Cameron Scott

EcoCenter: San Francisco's First Off-Grid Commercial Building is Up and Running

by , 09/26/11

ecocenter, toby long, lej, literacy for environmental justice, san francisco, port of san francisco, sips, green building, green design, brownfields, passive, solar power, water, water filtration

San Francisco’s EcoCenter is the first commercial building in the city to be 100 percent off the grid, and Inhabitat recently toured it as part of this year’s Architecture and the City Festival. Even in the city with more LEED-certified buildings per capita than any other, converting a polluted swath of landfill near the naval shipyard superfund site into a passive, off-grid, über-green environmental justice education center wasn’t easy: In fact, it took 10 years to get it done.


ecocenter, toby long, lej, literacy for environmental justice, san francisco, port of san francisco, sips, green building, green design, brownfields, passive, solar power, water, water filtration

The EcoCenter, which was designed primarily by Toby Long, features a living roof, high recycled-content cement flooring, walls made from structurally insulated panels, solar panels that store surplus energy to a battery, and a unique eco-machine that harvests rainwater for use in plumbing and treats it using a system that’s part septic technology and part wetlands. (Although the building does get its potable water from the city infrastructure, the rainwater harvesting system frees up 224,000 gallons a year of potable water from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.) The filtration system also occupies a light- and heat-absorbing room that can be shut off from the rest of the building in hot weather, contributing to the structure’s passive design.

The EcoCenter was envisioned by Literacy for Environmental Justice, a youth-focused organization that seeks to educate youth in and around the troubled Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood where the center sits about environmental justice and to place them in paid green internships. As (mostly white, relatively affluent) birders began to notice that birds were using a wetlands that had developed on the landfill peninsula next to a PG&E power plant, LEJ stepped in to ensure that any designated open space would benefit neighborhood residents as well.

The open space, which includes a swath of the Bay Trail and Heron’s Head Park, grew to include the 1,500 square-foot educational facility. However, LEJ had to step away from calling the facility’s main room a Living Classroom, because the mere word “classroom” would bring down a rain of state educational regulations. And despite the land’s historical use as an illegal brownfield, the city was also loathe to permit the eco-machine water filtration system, confusing it, former project manager Tracy Zhu told Inhabitat, for a septic system that would require a leach field.

The implicit rights of corporations to use poor neighborhoods as dumping grounds can’t be changed overnight, but, 10 years later, the EcoCenter and Heron’s Head Park offer a strangely wild sweep of land along the Bay which very palpably evokes the area’s fraught history even as it heals it a little bit.

Find more photos on Flickr!

+ Toby Long Design

+ Literacy for Environmental Justice

+ Architecture and the City Festival

Photos by Cameron Scott for Inhabitat

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