Santa Monica Library
April 01, 2008

By Staff
Appeared in GreenSource

For all of Santa Monica’s environmental advocacy, few high-performance public buildings existed in this progressive southern California city 10 years ago. This is especially odd, since many architects and engineers who have played significant roles in the sustainable design movement have called the city home or at least worked there. What’s more, the city was one of the first in the country to adopt LEED certification requirements for public buildings and has lately developed a significant rooftop solar program.

The arrival of a new main building for the Santa Monica Library in 2005, however, marked a significant turning point for the city, as well as for the larger sustainable design community in Southern California. Finally, it seemed, west Los Angeles Santa Monica is wedged between L.A. and the Pacific Ocean had a large local building that incorporated many of the performance strategies people had talked about or built elsewhere but had yet to build in their own backyard.

“Many of the projects we had built in Europe gave us the foresight for working on the library, which was our first major building in the city after working here 25 years,” says Haekwan Park, the project coordinator for Santa Monica-based Moore Ruble Yudell Architects (MRY). The 109,000-square-foot library, built on the site of the demolished existing library in downtown Santa Monica, incorporates raised-floor air distribution, rooftop stormwater collection systems, a 10-kW solar photovoltaic installation, significant daylighting strategies, and a seamless urban integration that resulted in more than a million visitors in the first year alone.

The original library was a rather dark, Modernist box that, in addition to being inhospitable to the city’s 90,000 residents, had become obsolete in the digital age. Furthermore, it wasn’t designed with the needs of a diverse community that includes a significant homeless population in mind. The new building’s main facade faces south, onto Santa Monica Boulevard, just five blocks from the ocean, but MRY provided three entrances that take full advantage of a 10,000-square-foot central courtyard. The courtyard-style building is a Southern California staple because it exploits the region’s sunshine and enviable climate. The program includes book stacks, offices, a museum, a 150-seat auditorium, and community rooms set above three subterranean parking levels.

What is immediately noticeable, however, is the significant slope of the roof, which is particularly expressed at the main entrance. Park says the roof was designed as part of an impluvium, an ancient Roman approach to rainwater collection that relies on a sloped roof to funnel water into an exposed cistern on an open central courtyard. As part of a program to keep contaminated water from entering Santa Monica Bay, the city requires buildings to detain the first half inch of rainwater; in an average year, Santa Monica receives between 12 and 14 inches of rain. The design team responded by putting together a system to retain four inches of water per year, calibrated to supply all site irrigation. Water collects on the roof and filters down to a 200,000-gallon cistern beneath the lowest parking-garage level, reducing site runoff by 20 percent. Rob Bolin, PE, the project’s mechanical engineer with Syska Hennessy Group’s Los Angeles office, says originally the retention system was designed to funnel rainwater into a series of 5-foot-diameter culvert pipes located in strips beneath the parking garage, but the subcontractor for the system couldn’t provide a warranty. “Not doing that certainly added cost and complexity to the project,” says Bolin, who now runs Syska’s Chicago office.

The use of waterless urinals and a nonpotable source for irrigation also created some additional work for the design team. The city didn’t consider a waterless urinal to be a plumbing fixture, so they had to install conventional plumbing in the wall as a backup, Bolin says. The library also includes dual-flush toilets and low-flow plumbing fixtures. The city allowed graywater to be used for subsurface irrigation, but due to public health concerns, water for toilets, for irrigation in areas outside of the project’s property line, and for a children’s garden had to be from potable sources. “It’s never a bad thing to have someone as a devil’s advocate,” says Bolin. “It forces you to have your ducks in order.”

Heather Rosenberg, an ecologist and the director of sustainable community services for Irvine-based CTG Energetics, says this design approach to water exemplifies thinking about site conditions as a resource, rather than as a waste product. Rosenberg, who facilitated energy modeling and LEED documentation for the project, sees a similar methodology in the building’s integrated energy systems. “We first reduced the amount of energy you needed, used passive systems where we could, and then installed efficient systems where you had to have active systems,” she says. Like many projects, the energy design began with the exterior envelope, which includes precast-concrete panels poured with fly ash and recycled blue glass, as well as a glass curtain-wall system with integral lightshelves. Instead of blocking out sunlight, as had been the approach with the original library, the new perimeter reading areas are flooded with sunshine. As a result, the lighting system beats California’s Title 24 energy code by 10 percent.

Santa Monica’s climate is so ideal, many homes and apartments in the city don’t even have air-conditioning. Syska’s Bolin says that would have been nice, but library books don’t fare well exposed to sea air. However, administrative areas include operable windows, with sensors tied to the HVAC system to shut off fans when windows are open. But the bulk of the building is divided into zones and supplied with air from under-floor fan-coil units that connect via ducts to diffusers in the raised floor. Bolin says that, typical for Santa Monica, the rooftop air-handling units mostly operate on economizer mode (100 percent outdoor air), with reheat coils kicking in when temperatures fall too low. “That’s a rare condition, as the economizer cycle is good enough most of the year,” Bolin says. The library can open large doors into the courtyard, but Bolin says that condition is rare enough that it doesn’t affect indoor conditions. Bolin credits Morley Construction, the Santa Monica-based design-build contractor, with building a supertight building. He says air leakage rates measured less than 4 percent, compared to upward of 50 percent in other buildings he’s seen. Morley’s project manager, local resident David Selna, took over design after design development; however the contractor kept the team involved until construction ended. “Because of this design-build approach, having the contractor at the table supporting us helped make it a successful collaboration,” Bolin says.

MRY’s Park says the intense integration that went into the building resulted not only from the design and construction team but also a supportive city client that wanted to see the project realize the team’s ambitions. “The care that went into this project helped it push past LEED Silver to Gold,” says Park, noting the city had required LEED Silver as a minimum. Rosenberg says the library represents a “whole building” approach to design that wasn’t so concerned with LEED points, although LEED helped to provide benchmarks for reaching higher goals. That was especially important for realizing the photovoltaic system, she says. “We were dealing with early adopters who wanted to take a pioneering role,” says Rosenberg.

Stuart Cooley, one of the city’s engineers for energy efficiency, is in the early stages of implementing an analysis of energy performance for city buildings, including the library. Cooley notes the library’s staff has considered its energy bills to be greater than anticipated, but he suspects some of that is owed to longer operating hours and an unexpectedly higher use by residents and visitors. “There’s a lot more space on that roof for more solar,” says Cooley, who is helping the city attempt to realize 100 megawatts of rooftop solar by 2020. A new initiative, which voters were considering as of press time, would require all new buildings of 10,000 square feet or more to be rated LEED Silver. “We like to be first and, with that, we’re not first,” Cooley says. In many cities, these proposals would be considered absurd, but Santa Monica’s residents have come to relish being sustainable leaders. Now they have a library that proves it.