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Green project wins on its own terms

Going natural saves money and resources in a rental complex.

August 03, 2003|Kathy Price-Robinson | Special to The Times

E.J. Spalding didn't expect quality housing when she applied for an apartment at Colorado Court, a housing complex in Santa Monica.

But the 80-year-old, who rented in Brentwood before her late husband's nursing home bills ate up their nest egg, has been pleasantly surprised by her $337-a-month rental.

"I never thought I would get anything so lovely," Spalding said of her 370-square-foot studio apartment with its high ceiling, efficiency kitchen and ocean view.

Colorado Court, consisting of three five-story buildings developed by the nonprofit Community Corporation of Santa Monica, was built as a demonstration project to test the installation and performance of green technologies and systems in a real-world setting. It is one of the first relatively inexpensive rental properties in the country to generate more than enough electricity for its own uses.

The project so successfully fused design and green features -- energy efficiency and use of recycled and natural resources -- that it was voted one of the Top 10 Green Projects of 2003 by the American Institute of Architects.

Spalding rarely hears her neighbors next door, seldom needs a heater and doesn't have air conditioning. Because of the way the structures are situated on the lot, prevailing breezes flow through the 44 studio apartments, creating natural ventilation. The indoor air quality is better than in other buildings because the materials and paint have fewer toxins than those used in conventional construction, according to the corporation. "I breathe easier here," Spalding said. "I feel healthier here."

The Santa Monica project is on the cusp of a trend to design green homes for low- or moderate-income residents to help lower monthly utility bills, which are the second-highest housing expense after rent or mortgage payments. The electricity savings alone at Colorado Court, where rent includes utilities, is estimated at $10,000 a year.

In other green developments, the savings to residents can be significant. Village Green, a 116-home project that opened in Sylmar a few years ago, included solar panels on each house. According to statistics from Fannie Mae, utility bills for these homes average $20 a month, one-tenth of the $200 a month for comparable conventional homes.

Casa Verde, a development in Hollywood, was designed to have good natural light, air circulation and maximum energy efficiency. And recently the California Energy Commission has begun offering to pay 75% of the installed cost of solar power systems used in new low-cost housing projects.

Colorado Court is at Colorado Avenue and 5th Street, a few blocks from the ocean and just north of the Santa Monica Freeway. Its three towers glisten with facades composed of deep-blue photovoltaic panels that look more ornamental than functional.

"A lot of people don't know they're solar panels," said project architect Angela Brooks of Pugh Scarpa Kodama in Santa Monica. The electricity generated by the panels provides power to the apartments. The community corporation earns energy credits for any excess electricity that is sent to the city's electric grid. During peak-use times -- morning and evenings -- a gas-powered turbine on the roof generates more electricity.

The AIA jury wrote that the solar panels integrated into Colorado Court's architecture demonstrate "extraordinary design sophistication, especially for an affordable housing project."

Hundreds of people, including university students, architects, builders and developers, have toured the property since its opening in spring 2002. So many people have wanted to see the development that tours are now limited to one Sunday a month.

The attention hasn't bothered resident Richard Garcia, 37, a recovering alcoholic who lived in a group home before moving to Colorado Court a few months ago. He feels lucky to have the apartment. "The location is to die for," he said.

There's an elegance about Garcia's apartment, partly from the natural linoleum kitchen and bathroom floors, the formaldehyde-free solid cabinets, the quietness from blown-in wall insulation made of recycled newsprint, the quiet and energy-efficient refrigerator, and high-efficiency windows that repel summer heat.

Cooling ocean breezes flow through each apartment by way of the transom windows above the front doors. There are recycling stations on each floor and motion-sensitive exterior corridor lights.

"This cutting-edge building gives a lift to the residents who live there," said Joan Ling, executive director of the community corporation. "It is good for business and good for morale."

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