posters contact advertise cover archive subscribe

Itís Not Easy Being Green | The new city hall in Orinda is an eco-friendly building sure to win awards.†But not everyone likes the price of green.
By Lauri Puchall

While senior plan checker Judy Kallerman assists customers at one of the forest-green recycled-paper counters on the first floor of 22 Orinda Way, the automatic message system lights up to tell office workers to open the windows. The message not only signals a change in air temperature or flow, it indicates that this is no ordinary building, a fact that the handsome, conservative exterior belies.

The new 13,900-square foot Orinda City Hall is at the forefront of eco-friendly government construction in the Bay Area. It’s one of the first city halls in California to be certified by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)—a third-party green-verification system that is now mandatory for city government buildings in places like Berkeley, Pleasanton and San Jose, but not in smaller towns like Orinda. Designers Siegel and Strain expect to earn a LEED silver or gold certificate based on the building’s indoor air quality, low energy consumption and use of local materials and resources.

Many of those who work in or visit the offices and see the high ceilings, cork floors and forested hill views are openly pleased with how the building looks and works. Orinda City Council member Amy Worth says she appreciates the openness of the building and how easy it is to move from one area to another. “It is comfortable, not ostentatious,” says Worth, “[and] lean in the way it is laid out. I think it is a wonderful building.”

When the lowest construction bid came in at $7.9 million, nearly a quarter higher than the $6.4 million pre-bid estimate, she and other city council members approved the project with a 4-1 vote in summer 2005. But not everyone approves of the project’s final projected 12.5 million total cost (including consultant fees and the price of the land).

Orinda City Council-member Tom McCormick points out that the city council took out Certificates of Participation—commonly called COPs—to finance the public construction through the sale of securities. Unlike a bond measure, the COPs enabled the project to proceed without voter approval. “It should not have been built in the first place,” says McCormick, who argues that money allocated for the new city hall was actually slated for road repairs. “If the foundation of your house is crumbling, you don’t paint the house and put flowers in front of it. You fix the foundation.”

McCormick, who has been on the council since November 2006, says the current council inherited problems, most notably dilapidated roads, old storm drains and supply lines, from prior city councils.

Laura Abrams, a 35-year resident of Orinda, two-time mayor and former city council member, recalls “a tremendous amount of negative publicity” focused on the city hall project during the 2006 council campaign. She says an important contributing factor to her loss of the council seat she’d held for 12 years was her strong support for the green city hall project.

If the previous council was guilty of anything, it was not being communicative enough about the good they were doing for Orinda, says Abrams. She notes that the annual resources allocated to pay for the new building are insufficient to correct Orinda’s substandard road and storm drain problem.

Originally, Orinda considered using its former library, a seismically non-conforming concrete masonry structure, for its administrative offices. When the price of upgrading and converting the building proved comparable to building from scratch, and available rental space in Orinda inadequate, the town sought other options.

The high price of new construction, officials say, skyrocketed from the original estimates because of increasing material costs, a local construction boom and a protracted construction schedule. Abrams points out that, at the time, rising construction costs were both a local and national phenomena.

With some cost-cutting measures (including eliminating a water-purifying hillside drainage system and heat-sensing automatic window openers) and good will on the part of the design team, the overall pricetag did drop.

Gail Brager, a professor of architecture in building science at U.C. Berkeley who sat on the architect selection committee, applauds Orinda for spending more in the short term for the long-term financial and environmental benefits to the community. She says Orinda looked “beyond first costs to adopt a life-cycle attitude.” And she says the building will last much longer than “standard cookie-cutter construction” with a typical 25-year lifespan.

Located on a hill within walking-distance to downtown, the building now houses the police, administrative, planning, public works and building departments and represents an end to 20 years of housing city functions in temporary settings.


Siegel and Strain, who mastered sustainable design a decade before “green” was trendy, carefully oriented the hall—which discreetly conforms to Orinda’s village-like character and fits neatly into the hillside—along a northwest by southeast axis to shade itself for minimum heat gain. The building’s long, narrow shape allows daylight to penetrate the spaces. The design includes sunshades, manually and automatically operated skylights and “light shelves” that further reflect natural light into the rooms to reduce the need for artificial lighting.

