New Times Logo
55 fiction
ad info
avila bay watch
best of slo
hot dates
the shredder
about new times home

Sustainable objections

Local activists challenge Cal Poly to use ‘green’ design in mammoth student housing project


Cal Poly, a university with a renowned architecture department, has approval to build a 2,700-bed student housing complex. The university has the opportunity to design and construct a model of sustainability that would be the envy of every architectural school across the nation.

But Cal Poly, through its choices regarding the mammoth development, has made it clear the university isn’t striving for a showpiece. Rather than lead the way in the sustainability movement, it’s taken a casual approach to becoming a leader in "green" design.

Sustainable or "green" buildings are still considered state-of-the-art, but they are fast becoming the industry standard. Green buildings are designed and constructed so as to reduce or eliminate any negative impact on the environment. The design incorporates a whole-building approach, which results in a more energy-efficient building (see sidebar, "What is ‘green’ design’").

Governor Gray Davis signed Executive Order D-16-00 in 2000, mandating that all entities under his jurisdiction incorporate sustainable building practices.

While institutions of higher learning are not under the governor’s jurisdiction, the order explicitly encourages the regents of the University of California, the trustees of the California State Universities, and the boards of governors of community college districts to comply.

The University of California in Santa Barbara did more than comply. In 2002, UCSB finished completion of the Donald Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, which has been extolled as the "greenest" laboratory building in the United States and one of the most sustainable buildings constructed to date.

It was built with the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System. LEED evaluates the environmental sustainability of buildings and grants them LEED certification if they meet prescribed guidelines (see infobox).

The UC Regents made headlines again with the passage of a Green Building Policy and Clean Energy Standard in July. All construction and renovation plans submitted after the 2004-2005 fiscal year must be built to LEED certification standards.

UC Merced, which is currently under construction and doesn’t have to conform to the new policy, went ahead and pledged that all of its academic buildings would be built using green standards.

By the time Cal Poly’s Student Housing North project is completed–which won’t be until the fall of 2005–the bar for the CSU system will have been raised as well.

The CSU is likely to adopt a hybrid of the UC policy in January, according to the Sustainability Coordinator for the Division of the State Architect, Panama Bartholomy. With regard to Cal Poly’s Student Housing North project, Bartholomy said, "It would be nice if the design of this project reflected recognition of that upcoming adoption."

The planners behind the Student Housing North complex have made no such pledge.

They contend that the project cannot be completely green due to budgetary constraints. Linda Dalton, the Executive Vice Provost and Chief Planning Officer at Cal Poly, said that LEED certification is too costly to pursue. "We can’t exceed cost guidelines from the CSU for any reason," she said.

Patrick Drohan, Assistant Vice Chancellor of Capitol Planning, Design and Construction, said all campuses are required to use certain sustainable practices, but beyond that, it is up to each campus to decide whether or not they want to exceed those standards.

"It (LEED) is something out there for campuses to consider. We’re not objecting to it, but we’re not funding it either," he said.

Rather than pay for LEED certification, the Student Housing North planners could opt for a green building that meets LEED standards, but isn’t certified. When asked about this possibility, Dalton responded, "As part of the whole planning and design process, we have to balance environmental responsibility, the needs of the students, safety, and cost."

But according to sustainability coordinator Bartholomy, cost isn’t really a factor when it comes to constructing green buildings. He said there are "hundreds of millions of dollars" of financial incentives available to entities such as Cal Poly to help with these costs. But there has to be a champion on the inside who seeks out and applies for these funds.

More than anything, the Student Housing North project lacks such a champion. Not one of the planners has publicly expressed any interest in designing the most sustainable building possible. Rather, they are content to stay within the minimum guidelines prescribed by the CSU. When asked for specifics about the greenness of the current plan, Dalton said, "This project, like all projects, will of course meet minimum requirements set by the CSU, including energy efficiency."

Robert Kitamura, director of Facilities Planning and Capital Projects declined to be interviewed, but did respond to an e-mail asking why they weren’t making the building completely green along the lines of Bren Hall. His e-mailed response: "The use of the term ‘green’ or ‘sustainability’ can many times be misleading if not used with a common definition."

