By Ric Cochrane
Can a historic building achieve net-zero energy? Absolutely.
The Green Lab is constantly searching for exceptional examples of “sustainable preservation,” and the Anthony C. Beilenson Visitor Center at King Gillette Ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains deserves to be called best in class. Having been awarded LEED Platinum status and achieving net-zero energy performance, Beilenson is a testament to the very real possibility of restoring the architectural and cultural value of great places to the highest environmental standard.
The ranch was constructed in the 1920s by razor-blade baron King Gillette. In 2012 the former horse stable and courtyard was converted into a visitor center, which acts as a gateway to the many trails and day-use areas at the surrounding 588-acre site and to the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area in California. The stable is one of several buildings on the site designed by Wallace Neff, an architect associated with the development of southern California’s early architectural style. The Spanish Revival style stable and the surrounding, original estate structures and landscapes are ineligible for the National Register, but were deemed “worthy of protection for their aesthetic ambience and historic interpretive value,” according to the environmental assessment completed for King Gillette Ranch.
So what is “net-zero energy” and why is it important? A net-zero building is one that uses only as much energy as it produces in a calendar year—the ultimate expression of buildings in balance with nature, at least regarding energy production (water and materials are also important). A net-zero building may draw energy from the grid during months of high-energy use (for heating during winter in cold climates or for cooling during summer in hot climates), but during mild months the building systems must generate enough energy to restore the overall balance to zero. For this reason, a net-zero building is different from a completely self-sufficient, off-the-grid building.
How did the Beilenson Visitor Center achieve such a major milestone? Most importantly, through collaboration. Four partner agencies—National Park Service, California State Parks, Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, and the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority—operate the center. These agencies bring strikingly diverse stakeholders and resources to the project, including Native American communities, nature and conservation advocates, school groups, equestrian enthusiasts, off-roaders, and the movie industry (the site has been a filming destination for decades, with a resume that includes M.A.S.H., Mission Impossible, and The Biggest Loser, generating Hollywood revenue that has played a big role in the upkeep of the entire ranch). All stakeholders worked together to bring resources to the renovation and create a design and an operations program that serve the many interests using the site. The agencies and stakeholders also agreed that it was important to demonstrate as many energy-saving measures as possible at such a significant, high-visibility site.
The design team, led by Jeff Roberts, who worked for Lucchesi, Galati Architects, Inc., at the time, had a major challenge just to restore the building to usability. The roof was riddled with holes and the wood frame was rotting in places. The original, thick walls—made of Adoblar, a clay brick that is fired in a kiln rather than baked in the sun like adobe—were in serious disrepair, and only a few craftsmen specialize in Adoblar construction.
The $12 million renovation was completed using traditional building techniques and honoring the original design, with a few modern innovations. Most of the sustainability strategies, however, are not readily apparent. All new wood is certified as sustainably harvested by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), and more than 99 percent of construction waste was recycled and diverted from the landfill. The building’s clay roof tiles meet the LEED “cool roof” standard, minimizing heat gain from the sun and reducing the need to cool the building. A 94 kW photovoltaic (PV) system—mounted on adjacent carport structures that do not affect the aesthetic of the Visitor Center—provides all of the building’s electricity, and a geothermal cooling system provides stable temperatures for a fraction of the cost of mechanical cooling. A solar hot water system provides almost 80 percent of hot water needs. Tubular skylights provide abundant daylight, and artificial lighting is 100 percent LED.
None of these strategies are new or particularly expensive—but their application to a historic building is all too rare.
Besides the economic and environmental benefits, the social impacts of the project are also noteworthy. The Beilenson Center is more than a gateway to the surrounding natural wonders; it is also a place of healing, with emphasis on guiding visitors toward self-renewal and personal growth. The center also is an important destination for inner-city youth, who visit to connect with and learn about nature.
Jeff Roberts says, “We were drawn to it because it marries history with the desire for a deep green project that is an asset to the National Park Service. It’s inspirational to us.”
Ric Cochrane is the associate director of projects, Preservation Green Lab at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.