot-wide plot in an inner suburb of Melbourne.
May 27, 2016
rec
Every week, we highlight one amazing Dwell home that went viral on Pinterest. Follow Dwell's Pinterest account for more daily design inspiration.
May 27, 2016
capitol gains seattle multifamily living dining room wassily chair chaise le corbusier cb2
Two Seattle architects design and build a dynamic multifamily structure on a formerly vacant lot.
May 27, 2016
modern beach house thatch roof living dining bar cart
By eliminating walls and incorporating a series of interior gardens, architect José Roberto Paredes creates an eclectic and inspired El Salvador beach house.
May 27, 2016
7
A two-story Eichler in San Francisco gets a freshening up.
May 27, 2016
Bathyard renovation in Madrid, Spain
In Madrid, Spain, Husos Architects renovate a turn-of-the-20th-century apartment for a client with dual passions: her houseplants and a nice, long bath.
May 26, 2016
Exterior of Huneeus/Sugar Bowl Home.
San Francisco–based designer Maca Huneeus created her family’s weekend retreat near Lake Tahoe with a relaxed, sophisticated sensibility.
May 26, 2016
starting over sturgeon bay facade tongue and groove new growth cypress  0
After a devastating fire, architect David Salmela designs a house to replace a beloved lakeside retreat in Wisconsin.
May 26, 2016
Modern home with brick base and cedar rain screen on top level
An architect reimagines an outdated brick garage by designing a graceful new family home atop its foundation.
May 26, 2016
sardenya lr 7
A renovation brings light and order to a Spanish flat, maintaining its standout ceilings.
May 25, 2016
pow 5 25 1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
May 25, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent thom fougere winnipeg canada cthom fougere studio thom fougere saddle chair 2
Designer Thom Fougere plays with scale and typology to create playful furniture.
May 25, 2016
prs my16 0067 v001 1
In the worlds of architecture and design, we’re always looking for the best ways of supporting sustainable building practices. This awareness doesn’t have to stop at our driveways but rather, it can extend to the cars we choose to take us to the places we go each day. With Toyota’s 2016 Prius, the daily task of getting from point A to point B can now be experienced with a new level of efficiency, safety, and style.
May 25, 2016
mountfordarchitects western australia
On a narrow site in Western Australia, Mountford Architects makes the most of a tight spot—with an eye to the future.
May 25, 2016
San Francisco living room with Wassily chairs
Materials and furniture transformed the layout of this San Francisco house, without the need for dramatic structural intervention.
May 24, 2016
shiver me timbers tallow wood kitchen
A pair of married architects put their exacting taste to work on their own family escape in the Australian bush.
May 24, 2016
in the balance small space massachusetts cantilevered cabin glass facade
When nature laid down a boulder of a design challenge in the Massachusetts mountains, an architect’s solution elevated the project to new heights.
May 24, 2016
Wooden Walkways
A home in Ontario, Canada, demonstrates how factory-built housing can be as site sensitive as traditional construction.
May 24, 2016