October 28, 2019 - From the October, 2019 issue

Santa Monica Meets the 'Living Building Challenge' By Designing the Greenest Municipal Building in the World 

The Living Building Challenge is the most rigorous sustainable building certification attainable, going beyond the design-based approach of LEED and requiring beginning-to-end operational compliance with strict, regenerative triple net-zero standards. TPR spoke to Amber Richane, Project Manager for the City of Santa Monica's new City Services Building, on the city's commitment to building the world's most sustainable public building. Richane walks readers through the innovative technology and design behind the $1,500/square foot 'living' City Hall Annex that will not import or export any water, energy, or waste.

"Instead of spending our money on marble floors and fancy chandeliers, we put our money into building systems that are efficient and help us achieve our climate action plan."—Amber Richane

As project manager for Santa Monica’s ‘City Service Building’ (CSB), what statement on sustainability is Santa Monica’s leadership making by funding and approving the construction of a “living building”?

Amber Richane: Our motto here in Santa Monica is that we’re a sustainable city of well-being for all, and we’ve been at this for a long time. Our first sustainable city plan was done 25 years ago, and that has set us up for this building. We have some very lofty citywide goals: water self-sufficiency goal by 2023, carbon neutrality by 2050.

We started 25 years ago with the belief that this is important and impactful. We just adopted our latest Climate Adaptation Plan, which speaks volumes about how Santa Monica set the goal, implemented it, and continues to push the industry.

We’ve instituted 100 percent clean, green power default for residents and businesses through the regional Clean Power Alliance, and this ‘City Services Building’ is the next level commitment in continuing to drive sustainability. It will be the greenest municipal building in the world, and—unlike many other office buildings—will pay for itself in roughly 15 years. As we look at the people, planet, and place, it’s great to be environmentally sustainable but you also have to be financially sustainable.

The new building will house 245 staff members, the majority of them currently based in leased spaces. As you can imagine, rents in Santa Monica are very high, and that’s part of the reason this building pays for itself. We’re bringing everyone into a city-owned property. It also creates a one-stop hub for our residents and community members, so—instead of having to go to all of those different places—they only need to come to a new central permit counter at City Hall.  We are committed to improving the customer experience with the new building.

It is a “living” building, because it generates all of its own energy and water, it consumes its own waste, and only uses known healthy material; it’s triple net zero. The people who come down to City Hall to use the spaces and those that work there will have access to natural daylight and fresh air. The material selections of the CSB have taken out the worst in class chemicals prevalent in the built environment, something that ILFI (the International Living Future Institute) calls the Red List. These chemicals are known for polluting the environment, bio-accumulating up the food chain, and/or harming construction and factory workers. The CSB has found products without the Red List chemicals from the materials that staff and visitors would interact with on a daily basis.

We’ve had to work very closely with the Department of County Health and Department of Drinking Water on getting this building approved. We’re doing innovative things like treating and drinking our own rainwater on site, the first in the state to do that. We have the first composting foam-flush toilets in Southern California. And we actually have edible landscapes where we will be able to distribute fresh fruits, produce, and herbs throughout the building and city hall campus that are grown on site.

This building will show what can be done in more urban settings. By bringing down those regulatory barriers, others can hopefully follow and do it in their own buildings. It’s something that Santa Monica has a long history of leading on—and we’re continuing to do that with this building.

You note that the living building’s features achieve the highest standard of sustainability. What is the Living Building Challenge and what differentiates it from other green building certifications and standards?

The Living Building Challenge is administered by the International Living Future Institute. Thirteen years ago, they were looking at LEED and what was being provided in the marketplace for certifications, and those are very design heavy. LEED and USGBC have done an amazing job at moving the market, pushing the conservations, and actually changing building codes. Not to take anything from them, but Living Building Challenge define what a sustainable building is—a building that can sustain itself—and what it does. The Living Building Challenge is based on a flower. Flowers waste nothing and generate nothing they can’t have on site. It’s considered the world’s most rigorous proven performance standard. Whereas previous rating systems have focuses on the design and construction aspects, not necessarily on how it’s performing. 

You can’t even get certification for the Living Building Challenge until at least a year has passed, because they want to really see if you are a net-positive energy building. They don’t want to know that you designed it that way, they want to see if your energy bills prove it—the same goes for your water bills and waste. They want to see that nothing is leaving the site that it’s not going to a landfill; the net-zero waste standard being not that no waste goes off site, but that 5 percent or less is going to a landfill.

The Living Building Challenge doesn’t actually tell you what to do, it just tells you the standards and says you have to pass an air quality test. As we’re designing, building, and constructing, we are very rigorous on what goes into this building. There isn’t a balance or maximum that we can hit, we test the air and if we fail we need to do additional filtrations to get the air certified as healthy. 

At the end of the day, we are going to be able to say that we vetted this many products and took this many things out of the manufacturing stream that otherwise could have been toxic to either the workers manufacturing that products or to the people living in that space and breathing in what is being off-gassed.

