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02.27.08

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High Above It

New green complex is like a living organism for grownups

By Gianna de Persiis Vona


B ecause buildings are responsible for a vast amount of our daily CO2 emissions and have a larger impact on the environment than any other single element, high-density building and energy efficiency are a driving force behind architect Steve Sheldon's vision of housing for a sustainable future. According to Sheldon, designer of the Florence Lofts, a new green complex in Sebastopol, sustainability in this case means getting to a point where the building project can sustain itself, ideally producing its own electricity and existing as a carbon-neutral zone.

As Sheldon gives me a tour of the property, I press him to further define sustainability. He explains that, in his view, the heart of sustainability is density. We need to limit traffic and movement by focusing on our urban environment, leaving our remaining open space undestroyed. The urban areas are for living, and should be used as such. For this reason, the 1.1 acres that contain the Florence Lofts are built to the maximum density allowed by town dictum. There are 12 live/work townhouses with an adjoining commercial building that contains retail, office space and a restaurant. Because the site sits just five blocks from downtown, and each of the living units includes a workspace, it would be possible to live here quite comfortably and never drive anywhere.

At 1,512 square feet per unit, including a downstairs office and upstairs living quarters, the lofts themselves are minimalist. Because the units are designed for maximum practicality as well as beauty, it's easy to see how a small space can meet one's needs. Each unit sports large windows allowing maximum sunlight in the winter and minimal direct sunlight in the summer, a plethora of built-in cupboards, cabinets and closets, and enough shelves to make this book junkie salivate with envy.

The wood used in the complex is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, the steel framing comes from 80 percent recycled product, the paints are all clay-based and VOC-free, and the units contain dual-flush toilets. Everything, from the countertops made from paper stone (recycled paper) to the insulation made from recycled blue jeans and underwear, is as environmentally sane as possible.

There is a large research component to doing this type of work. Because green building is a relatively new field and new products are cropping up all the time, it can be difficult to find the best material for the job. There is little long-term evidence to rely on, and so Sheldon and his team have gone through the laborious process of tracking products from their inception to their place on the product line.

The entire site is permeable, including the paved parking lot. Water runoff flows into a bio-retention site, where it is cleaned of oils and residues by the resident plant life before being let out into the local waterways. All of the water coming from the laundry, bathing and hand sinks travels through a graywater system, which is then used in the subsurface irrigation to water the property's landscaping. The extensive graywater reuse serves as a perfect example of what this project means on a grander scale. To live here, tenants must buy into the idea that building and living in an environmentally conscious manner is essential to our survival. This means no dumping paint thinner down the drain, as everyone's plants will shrivel and die.

The electrical system, too, demands group consciousness. Photovoltaic panels cover the roofs, and a grid-tied system is in place allowing power to be moved from building to building, wherever it is most needed. The less electricity used, the lower the monthly owner's dues. Rather than run AC systems during the summer months, water from the heating and cooling system sprays onto the roof at night where it cools before flowing back into the tank and providing lower temperatures for the buildings during the day.

As Sheldon walks me through the lofts, which start in the high $700,000s, I can easily envision myself living here. Of course, I would have to get rid of the children. Sheldon assures me I can have a dog so I won't be too lonely. The office downstairs will be the perfect space for writing my bestseller, and the loft, though small, is ideally suited for entertaining. As I trudge back to my car, the permeable gravel crunching beneath my feet, I envision this life for myself: childless and independently wealthy with closet space and finally enough bookshelves. While hardly feasible for me, I imagine that there are people out there for whom this could be a reality. In which case, perhaps they would not mind asking me over for dinner.

 

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