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Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

The David Brower Center in Berkeley

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The David Brower Center in Berkeley

The David Brower Center in Berkeley

While on a visit in San Francisco I stopped to see the David Brower Center.  It’s a simple building across from the UC Berkeley campus – I would not have noticed it if it hadn’t been mentioned as well worth visiting (thank you Sage, our AirBnB host).

David Brower, of course, was THE face of environmentalism for the longest time.  As director of the Sierra Club, he led the campaign to prevent the flooding of the Grand Canyon (before the Greenpeace era of media saturation, Brower asked “would you also flood the Sistine Chapel so that tourists can get closer to the ceiling?” – the ridicule heaped on Interior secretary Udall, at the time, was enough to kill the project).  Under his leadership, Sierra Club membership jumped from 7000 to 70,000.  He moved on to create Friends of the Earth and the Earth Island Institute.  Quipped John Nielsen,

Calling David Brower an important environmental activist is like calling Hamlet an important member of the Danish royal court. Brower invented modern American environmental activism.

The building houses the main offices of Friends of the Earth and Earth Island Institute as its main tenents, as well as a host of other groups and companies, such as, say, Equity Community Builders, a private finance company that shares environmental and social values with the other tenants.  There is also an art gallery in the foyer; when I visited, it featured among others the work of Kim Miskowicz, who creates landscapes using recycled materials for texture.

"Wall with no name", artwork by Kim Miskowicz using mailing label remnants

“Wall with no name”, artwork by Kim Miskowicz using mailing label remnants

But it’s the building itself that got most of my attention.  First, the guts of it: it’s a four-story concrete structure, but the concrete incorporates slag in order to reduce its CO2 footprint.  Inside the concrete are radiant heaters and coolers that make use of the most energy-efficient mechanical systems; the roof has solar panels that have been placed to also serve as sunshades when the building needs cooling; rainwater is collected for reuse and for toilet flushing.  It is also earthquake resistant, and some of the materials used in its construction were recycled from elsewhere.  The materials used also enable the use of environmentally-friendly cleaning solvents.  In short, it is a marvel of low-footprint architecture.

None of this would matter if the building felt like a claustrophobic insulated tomb.  But on the contrary, the building just feels good.  There is natural daylight in every single office.  The air is fresh; ventilation is controlled using CO2 sensors, and windows all open.  There is also an outdoor patio integrated into the structure.  And there is retail space open to the sidewalk, so that the building avoids the monolith feel from the outside.

Many of the new “cool buildings” share these features; not only does the building design avoids the “toxic building syndrome”, but the inside environment feels better, fresher than ordinary buildings, or even the urban outdoor environment.  I was reminded that I felt the same way inside the Equiterre building in Montreal, for instance, or the HafenCity University building in Hamburg.

Modern buildings don’t need to feel oppressive – these buildings show just the opposite.  I sure hope they become the norm.

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Written by enviropaul

September 4, 2016 at 10:21 am

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