The invisible city lies beyond the horizon of the now; it occupies the imagination. In an effort to make the invisible more visible, local design professionals will share their visions for the unbuilt San Diego. This week, Eric Naslund, founding principal of Studio E Architects, sits down to re-imagine Paradise.
Long before the United States Green Building Council, LEED ratings, and the word “green” embodied everything except the color, Eric Naslund was interested in designing energy efficient buildings, and promoting cities free from fossil fuels.
A product of the post oil embargo era of the early 1980s, Naslund’s thesis project speculated on the future of cities. Unlike many of his classmates, he imagined an optimistic future – one that would thrive once the supply of oil ran out. The key was designing within nature’s template by employing passive energy systems.
Several years later, his firm, Studio E, designed a senior living community in Indian Wells. Each housing unit contained three separate cooling systems – thermal chimneys, evaporative coolers, and traditional air conditioning. Residents were able to select one of the three by turning a convenient dial on the wall. Once a system was activated, the other two automatically disengaged: simple, and effective. Naslund recalls conducting a final inspection of the desert project in late summer. Without full power to the site, he was unable to use the air conditioning. Instead, he used the little, available power to activate the thermal chimney motors. After he opened the windows to allow fresh air in, spaces that were unbearable to work in soon became significantly cooler. Naslund completed the inspection in comfort, using minimal energy save nature’s law of hot air rising. This proved to be a profound lesson for the maturing architect. It confirmed his intuition. Designing smarter was the way forward. He has never looked back.
Twenty years later, Studio E is breaking ground on Phase II of the UC Davis West Village, a student housing and recreation complex. Phase I opened in October. It is already being touted as the country’s largest “net-zero energy” community in recent news coverage.
A building that generates as much power as it consumes is no small feat. So, what is the key? Naslund explains, “clamp down on the loads, and cover every inch of available roof with photovoltaic panels.” By adding ventilated facades, appropriate shading devices, and extra insulation – items already in the builder’s standard kit of parts – the building reflects unnecessary direct solar gain. The simple three-way knob from the Indian Wells project has morphed into a smart phone application. The app allows students to remotely control room lighting and power outlet operation. As Naslund points out, “the ‘new normal’ has shifted, and is much more evolved.”
Buckminster Fuller famously imagined Manhattan under a giant dome. For Naslund, the future – at least for San Diego – is not within a climate-controlled bubble. He argues, “We live in one of the most benign places on the planet. Our connections to the larger patterns of nature are completely enhanced by our participation.
This vision demands active participants. By active, Naslund means, physically active. He imagines a San Diego where one can easily walk or bike to all the amenities contemporary life affords. Cars are not banished from the city. On the contrary, they plug into the grid. All our power comes from the area’s abundant renewable resources – solar, tidal, etc.
Naslund knows he is not alone. The conversation about the future has many vibrant voices. Talented people around the world are working to make this vision a reality. He highlights walkscore.com, a website that rates pedestrian friendliness for US cities. He quotes Danish architect, Bjarke Ingels’s, latest mantra, “hedonistic sustainability.”
Naslund may not know what this future San Diego looks like exactly – because he knows many hands will build the colorful mosaic – but he does know how it will perform. “More efficiently!” he exclaims. His future for San Diego is optimistic. In addition, “it’s something I have to help make,” he remarks with empowering conviction. With one arm stretched to the ancient past, and the other reaching toward an unbuilt future, Eric Naslund and Studio E Architects are building a brighter, healthier San Diego, one building at a time.
Photo: UC Davis West Village Aerial – Courtesy of Kenneth Cantrell, ViewPoint Aerial Photography.