Without answering the question regarding specifics, Kitamura then went into detail about the green practices being used in the mammoth project, which he said are similar to those set forth by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC).

In keeping with the council’s principles, he said the site of the project–along the Brizzolara Creek–will enhance the area by replacing the current Animal Science cattle facilities. The plan also involves protecting ecological and agricultural areas to the east and west of the site and using plant materials that blend with the natural surroundings, thus requiring less irrigation.

The building will be designed to maximize the use of natural light and ventilation, and air-conditioning will not be installed in the living units. Additional green areas they are considering include the use of gray water for irrigation and steel in the structural system instead of wood.

Clearly sustainable building practices are being employed, but are they enough for a school whose College of Architecture and Environmental Design offers a minor in sustainable environments?

Polly Cooper, a former professor in the architecture department at Cal Poly, and co-founder of the San Luis Obispo Sustainability Group, a firm that specializes in green architecture, doesn’t think so.

Cooper said that when it comes to using sustainable building practices, there are two approaches. Planners can recognize that each project poses constraints as well as opportunities, or their tack can be, "How little can we get away with? … I’m guessing they’re usually in the second category," Cooper said of Cal Poly.

"How do students know what it is if they don’t see it?" Cooper questioned. "For heaven’s sakes, they have one of the largest architecture departments in the country. They should have the best examples of sustainable design."

She is not the only one who feels Cal Poly should be at the forefront of the sustainability movement. Steven Marx, a Cal Poly professor and member of the Sustainability Initiative, an on-campus organization, said he has attended public workshops urging the planners to construct a sustainable building that could serve as an educational tool for the university.

"Their response was pretty vague," Marx said. "It didn’t strike me as there was a great deal of interest on their part. They weren’t willing to discuss it in detail."

His biggest concern is that the project is exceedingly automobile friendly. Current plans call for two multi-level parking structures near the housing complexes, which Marx feels will encourage students to drive rather than consider other options.

"This is the opposite of the way we should be going," he said. He was told that this plan is a compromise because many wanted the parking to be in the basements of the housing complexes, which would have provided the students with even easier access to their cars.

"They’re taking something totally outrageous, and doing something less outrageous," Marx said.

According to Marx, so much space is being devoted to parking–approximately 2,000 parking spaces–that the planners are encroaching on biologically sensitive areas. He said they were going to develop a site containing native grasses that the biology department had been studying for decades. While the biology department voiced its objections, the complaints fell upon deaf ears. Not until the planners discovered that there is a PG&E supply line crossing the area did they abandon their designs on that site.

Another bone of contention for those in favor of a sustainable plan is the positioning of the access roads.

Eugene Judd, a lecturer in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department said that the master plan calls for a road through an environmentally sensitive area and construction of a second bridge over the Brizzolara Creek. The Environmental Impact Report suggests an alternative plan, in which the road makes a zigzag around the environmentally sensitive area. Rather than adopt that plan, however, Cal Poly came up with another alternative that Judd says isn’t that different from their original plan. "Cal Poly chose a not very sustainable alternative," he said.

Mikel Robertson, steering member of Sustainable Builders Council of San Luis Obispo, met with Kitamura and offered to help incorporate sustainable building practices into the project. Robertson made a plea for a LEED certified project, pointing out that such buildings save money in the long run. He said he was told that rather than apply for LEED certification, which is costly, they were going to use that money to build an even greener building. But Robertson feels the planners are not constructing nearly as sustainable a building as Kitamura implied.

"If they were doing something positive like that the whole community would know," he said. "They’d put out a P.R. package." Æ

Freelancer Shawna Galassi writes from her home in the South County.

Pick up New Times at over 600 locations in
San Luis Obispo and Northern Santa Barbara Counties.
home | 55 fiction | about new times | ad info | archives | avila bay watch
best of slo | classifieds | connections | hot dates | menus
movies | the shredder

New Times
©2003 New Times Magazine San Luis Obispo, CA USA
web site hosted and maintained by ITECH Solutions

to top