As a follow-up to our previous Toby Long interview, we thought it fitting to highlight one particular (and very exciting) community-based green building project that Toby and Clever Homes have been working on in San Francisco’s Hunter Point neighborhood. The Living Classroom is a community building that will house a variety of programs put forth by LEJ (Literacy for Environmental Justice), a non-profit organization supporting urban environmental education and youth empowerment in the Bayview/Hunters Point area.

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The Living Classroom integrates a high-tech “eco-machine,” which combines the expertise of John Todd’s wetland-based system well as Rana Creek’s rainwater collection and wastewater remediation strategies. The project is truly a feat of not just green building, but community-based green green building which promises to educate beyond its construction timeline and have profound influence in the environmental education of an urban demographic. Read on for my interview with Toby about the Living Classroom…

Heron’s Head Park, LEJ Living Classroom, Green building site Heron’s Head Park

Emily: So tell me a little bit about the Hunters Point Living Classroom project. What’s the history?

Toby: LEJ (Literacy for Environmental Justice) was founded to bring better educational opportunities on environmental issues in the Bayview area. And one of their first goals was to make a space for a lot of their activities to start to gather. And at the same time they had been offered the opportunity to be the stewards of Heron’s Head Park, which is a landfill, a little jetty-type park that goes out about half a mile, right between the postal distribution facility and the decommissioned PG&E powerplant, which is right across the channel. And it’s an interesting park. It’s all landfill, so it’s completely manmade, and it basically served as a dump for a lot of the activity that was happening down there at the time that Bayview was very much an industrial epicenter. Not only do we not know what’s in it or if it’s good or bad, it’s very politically charged as well.

Emily: And you inherited this project half-way through the design process, right? There was another architect working on it?

Toby: Yes, and the project changed a little bit when we intervened. We were trying to introduce a whole variety of other things that hadn’t been introduced previously. I would suggest that one of those was a more modern style. We thought it should be more forward-thinking. Not ultra modern, just something that felt more contemporary in its intent. We were saying “okay, it’s going to be a green building, and not all green buildings have to look modern, but that’s kind of how they look these days.”

There’s some alternative stuff here, like our “eco machine” that hasn’t been done in the city, and frankly this exact system hasn’t been done anywhere in the country. But it required that we get it approved, which has been a long arduous journey with various state agencies, city agencies, everyone pointing at each other. I think that what we’ve noticed as a result of this project and how long it’s been is a real shift in the culture of green. We’ve had a lot of folks at the beginning who said “no way,” who now say “okay, let’s do this. Let’s go.”

Emily: So can you give me a quick overview of the building, from an architectural perspective?

Toby: We’ve made a very simple box, for all intents and purposes. The majority is an open space common area that will be used for a host of activities- and a smaller wing which is more utilitarian- bathrooms and storage mainly. It’s a fairly small building, 2100 square feet, and it is intended to teach about green. And it may be green building and lifestyle and nutrition and diet, and will benefit everyone from technical tradesmen to first graders. As a result, all of the green things being used in the building are intended to in one way or another be showcased. There are some key green things that are really unique to this project- this eco-machine and the fact that it’s totally off the grid, which is kind of unique to urban buildings.

Emily: And it sounds like this eco-machine is something that makes the building really unique, right?

Toby: The eco-machine has created the most difficult condition for the project. It’s a wastewater management and filtration system that takes care of all the waste on the site. So there’s no connection to the sewer line, it sits off all of San Francisco’s basic infrastructure with the exception of water. So you flush the toilet, etc, and the water goes into this machine which is biologically based. It decomposes and breaks down all of the waste into something that’s usable by plants. And it uses plants to encourage that process. It’s not grey-water in that you get to reuse it- we’re just managing it and discharging it out into the landscaping, and so it becomes irrigation. We’re not putting it back into the building- there’s too many political as well as health risk issues in doing that. It’s not potable.

Emily: So how does it work exactly?