This also helps our construction workers who are actually building this building. They’re not using toxic chemicals or other things that could cause increased respiratory issues and cancer issues due to long exposure. When you look at what materials you’re actually handling, it’s not that you just used a green material; it really impacts that whole supply chain. That’s what’s really exciting about the Living Building Challenge to me.

Address both the science and technologies that enable the building’s circular waste-water and energy systems and the cost—the $80-85 million price tag or $1,500+ per square foot. Is the high cost justified by the City’s assertion that there won't be a utility bill for this building ever?

Yes, right. When we first designed this project—and even up until about a year and a half ago—we were thinking of doing a power purchase agreement, which sort of sounds like a power bill. But we’re actually buying solar, constructing it on site. There is a connection to the grid but we would be net metering. Not only do we expect to prove that we have no utility bill, we have to generate 5 percent more than we use. The same goes for water which is fascinating on this project because we’re in Southern California, an area that experiences drought with some regularity.

Before drilling down into the building system’s technologies, is $1,500 per square foot the right number?

The building itself—hard cost and construction cost—is $77 million, and that’s the total, max price of the building. I’ve heard people say $86 million, but that includes a child project in City Hall; it’s not the same thing, so I wouldn’t include it with the building. At 50,000 square feet, it is around $1,500 per square foot including all hard costs and soft costs. If you’re doing it just on the hard costs, it’s around $1,100 per square foot. 

If you look at building a new office building in Santa Monica, the code minimum is higher than elsewhere in the state. This still may seem like a high number, but when you take out the regulatory process and time it actually comes down significantly. We also did a cost analysis before starting this building as part of feasibility that’s available on our green building adviser website. You’ll see that our Green Building Adviser at the time, Joel Cesare, commissioned that study to look at what a code minimum in Santa Monica would cost, what a LEED Platinum building would cost, and what a Living Building would cost. This was about 4 years old so the costing data is a little different now, but we took a very hard look at how to make that financial decision and whether that makes sense for the building going forward. 

Instead of spending our money on marble floors and fancy chandeliers, we put our money into building systems that are efficient and help us achieve our climate action plan.

Share some examples of these incorporated building technologies—water, waste, and energy? What are the expected benefits?

We are the first in the state to be able to drink our rainwater. Any drop of water that falls on our panels or roof—which have to be an NSF-certified material—is able to be collected and transported down to a 40,000-gallon cistern below the building. That water is then run through an onsite treatment skid, and is delivered as our drinking water. This has the same basic properties of a big water treatment facility just on a much smaller scale.

We benefit from having our own water department in charge of delivering water in Santa Monica and this system is part of that. They are used to testing and delivering healthy, clean drinking water to our residents and community members, so this system is being maintained by them. We worked hand in hand with the Division of Drinking Water and the State Water Resources Control Board to be able to do this. It’s a high bar, but we’re proud to be the first in the state to be able to that. 

Another piece of the ‘water story’ is that we’re recycling our graywater. Anything that falls on a sidewalk, roof, or any non-NSF-certified surface, we either perk it back into the ground or pump it to a greywater treatment holding tank to be put out for irrigation on site.

The other piece that gets a lot of questions is our composting ‘foam-flush’ toilets. Even the highest efficiency dual-flush toilets are about a .96 gallons per flush; these toilets are about three tablespoons. When you look at how to reduce water consumption in an office building, the water closets are the number one largest user of water. For us to be able to make our water balance—with what we have on site and with what Mother Nature gives us—foam-flush really made all of the sense in the world.

There are five composters in the basement, and there’s a top section where the new stuff comes in. Like regular compost, there are wood chips and other things that get put in there, and once it up at a Class C or Class B it comes into a lower shoot where you can rake it, add more wood chips, and make sure that it’s composting. Composting is an aerobic not an anaerobic process, so it has to have oxygen.


We anticipate after about a year and a half after the building opens we’ll have our first harvestable compost. It’s a Class B compost, and we have the potential to bake it onsite with an autoclave to take it up to Class A—meaning you could distribute it on anything. There’s a facility at Griffith Park that’s been working with the zoo and composting animal waste, so this would be similar to that.

We have a couple of options about what we can do with the compost, but instead of shipping it offsite through a pipe to Hyperion, we’re intending on using this compost in our soil. There’s a small amount of leachate that per regulations we are not able to treat on site, so that water goes to another innovative project in Santa Monica called SWIP—Sustainable Water Infrastructure Project. They take 10 percent of Santa Monica’s blackwater, and treats it to a standard that is able to be discharged into the ocean and not having to go to Hyperion. Even for that small amount that we do have to send offsite, our blackwater is being treated through that SWIP process.

As part of the Living Building Challenge, you are allowed to do ‘scale jumping’, so if you can’t handle something on your own site but you can handle it at a system wide level, they’ll allow it.

Elaborate on the City’s expectation that it will be able to harvest the building’s own energy.

