Thursday, May 7, 2009

Berkeley's David Brower Center: A Sneak Peek

By Anneli Rufus
Thu, May 7, 2009 at 10:26 AM

Two of us scored a private sneak-preview tour of downtown Berkeley's David Brower Center, that bold 50,000-square-foot experiment in "green from the ground up" architecture whose grand-opening celebration is set for this coming Sunday, May 10.

A whopping 53 percent of the construction of this multi-use space (which includes offices, conference rooms, a theater, an art gallery, and a forthcoming organic restaurant, Terrain) entails recycled materials. Executive director Amy Tobin showed us salvaged-wood tables, benches, and a lustrously smooth black-acacia countertop created by Paul Discoe, an ordained Buddhist priest and author of Zen Architecture whose Oakland-based company, Live Edge, utilizes lumber from urban street trees that have been cut down due to storm damage, disease, and for other reasons.

The ground-floor reception area is set into a geometric grotto whose walls, in soaring bands of varied browns, are a mixture of plaster and salvaged soils. It's a permanent art installation, dubbed "Earth Niche" by its creator, Marisha Farnsworth, whose company The Natural Builders specializes in construction with such substances as earth, cob, and salvaged straw.

"We think of the Brower Center as more 'art' than 'building,'" Tobin says.

Ever since planning began in 2000, the process has focused on sustainability, from methods to materials. The resulting structure, designed to be 40 percent more energy-efficient than conventional ones, includes a daylighting program that employs zinc siding and photovoltaic panels that double as sun-shades so that, optimally, artificial lights need never be used during daytime in many parts of the building; high-efficiency lighting with automatic controls limit use when daylight is adequate. Windows that actually open and close (a rare sight in office buildings) and low-pressure ventilation via a raised floor system increase indoor air quality. Radiant heating and cooling operate via tubes set into the concrete structural slabs. Non-toxic fabrics and finishes are used throughout. Upright steel cables create a "self-healing seismic system" designed to protect and preserve the center during an earthquake.

Interface FLOR carpeting, which includes the industry's highest percentage of recycled content in both the pile and the backing, is used throughout the center. While it runs wall-to-wall in some areas, in others it is laid in tile form, with each small square separately detachable. So in the event of a spill or stain, the whole rug need not be ripped out of a room and replaced: rather, just a tile or two.

The counters in the Brower Center's restrooms largely comprise chunks of recycled glass. The water in the toilets is repurposed too: Faintly yellow, it looks like you-know-what, but it's really rainwater, collected in a cistern. "Toilet water," Tobin reasons, "doesn't have to look drinkable." (Elsewhere in the building, a chain fashioned from recycled bits of artillery shells is used to channel rainwater into a vessel, where it is saved for re-use. And water isn't an issue at all in the men's-room urinals, which are Berkeley's first waterless urinals.)

"In trying to build the right way," Tobin says, "we're trying to send a message here, to establish a track record and a model so that other communities can see how it's done. We're setting a standard. We need to change how we build cities."

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