The architects tapped into the resources at U.C. Berkeley where Brager’s students conducted solar-shading and wind-tunnel analysis for natural ventilation, using physical models based on Siegel and Strain’s preliminary design. What is unusual is the hybrid approach, with broad-brush moves and design details—like building orientation and a newfangled messaging system—working in unison to bolster sustainability. The “mixed mode” system (natural ventilation plus simple, mechanical cooling) is unique and requires some occupant training, according to Henry Siegel, principal architect.

“It’s a bit of a social experiment,” says Siegel, who explains that workplaces typically rely on energy-intensive compressive cooling. In most offices with air-conditioning, no one needs to be reminded to open a window. And they are often permanently fixed shut. The city hall relies on human participation and low-tech strategies, like its “swamp cooler,” an unusual choice for the Bay Area. Low-energy swamp coolers are common in the South where they work best alone in a climate that is both hot and humid.

The occupant-controlled ceiling fans make the environment feel four degrees cooler than the thermometer says it is, according to the architect. With windows open, natural cross-ventilation complements the fans and the evaporative cooling system that uses 100 percent outside air. Concrete retaining walls made of cement mixed with low-impact slag create a large thermal mass. (Slag is a steel industry by-product that reduces the carbon footprint of the concrete.) Thermal lag allows the building to retain heat in cool weather, and stay cooler longer on warm days.

Even the novel “dual flush,” low-flow toilets require behavioral adaptation. They have handles that move one way for liquid waste, and another for solid, thus saving water.

But the building isn’t perfect. At least, it is not yet finely tuned. Abrams, for one, finds it a little humid inside in summer.

“It is perfectly normal for kinks to appear following initial occupancy,” confirms Brager, who says it’s premature to judge the design’s success. The fact that police officers are required to wear bulletproof vests behind their desks poses a unique challenge to the building’s cooling system. “Because they are overdressed, they don’t benefit from the cooling effect of air movement,” she explains.

The building has automatically solved a few long-standing difficulties for the town. Orinda’s community room, unlike other meeting spaces in town, is designed to meet current seismic standards. The room doubles as an essential services facility—something the town previously lacked—in the event of an earthquake or other emergency. Having the building and planning departments under a single roof (residents once traveled to Lafayette or Martinez to a county building department) has streamlined the permitting process.

Kallerman, who spent seven years working in temporary trailers on school district property before the new Orinda City Hall behind the Church of Christ Scientist was completed, is thrilled about the space. “It has huge windows open to the hillside,” Kallerman says. “It is airy and comfortable.”

City employees also say they like the red tile and gray concrete “dogtrot” with a vaulted roof that contributes to a healthy working environment and doubles as a rental space for local gatherings. A dogtrot, in architectural jargon, is a building divided in two by a breezeway and joined by a continuous roof. This one runs along the contours of a steep, circumscribed creekside site above Orinda’s commercial district. Siegel and Strain retained a shortcut from the hills into town through the opening, which also serves as an outdoor lobby, and breaks down the massing of an otherwise long, two-story structure.

Orinda City Hall is expected to score high on indoor air quality because of nontoxic materials like low-VOC paints, sunflower seed-hull tables, wheatboard desks and natural flooring. Regarding energy consumption, it has already garnered a 2007 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Energy Star Challenge Award and will exceed California’s Title 24 energy requirements. Projected to reduce carbon emissions by more than 50 percent compared to conventional construction, the building will likely surpass the American Institute of Architects’ stated energy goals for 2010 according to Siegel, who is also a fellow of the Institute.

Whether or not the new city hall is a trendsetter or a novelty in Orinda remains to be seen. A new 11-member Planning Task Force that includes McCormick and Worth met for the first time Oct. 5 to hammer out a mission statement. The course the task force charts will determine the direction development will take and the depth of the village’s commitment to going green.

Lauri Puchall consults on design and building ecology, and writes about architecture and the environment for The Monthly, The Architect’s Newspaper and Rental Housing (Black Point Press). Her articles appear on the Web in ArchitectureWeek and ArchNewsNow.


Suburban greens: Orinda built a cutting-edge city hall for $12.5 million. Some say the city should have fixed the potholes first while others love the long-term vision. Photo by David Wakely.












Calling all staff: Open your windows! It’s lovely outside. Photo by David Wakely.