Steep Learning Curve

The challenge of designing a net-zero neighborhood raises questions about how architects understand deep sustainability.

“Emeryville has accomplished something rare: It has become a city with urban amenities and an increasingly sophisticated populace, while…maintaining a close-knit neighborhood feel,” wrote Cathy Lang Ho in the September 1993 issue of Metropolis. She described a heated debate about saving the unique small town tucked between Berkeley and Oakland—whose tough industrial heritage had evolved into artist housing—as an alarming number of big-box retailers were eyeing the empty lots and a pharmaceutical company was planning to build a walled-in campus. The artists living in the abandoned plants and warehouses talked about theirs being a “sustainable community,” though, 18 years ago, few knew about embodied energy or net-zero building designs. But they did know what every good American citizen has always known: if you want to effect change, you take political action. So there were stories, like the photographer who went on to get a law degree and became a member of city council.

Large companies like Target, Ikea, and Pixar have since settled in Emeryville, but the quest to make a sustainable community is still alive. Evidence of this came last summer when I was invited to serve as a juror for a zero net energy (ZNE) design competition that was focused on developing an area of town once occupied by the Sherwin-Williams paint company.
Organized by the San Francisco chapter of the AIA and the utility company Pacific Gas and Electric Co., the competition, called Architecture at Zero, challenged designers to take up the cause of sustainable living in Emeryville. Entries, the organizers noted, should provoke a lively public dialogue around deep sustainability. They were looking for proposals that “produce as much clean energy as they use during a year through a combination of designed energy efficiency and on-site, grid-tied renewable energy production.”

The submissions offered many smart ideas, like catching winds for cross-ventilation, or placing enormous solar roofs over well-angled apartment houses that snake around a central community garden. But the experts on the panel were heard exclaiming, throughout the day, that the schemes didn’t show a deep understanding of the natural systems they were using. Where does the sun come from? Is the wind strong enough to run the rooftop windmills? Will there be enough water for the community garden in a town where rain is rather limited? What about the line of trees planted for sound abatement, to protect residents from the noise of the adjacent railroad? They wouldn’t, the expert jurors said.

The best thing about the Architecture at Zero entries and winners (two of the top prizes went to architecture students at Harvard University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) was that Emeryville Mayor Jennifer West attended the awards presentation at the AIA San Francisco headquarters and asked for the boards to be displayed at City Hall. And so the conversation begins. Judging from the entries, students should be welcomed into the discussion. Their solid research, clear documentation, and imaginative designs can inspire the professionals and the public alike. It seemed, on that early December day, that architects have a steep learning curve ahead of them. But then we’re all learning, together, to make thinking about and designing ZNE a habit, not a rarity.

Recent Programs