Toby: This is a unique machine that we’re developing, and I’m still learning why and how it’s unique. Basically what we’ve done, or what Rana Creek has done, is they’ve taken two technologies and married them. One technology is a prefabricated wastewater filtration system that uses bacteria and biological processes to decompose waste. So imagine a big box, with an inlet and an outlet, with all these various chambers inside, etc. It’s a self-contained septic system, basically. And that’s a prefab, NES-approved technology that already exists in the world. We’ve taken that and unbundled it, so there are pieces of it now that aren’t in the box- they’re sitting aside as individual tanks so we can watch the process. So we can tell the story. And we want it to be interactive- we want real-time live chemical analysis so that when you’re there you can watch what’s happening in each tank and online so people can log on and watch.

The second technology we’ve coupled with this is a technology being developed by a man named John Todd, from Massachussets, and his company has made fully ecological wastewater management systems (Living Machines) that aren’t boxes that are self-contained, they’re actually wetlands. So it goes into wetland number one, and the plants do this, and then it goes into wetland two, and it uses an actual ecosystem to decompose waste. So one is more biotech, and one is a more landscaping approach. And we’ve tried to combine the two.

So the entire system works like this: waste goes into the first chamber where it settles out, and then that gets moved into another chamber where it’s tossed and turned, and then that moves into basically a wetland, because as you’re doing that you’re aerating and encouraging all kinds of bacterial growth, and the bacteria are going to town and basically taking out all the contaminates, and the solids are digested, and what’s left is this chemical stew that’s actually really great for plants. It’s got tons of nitrogen and all the things that plants want. It’s like plant stew. So then it goes into a series of polishing cells, which are just boxes that have these walls, so it fills up and runs over, and the plants on top, their roots go down into the medium, and it just goes from cell to cell to cell. And when it comes out the back end, it goes through a UV sterilization filter, so anything that’s left is zapped. So what comes out contains no pathogens. And it’s being powered by the solar panels, which sets the whole thing off the grid. So it doesn’t generate any real water, potentially, but it’s not consuming any energy doing it.

Emily: And architecturally, in terms of its prefab construction, is the building all SIP’s?

Toby: Yep, all SIP’s, we’re not going to bring a prefabricated module or anything. Our group’s not convinced that that’s the right answer necessarily. But we’re going to do what we do and it will go up fast. And it’s a LEED certified building, going for Platinum.

Emily: So what particular programming does LEJ hope to house in this building? Do they have specific community programs?

Toby: Totally ranges across the board. There are programs specific to green building, which is universal to a variety of audiences. And then there are elements that are more green in the community, very much LEJ driven. So, for example, bringing in small refrigeration units into the local corner stores so they can provide fresh produce. Because in a lot of areas it’s the liquor store and that’s it. If you live in a project and have no money or car and only access to public transit, Safeway is a trek.

There may also be a medical component so that people can learn about diabetes, for example, or whatever issues there are in the community. So it’s green building, community, and LEJ’s mission statement is very much about environmental justice to improve the community and brining these issues to people who live in fairly polluted areas. So it’s community-based, and there may be things like job fairs, schools can come to do things, etc.

Emily: What has made this particular project so interesting to you?

Toby: I think it’s that the momentum has been generated by people who are committed to pursuing their own unique bright ideas- we’ve got people out there who are doing cool things and being innovative in their own fields. The eco-machine consultants have brought this level of innovation to the system, LEJ has brought innovation to the political strategies in order to get the response they need. I think we’ve brought motivation to be architecturally innovative and in the systems that are needed to make a building. So it’s been a great, fun project, and it’s been a very long time in the works. Over 5 years in total- it’s taken a while to get this off the ground but we’re basically submitted for permits, and we have the political momentum, the contractor has been chosen, and we’re preparing to break ground. So it’s very exciting, and now we get to go watch what happens.


I also spoke with Laurie J. Schoeman, Project Manager for the Living Classroom. Here’s what she had to say:

“This is a project in the community, for the community. We want to tart a conversation to talk about waste, water, power, ecology. Because really, no problem is too large that we can’t overcome it through natural systems. We hope this project will serve as a model for sustainable building and best practices. And while our biggest issue has been permitting for the Living Machine, we really think it will provide a showcase for hands-on education for key environmental technologies.”

+ Clever Homes + Literacy for Environmental Justice + Toby Long, AIA