Gallery: Schoolhouse Rock Reaps Platinum Town Center


In California, one district’s fault is another town’s treasure. When the Portola Valley School District realized its mid-century single-room schoolhouse straddled the San Andreas Fault — known for its earthquakes — they sold off the site to the town. Today, that vintage property encompasses a super-eco $21-million Portola Valley Town Center that artfully balances seismic safety, community serenity and sustainable design.

A highlight of this year’s AIA/SF Architecture and the City Festival, the Town Center boasts 11 acres of open space in a casual combo of civic function and natural beauty. Redwoods, meadow and an old walnut orchard border a campus of three main buildings — a town hall, library and a community hall — grouped together on the more geologically sound ground and framing a plaza that extends out into low-key native landscaping, recreation and maintenance facilities. The entire campus stretches from the original schoolhouse (also renovated for additional meeting space) to an ancient stream now enjoying gradual restoration.

An intentional consolidation of the town’s major activities into one efficiently designed venue helped reduce the buildings’ footprint by 20 percent. As the project completed in 2008, Portola Valley’s former mayor and longtime council member Ted Driscoll put together a comprehensive and very impressive Town Center Green List summarizing all the sustainable features. Since then, the center has earned ten prestigious awards for architectural and sustainable design, including the AIA/COTE Top Ten Green Projects Award and the Acterra Business Environmental Award for Sustainable Built Environment.

Remarkably, this comfy enclave of 4,500 raised most of the funds needed for their project mainly amongst themselves. The community also raised local architect Larry Strain (pictured here) who helped lead their community-driven collaborative with a shared approach of less as more. “We took advantage of our smallness and LEEDness to get low bids,” Strain recounted during the Architecture and City tour. “And we pushed it into LEED Platinum.”

An extraordinary reuse of original infrastructure helped. The team gingerly dismantled existing buildings and reclaimed 90 percent of on-site matter such as concrete, steel and more than 25,000 board feet of wood. A frenzy of wood salvaging ensued: Old glu-lam beams turned into countertops, and eucalypts cleared for fire safety became very hardwood floors; packing crates reappeared as roof slates; even alders felled for the ball field found themselves lifetime members of the library.

“The guys who know wood know good wood when they see it,” Strain explained. “Once they knew we wanted to be sustainable, they went at it.” The locals’ taste for good timber also included salvaged redwood from Northern California, FSC-certified lumber and sustainably harvested furniture by Green Designs.

From networked solar and R50 roofs to native leaf imprints and TerraPave walkways, every detail exposes mindfulness and care — yet in a laidback, labor-of-love sort of way. Leaving the Town Center, one feels refreshed and rejuvenated. At the end of the day, when the LEED is done, this state-of-the-art complex offers a comfortable slipper with a friendly footprint.

+ Town of Portola Valley

+ Siegel & Strain Architects

+ Goring and Straja Architects

+ AIA SF Architecture and the City

Photos by Kevin Gardner. Aerial photo by Bernard Andre.


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  1. KG October 23, 2009 at 12:33 am

    Re: the fault line, after extensive seismic evaluation, the town decided to cluster the new center on the parcel of land considered the most geologically sound for new building. For more info on that process, check out the Town Center History page:

  2. October 20, 2009 at 7:13 pm

    The design of the Portola Vally Town Center owes much to the work of William Turnbull. That’s no coincidence, considering that three of the four principles of the two firms responsible for PVTC worked for Turnbull!

    Also, LEED certification is pending. So while Platinum is expected, it has not yet been awarded.

    More on both topics can be found in the recent ArchitectureWeek article about PVTC:

  3. jtinkey October 20, 2009 at 6:00 pm

    looks pretty nice…but it’s still over the fault line, yeah? in an area not far from the epicenter of the 89 quake…

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