Putting the view back in Bayview
Bayview-Hunters Point is an environmentally blighted neighborhood is an understatement. The southeastern San Francisco neighborhood is home to Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, a Superfund site that has cost $350 million to clean so far, as well as a landfill containing radiological waste and 300 other toxic sites, according to reports.
But now it’s also home to Ecocenter at Heron’s Head Park, a 1,500-square-foot restorative building designed to meet the requirements of the Living Building Challenge 2.0. The center, owned by Literacy for Environmental Justice (LEJ), operates entirely disconnected from the power grid and treats and re-uses all rainwater, greywater and blackwater onsite.
LEJ is using the “living classroom” as an environmental education center for the community’s youth and other residents. The center is about more than education, says project manager, Laurie Schoeman. It’s also a statement from and a cure for a neighborhood that has been left out of the “green” movement.
“A lot of the design is trying to capture an alternative response to what’s been happening in the community for over 50 years,” Schoeman says. Building Ecocenter at Heron’s Head Park was a 12-year, $1.4 million odyssey for LEJ that was completed only after Schoeman came in four years ago and changed the entire design team to get what was then a stalled project moving again.
Sustainable Industries first talked with Schoeman in 2008, right after she and her team secured a permit for the building’s living machine. We checked back in with her shortly after the Center’s completion in June 2010 to find out what’s next for her, the building and the community.
SI: Why did you get involved with this project and what have you learned from it?
LS: I’ve been training a long time for this project. I started off working in food security and … made connections that environmental hazards in these communities were creating challenges for these folks to move forward. So I moved from the food security movement into city planning [after] realizing that growing food for people in their communities would not solve the problem of poverty.
I’ve learned some really great lessons in how to form a design team. In a project like this, … you can’t just depend on your architect … the project manager has to be privy and understand all the pieces that come into play in something like this. It has to be a collaborative process, and that’s not an easy balance to create. Your architect is critical. They need to know HVAC. They need to understand how plumbing works.
SI: What is the function of the building? What will be going on there and who is coming to it?
LS: Literacy for Environmental Justice, which is the nonprofit developer of this building, trains youth to be environmental stewards. We work with thousands of youth each year in the park to teach around a variety of natural environment themes. [Now that the building is complete] we’re going a step further and will train youth in the built environment. So this living classroom will allow us to teach youth about solar power, wastewater treatment, low-impact development design solutions. We will be able to offer a built environment curriculum that will parlay well with state standards.
SI: Why put up such a green building in such a toxic location?
LS: We should be building all of our green buildings and ‘green’ systems in these communities that have felt the most impact. The green building movement has traditionally been located in communities that have the money to make those front-end investments in things like green roofs and solar panels and wind turbines. All too often, the most impacted and marginalized communities—urban core communities—get overlooked because they don’t have the financial resources to make those investments.
I think it’s the very people that are suffering under the years of poor planning that desperately need these systems put in place. Our building is regenerative. Regenerative within the context of Bayview-Hunters Point means a significant amount. This is a community that … has been cut off from the core central city by several different highways. There hasn’t been public transportation here for many years. This community is composed mostly of people of color, immigrants, African-American community members and a lot of low-income folks. So this is a community that has not only been displaced, but cut off from what we think San Francisco is.
We think about it as a regenerative effort because ... we want to see buildings here that actually add value to the community instead of detracting from the health of the community. All too often buildings in this community have created additional hardscape burden, have created shadows, have not been designed to create a commons, or have not been designed to create a healthy living environment. … So we’re trying to change the nature of the built environment here.
SI: Since the building is entirely off-grid and reliant on solar, what are you doing for power at night?
LS: We store all of our produced energy in a bank of deep-cycle batteries.
SI: Isn’t that more expensive and less environmentally benign than feeding into the grid?
LS: There’s a philosophical basis for why we decided to build a standalone solar array. Given the fact that PG&E (NYSE: PCG) has had a negative environmental impact around California in many communities like Bayview-Hunters Point, the design team, headed up by me, decided to go independent from that very system.... The second driver was that the building itself is located more than 900 linear feet from a grid tie-in connection point. … We would have had to step down a very high voltage industrial line ... and we would have had go to the expense of not only stepping down but running underground cables to the building [because] the park that we live in is in a bird-habitat zone.
When you look at the cost of tying in to the utility versus the cost of building the standalone system, within one year there’s a payoff. It’s actually more affordable for us to generate our own power onsite. Philosophically, what’s really important to consider is … we may feel we are running our lives off of clean, renewable energy by having solar panels.
When you feed back into the grid and net meter back, what you get as energy is not clean and renewable. The only way you can guarantee clean energy is having a system that uses the energy you produce.
SI: But feeding into the grid adds more clean energy to the overall portfolio and removes the need for individual battery arrays.
LS: …The power companies are now mandated have to have a certain amount of their power portfolio be renewable. What we’re doing by feeding into the grid is helping the energy company get to that compliance measure. … That’s a good thing because we’re pushing private power in the right direction. But for a lot of folks that feel that the power companies are not doing the right thing by communities like Bayview-Hunters Point, … that allows the power companies not to do their due diligence and build their own renewable arrays—and make the investments that they really do need to be making—on a grand scale. We’re sort of letting them off the hook, in a sense.
The battery question is really important to me because the issue of battery storage is an environmental problem. … Batteries are a single time investment in a stand-alone array. We’re not making a continued daily investment in non-renewable inputs. ...We’re looking at the lifecycle investment of a battery versus the ongoing impact of having non-renewable [power].
SI: What is next for you and the organization in terms of this building and other projects?
LS: We have a space now, the community has a space now, that will model best practices [and] will be something that will add value to the community from a variety of angles. And I think that the organization is going to be able to raise the bar in its own programming and raise its profile as an environmental justice advocacy group that is trying to push for clean communities throughout the community of Bayview-Hunters Point, throughout the region and maybe throughout the state. We’re part of an international network of environmental justice community groups.
I want to build another of these buildings and I‘d like to bring it to my hometown. I am thinking about ways of constructing something like this back on the East Coast and I am specifically interested in New York, where I am from. Can you imagine a building like this as part of the South Bronx?