Perched on a knoll at the edge of the bay, the Heron’s Head EcoCenter is a welcome beacon in the gritty, industrial landscape of Bayview/Hunters Point. The green roof, reclaimed wood exterior siding, and restored wetlands offer clues to the native ecology of the place, and hint at innovative systems that make the project self-sufficient. In an area where resources have been ravaged and pilfered in the last few decades, the EcoCenter has established itself as a local icon to empower the community to change its situation.
Heron’s Head is a small sliver of land along the edge of the bay that resembles an upside down heron’s head. Two hundredyears ago, the area was a rich wetland estuary, the confluence of freshwater Islais and Yosemite creeks, and the salty San Francisco Bay. Many aquatic creatures, ground rodents, mammals, insects, and birds, including blue herons called it home.
The contemporary history of the area begins with Naval shipyards, constructed in the late 19th century. During World War II, many African Americans arrived and settled in the neighborhood to work in the shipyards. When the shipyards ceased production, the community gradually yielded to a series of other forces. PG&E constructed a large natural gas power plant, which prior to its closure in 2006, was the highest polluting substation in the state. In 1952, San Francisco’s Public Utilities Commission built the Southeast Wastewater treatment station; today it processes 67 million gallons of wastewater per year in open-air
aerators. EcoCenter’s site is a former landfill, and to the north is the City’s major recycling center, which brings a heavy flow of diesel trucks. For decades, the effects of these physical structures produced an environment with high levels of airborne particulates, ground contamination, and led to abnormally high concentrations of asthma, cancer and even infant mortality in the local population.
Given the location’s history and four major surrounding forces, the EcoCenter was intended as a response to educate the localcommunity about the environmental and social effects it has left on the landscape and the neighborhood, and to demonstrate alternative solutions.
Solar PV system & onsite storage – In a response to the massive PG&E substation, the EcoCenter captures and stores electrical energy on site. Bayview is ideal for solargain, with a yearly average of 335 days of sunshine. Onsite there is a 3.6kwh PV array and lead acid battery bank which stores 3 days of energy. All the electrical wiring inside is exposed to inform visitors of the electrical sources and pathways through the building.
Rainwater collection & storage – The roof consists of three planes, one for the solar array and two green roofs that harvest rainwater into onsite cisterns. The rainwater is designed to flush the toilets, but the city has not yet permitted the use. There is a ½” water line to provide potable water and supply the fire suppression system.
Stormwater treatment – Because the building does not have a direct storm sewer connection, much of the runoff collected from building and site is absorbed onsite and designed to infiltrate to the ground through low-impact development strategies such as green roofs and constructed wetlands.
Wastewater processing – Because the wastewater plant is located within smelling distance, EcoCenter wanted to demonstrate a self-sufficient strategy for processing wastewater. The two bathroom sinks, two toilets, and a future kitchen sink do not connect to the city’s sewer system, but to a blackwater treatment loop called the Living Machine which then leaches into a constructed wetland outside. Currently, the system is designed to handle 1500 gallons of sewage/day.
Recycled building materials – as a response to the local recycling center and the fact the site has been reclaimed fromlandfill, parts of the building were clad in reclaimed wood pieces to transform waste into ”new” building materials.
Literacy for Environmental Justice conceived the project 10 years ago, as a community classroom to educate neighbors about the local environmental injustices. Around 2003, Laurie Schoeman heard about it, and felt it was an ideal demonstration project for its promise to bring environmental justice to the community and potential for non-profit organizations to take an active role in the built environment. Schoeman joined LEJ as part time staff to work on the EcoCenter, and eventually became a full time employee and primary resource for shepherding the project through the complex community, financing, regulatory and construction implementation hurdles.
Funding Because LEJ did not have an independent source of funding for the EcoCenter, a network of grants, donations and services helped realize the building. Rights to the land were negotiated with the Bay Conservation Development Group (BCDG). Funding was a mix of public and private resources – 10-12 private foundations grants, city funds from the San Francisco Department of the Environment, state grants by the Coastal Conservancy. Federal money from the American Reconstruction and Recovery Act (ARRA), enabled completion of the green roof. There were also significant material gifts and in-kind donations, including BP solar PV panels, landscaping materials, Rebuilding Together labor, and pro-bono legal assistance.
Partners The project would not have been possible without the continued support of quite a number of designers, engineers and contractors. The list is numerous, but some of the key players included:
Toby Long, Toby Long Design, Architect
Alex Rood, Fulcrum Structural, Structural Engineering
Jeff Ludlow, Tredwell & Rollo, Geotechnical
Noadiah Eckman, Eckman Environmental, Wastewater treatment
Habitat Gardens, rainwater catchment & living systems for stormwater treatment
Greg Kennedy, Occidental Power, solar PV & battery array
Regulatory Hurdles: Many of the EcoCenter’s systems are not conventional and required significant effort to convince public officials of their efficacy and safety. Building officials wanted to ensure safety of the SIPs and foundation system on this landfill site. The Fire Department would not approve the project unless a dedicated municipal water source supplied the fire sprinkler systems. Environmental Health and Public Health were extremely concerned about the Living Machine systems, and the greywater usage, especially where children were concerned.
The Eco Center is now open to the public, welcoming neighbors, school groups throughout the Bay Area, and even local professionals. When asked who she would most want to visit the EcoCenter, Laurie Schoeman expressed a desire for President Obama and Lisa Jackson, head of the EPA to see the center. To Laurie, the center is a model for everything President Obama has stood for with respect to community building, capacity building, jobs training, reclamation of underutilized land, social and environmental justice, independent energy sources and off grid technologies.