When you look at how to get to a net-zero building, the first step is to reduce your consumption. First and foremost, we have natural ventilation. We’re so close to the ocean, so there’s no reason to mechanically ventilate for much of the year. When our monitors tell us that the temperature, humidity, and air quality is good, we should be using what Mother Nature is giving us.

Second, we have radiant slabs for heating and cooling; we’re not going immediately to an active, forced air system. Using that smart system that’s actually way more efficient and delivering heating and cooling where humans are in the space, rather than forcing it down from the top.

Third, to shave off those highest and lowest before we have to turn on an active system, we have something called a phase change material. This material actually absorbs the heat and coolness to shave off a couple of degrees, then when it is too hot or too cold we have active systems that turn on. This is still a building that’s going to hold 245 folks with an average of about 100 visitors a day to our public counter for permits, business licenses, paying utility bills, etc.

This is an active building with computers, printers, refrigerators, and microwaves; this is not a stayed building. To produce our own energy on site, we have solar panels on top of the building, and three car port canopies adjacent to the building. Underneath those, we have bike storage, urban agriculture requirements, etc. On site, we are able to generate all of our energy for those reduced loads on the city hall campus site.

How are you addressing the healthy environment issues related to the living building challenge?

The floor plate of the building itself is a lot narrower than a traditional office building. Everyone is within the nine meters that is used largely in Europe as the farthest distance you should be away from a window, so that you have access to daylight.

With the natural ventilation, this building literally breathes. You can feel the wind flutter across your face, and we expect that much of the year. The building is designed so you have those innate little connections to nature that make our circadian brains and respiratory system calm down—or ‘biophilia’; studies even show that it dramatically reduces stress level. Those types of things are just baked into the building, and we’re very purposeful.

We also only have one elevator in the building. We are encouraging everyone to take the stairs instead, so that you get your steps in, get your heart rate up a little bit, and be invigorated. You can have those small moments of exercise throughout your day, as opposed to having to go to a gym away from your family, friends, and outside activities; studies have shown that this is a much healthier lifestyle.

What other building benefits that deserve highlighting?

A lot of work is being done around equity, and that’s one of the things that I’m very excited about. Everyone—whether you’re the Director of Public Works or a staff assistant—is in a 6x6 station. The democratization of space and breaking down those silos; we can all see each other, we can all interact with each other.  Of course there are multiple options for private work spaces when you need them and we are supplying technology to enable the ability to work from anywhere. 

Everybody, no matter who you are, has excellent access to daylight and fresh air. Those have known benefits for productivity, health and wellness, and happiness at work. Being a public entity, we serve our community; that is what we do.

Clearly, the City of Santa Monica’s ‘City Service Building’ is a bold global environmental design statement on sustainability. Address its design, but also speak to the execution challenges of managing  the design team, contractors, engineers, building system and material suppliers, and, of course, the City of Santa Monica’s leadership.

The number one thing is having a great team, and we are so lucky that we do. We have a great partner in Hathaway as the contractor, the architect is Frederick Fisher, the MEP designer is BurroHappold, civil is KPFF, and landscaping is AHBE. Everybody—from the beginning feasibility stage of the project—came together, had different opinions, and didn’t know what Living Building Challenge was. It could have been difficult, but we have strong advocates in the City and we had partners who were willing.

I have to say that Hathaway has really stepped up. As an industry, construction tends to lag behind in a lot of things. It’s where the rubber meets the road; you can design anything that you want, but if can’t get built it’s not going to function the way that it’s supposed to. We have a woman whose whole job is vetting materials. She works with the manufacturers, and pushes those industries to do better every day. We have subcontractors that are monitoring the other subcontractors. They can’t just run to their truck and grab a tube of some caulk. It has to be the caulk that was vetted and approved through our contractor. We have excellent partners in our architects who designed a great building that can function this way.

Any project that advances ‘practice’ necessarily involves execution risk;  what about the project have you anticipated could go wrong?

The biggest concerns have always been around the water story, because it’s very different. The permitting for the water treatment skid and the composting toilets was very challenging. There were conversations around solar about buying it as an onsite resource versus leasing it as part of the PPA– or Power Purchase Agreement.

There were a lot of discussions about what is right for the project and for the City of Santa Monica and what we can do in terms of time, schedule, scope, and budget. I’m happy to say that we’re on schedule and on budget.

The Red List, mentioned previously, is very worthwhile but it is really hard. Working together to find those solutions has been very cathartic and great for the team, but there’s also tough moments. 

Before concluding, share with our readers your professional credentials and motivation.

I’ve been at the City for just about two years. I’ve always worked in sustainability and architecture in my 22-year career. I have a love for building green buildings, and how can we live more gently on this earth. This project is why I came to the City of Santa Monica, getting the building through construction, operation, and certification. I’m just a complete green geek; I love all this stuff and I can’t wait for the building to open. I love working with my colleagues who are nervous about this building or using a compost toilet. Having those interactions and conversations is where I thrive, because I fully believe that this is what every single building we’re building in the world should be.


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