The West Coast Green conference highlights San Francisco for its leadership — and shortcomings — in environmentally sensitive building
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An assembly of the nation's premier green architects, engineers, academics, and policy makers was gathered Sept. 28 in the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, patiently awaiting a keynote address from Mayor Gavin Newsom. The speech was supposed to inaugurate this year's West Coast Green, the largest residential green building conference in the country.
But the anticipation of the crowd quickly turned to ill humor when it was announced that the mayor had decided to attend another event instead — the grand opening of the biggest Bloomingdale's west of the Continental Divide.
"I knew it!" one woman at West Coast Green lamented. "I knew he wouldn't come."
"He's at Bloomingdale's," another chided.
Newsom spokesperson Peter Ragone said the mayor believed he was scheduled to speak at the conference Sept. 30, and he did. But that was a day for the general public to come and learn about the frontiers of green building. By then, many of the disgruntled architects and planners had already left.
"I have to say that we are all full of contradictions, and we would not be here today unless we were," said Jim Chace, the director of Pacific Gas and Electric's Pacific Energy Center, who spoke in the mayor's slot Sept. 28.
"I promised I wouldn't take any shots [at Newsom], but this should not be so easy," Chace continued cheerily. "The fact is that there's a contradiction here, and contradictions are just a sign in our lives that it is time to look at change."
Newsom has regularly touted San Francisco as a leader in the emerging field of green building. But the conference and the mayor's speech snafu raise the question of where the city really stands when it comes to building — not just talking about — green structures.
Green architecture starts with common sense. It's about properly orienting buildings to the sun and the wind, making sure that insulation actually insulates, and using recycled material instead of finite or environmentally harmful ones.
But in the eyes of industry and government professionals, a building isn't officially considered green until it passes a national rating system known as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED. Buildings that earn enough credits get one of four LEED ratings: certified, silver, gold, or best of all, putf8um.
When it comes to LEED certified buildings, San Francisco can claim just seven, three of which belong to green architecture firms. That puts the city in fifth place, behind Pittsburgh, Pa. (8); Atlanta (10); Portland, Ore. (11); and Seattle (14).
"There really isn't much," Fred Stitt, founder and director of the San Francisco Institute of Architecture, told the Guardian. "About three years ago, I wanted to organize a tour of green buildings in San Francisco, and I couldn't find any."
That was before the work had begun on the LEED gold Federal Building and the LEED putf8um Academy of Sciences, which Stitt called "a masterpiece." Nonetheless, he said San Francisco's reputation as a driver of the green building movement was undeserved.
"Everyone thinks that Berkeley is a liberal bastion," Stitt said. "But if you live here, it's just a Midwestern town with a bunch of homeless people.... San Francisco's reputation is manufactured the same way."
Certainly some other cities are doing as much, if not more than San Francisco. This city's most important green building ordinance requires all new municipal buildings larger than 5,000 square feet to meet LEED silver standards. Yet there are no requirements or incentives for the private sector to build green in San Francisco.
Santa Monica also requires government buildings to be green, but it offers grants up to $35,000 for LEED certified buildings, including those in the private sector. In addition, Santa Monica requires most developers to incorporate four kinds of recycled material into their buildings and to recycle at least 60 percent of their construction and demolition waste.
Likewise, Portland, Ore., was just voted America's most sustainable city in the 2006 SustainLane Rankings, largely because of its attitude toward green building. Beyond its 11 LEED certified buildings, Portland is brimming with small natural structures like benches and kiosks made from clay, sand, and straw. The city also boasts an entire community of sustainable homes for the homeless, known as Dignity Village.
"Their natural building has totally transformed the spirit of their community, and it feels different than if you walk through Oakland or San Francisco," Marisha Farnsworth, an architect with the Natural Builders in Oakland, told the Guardian. "I got together with some architects, builders, and designers, and all of us said, 'Wouldn't it be great to have city planners come down from Portland and explain to our officials what's going on up there?’”
That isn't to say officials in San Francisco have completely missed the memo. The San Francisco Department of the Environment just finished negotiations with the Department of Building Inspection for a new priority permitting program set to be rolled out in the coming weeks. It would allow developers who pledge to build green to get fast-tracked through the bureaucratic morass of the city's permitting process.
Department of the Environment officials have also worked to reduce the amount of time and money it takes to get a rooftop solar permit. And with the opening of the Orchard Garden Hotel at Union Square on Oct. 12, San Francisco will soon become the first city in the country with a LEED certified hotel.
The point of West Coast Green was to ask how this city and the rest of the country can do more. Should we offer rebates for efficiency consultants to assess how energy is being wasted in our homes and businesses? Can the city offer larger incentives to the private sector or require more rigorous standards for developers? Should PG&E be pressured into pledging more of its public benefit money toward green building?
"Green architecture is still very much emerging," Eric Corey Freed, one of San Francisco's top green architects and a host at West Coast Green, told the Guardian. "And although San Francisco is the capital, even here it hasn't reached the point of ubiquity that we expect it to. We're still very much in our adolescence. We're like teenagers with pimples and crackly voices."
In 100 years, Freed added, history will likely look back on our time as the era of the green revolution. If he is right, perhaps San Francisco will have done enough to be deemed a nucleus of the movement — and important conferences like West Coast Green will take priority over the opening of new shopping malls. SFBG