Awards answer lack of green design criticism

What a difference a year makes.

If the 2007 design awards handed out last month by the San Diego chapter of the American Institute of Architects had a theme, it was that this year's jurors were impressed with local architects' adaptive, and creative, use of existing buildings coupled with a growing attachment to green construction.

This year's awards, heavily tilted to commercial and residential projects using sustainable materials and green building techniques, was a clear sign that the three judges believed San Diego designers are pursuing a strong agenda on the environmental front.

That was in marked contrast to the previous year's awards. Then, in the Neurosciences Institute auditorium -- also the location of this year's awards -- juror Gwendolyn Wright unexpectedly criticized the local architectural community for not embracing sustainable development.

Wright, a professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture who is a regular on the PBS-TV program "History Detectives," said architects here had not connected nearly enough with an environment known for its magnificent climate and dependable solar exposure.

"I took that message back to my office," said Matthew Ellis, principal of the architectural firm Blue Motif Ltd., based in Little Italy. "We actually put it in our mission statement to focus on sustainable design." Each of the firm's projects now goes through a process to gauge its suitability for green building concepts.

"We can't always do it with everything," he said.

But sometimes once is enough. And that was the case this year, as a new panel of AIA judges gave Blue Motif two awards for its Barrio Logan Design Guild. The project transformed a former printer's warehouse into a mixed-use structure that heavily emphasized ecologically sound and low-cost materials.

Located at 1805 Newton Ave. in a neighborhood where homes collide with auto-body shops and heavy industry, the redesigned building houses a stylish and well-received restaurant, a loft-like office floor housing several businesses and the metal fabrication shop of one of the building's owners, Paul Basile. Basile is a well-known designer in his own right who creates interior decors for restaurants and art installations, working with architects.

The Guild emphasized the use of material salvaged from construction sites, and renewable or recyclable materials such as discarded glass bottles, bamboo plywood on tables and chairs, sustainable wood and kirei board -- a sheet product made of reclaimed agricultural fibers.

Ellis' firm undertook the original architectural planning to convert the building and Basile completed the work, constructing much of the interior furnishings in his shop just behind the Guild restaurant, down to a metal taco holder. He co-owns the building with Linda Karp.

The AIA judges gave the project a Citation award and the Energy Efficiency Integration Award sponsored by SDG&E.

"We know that construction debris has a significant impact on our landfills. For a project to re-use material to this degree while repurposing an existing building in unique ways sets a great example ... ," said juror Angela Brooks, a Santa Monica architect certified as a green building specialist.

In La Jolla, architect Jennifer Luce and her firm, Luce et Studio, took a different tack in a prize-winning project that takes sustainable architecture and adaptive reuse in a thought-provoking direction for anyone owning a suburban tract home.

Homeowner Greg Lemke shared with Luce his vision to live in a minimalist, open-air house, evoking the architecture of Mies van der Rohe. He wanted a home that could be used for entertaining or just kicking back to pursue Lemke's musical interest in Baroque fugues.

A prominent Salk Institute neuroscientist, Lemke wanted to remain in the '70s ranch house he had lived in since 1997, a home that was convenient to work and that had the potential to exploit views north and west toward the ocean and, from the back, to the cross on Mount Soledad.

Having decided not to move, Lemke's other option had been to pursue a route many homeowners along the San Diego County coast have followed -- to tear down their home and build anew.

Instead, renovation won out to an appreciative audience of jurors.

Luce gutted Lemke's 2,300 square-foot-house, taking it down to its most essential structural foundations. While Lemke lived in a nearby rental, Luce proceeded with the total makeover of the interior. Within the shell, she created an open space where conventional living room, dining room and kitchen once had been.

In the process, three bedrooms were pared to two and two bathrooms were redesigned with contemporary fixtures, including thin horizontal mirrors above the washbasins. The kitchen work area was placed along one long wall, with custom-made designer cabinetry hiding a pull-out refrigerator and dishwasher. The appliances are hidden behind a mixture of drawer and door faces that are clad in bleached white oak, powder-coated aluminum and lacquered panels.

Pointing to the acrylic-polycarbonate work surface, Lemke said, "I'm sure it's never been used for a kitchen countertop before."

Most notable, however, are the home's two new geometric aspects. Front and rear entryways were realigned along a central axis that intersects with a new "spine," a linear element that serves as a container for a multimedia storage unit and shelving and for other systems. Along the spine, a hall leads to a bathroom and the master and guest bedrooms. The floors are exposed concrete slab, topped with a hand-troweled sealer.

For Lemke, the payoff was large exposures to both the front and rear, through large, custom-made pivoting glass doors framed in metal.

In all, he estimated the cost of the two-year effort, including initial planning, at $450,000 to $500,000. That may seem like a lot, but when compared to the prices of surrounding homes it was a bargain, he said. In essence, Lemke ended up with a new house.

Today, he is shopping for furnishings and completing the landscaping with excess rocks taken from a beach reclamation project in North County. On a concrete deck facing the ocean, a gas connection awaits an outdoor fireplace. Although the house was shaken to its rafters, Luce termed the job "a modest renovation project." It took one of three Honor awards -- the highest AIA recognition -- handed out at the program.

"There are so many of these houses that have the potential to be reborn," said Luce. "He (Lemke) wasn't interested in making a huge statement."

That was a theme that the judges picked up on.

"One of the things that stood out ... was the ultimate re-use of an existing home. The architects created a wonderful modern living environment without sacrificing or destroying a vintage California ranch home. There was no need to build an opulent, oversized structure," said juror James Richärd, a Phoenix architect.

While the Guild and the Lemke house may explore possibilities, architect Jonathan Segal is more into a strident crusade to demonstrate to others, including builders and officialdom, what is possible in providing affordable housing designed with a sustainable element.

As is his style, Segal said he undertook The Union -- his Honor award-winning project -- as something of a laboratory.

"No one gave me a dime," in government funding, said Segal about his effort to create low-cost housing in the city's central core.

He noted that many developers claim such housing is impossible to build. His cost for the 25,000-square-foot project, he said, was a low $92 a square foot.

"When they say they can't do affordable housing, that's complete ... ," he said.

Located in Golden Hill, at the southeast corner of 19th & B streets, the Union coupled its affordable aspect to an existing, modified structure with sustainable and green features including drought-tolerant landscaping. And it claims mixed use, on a site with two sides bounded by a city maintenance yard and Interstate 5.

The project is centered on a former textile union hall, which Segal appropriated for his firm's offices and for two live/work loft spaces after a redesign. With huge windows that pivot to open, he pointed out on a sunny afternoon that no lights were needed in his theater-sized work space, with 17-foot ceilings.

Above, on the roof, were a battery of photovoltaic panels capturing energy from the sun. Tenants tell him their utility bills are about $25 per month.

"I'm not a tree hugger," he said, noting that sustainable and renewable construction and design products now have become price competitive.

He pointed out features in one of the units such as replaceable carpet squares made of natural fibers ("they're good for when the dog has an accident"), and the exterior steel cladding ("it never needs to be painted").

On a tour of the complex, Segal stopped after noticing something was amiss. "Oops, I forgot to take in the garbage cans," he said.

Such is the life he has chosen as a combination owner, developer and contractor as well as architect. Mixed-use, mixed roles: That's what's this architect is about as he eschews working for clients. And that's a direction, perhaps freedom, he wants others in his field to take.

On two parking lots at the site, Segal developed 13 rental townhomes that elsewhere might be called row homes. Each has its own private outdoor space. Off-street parking is in a courtyard, in which water or rain can permeate into the ground around spaced pavers.

"This mixed-use project hit all the right notes," said juror John Holmes of Portland, Ore. He noted its modest budget and focus on energy efficiency.

The Union is a companion piece to Segal's K Lofts project, a few blocks away. There, the redesign of a closed neighborhood convenience store became the central focus of a similar, but smaller rental complex -- built at low cost with energy efficiency. For this work, Segal earned a Merit award from the judges.

When asked if San Diego's architects had become leaders in the rising wave of green and sustainable building, juror Richärd remarked: "The bar is being raised very high here."