A Carbon-Neutral Building for Claremont

During author and environmentalist Bill McKibben’s talk at Pomona College last Thursday, October 27, one student concerned with new energy solutions asked: “What’s the better idea?” Indeed, after listening to McKibben’s long list of climatologic disasters all around the world, many of which were connected to our massive consumption of fossil fuel in the past decades, it seems only logical to start addressing solutions to our environmental predicament. McKibben suggested that nothing short of political activism would yield the results necessary to change the direction of our planet.

But even if thousands rally to protest against climate change, politicians are still faced with the same question: are there any viable solutions?

For five years, the staff of Uncommon Good – a local NGO that provides low-income children with college preparation tools, mentoring, and tutoring opportunities – has been working relentlessly to realize the dream of an entirely carbon-neutral building. On Friday, October 28, Uncommon Good presented the results of these efforts as part of the Brave New Planet conference, featuring Bill McKibben. Their answer: Superadobe.

The Superadobe Story

The Superadobe dream was born out of crisis: in 2006, Uncommon Good’s team faced a serious challenge. The building that hosts Uncommon Good’s offices is owned and run by Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic Church and was scheduled to be torn down and replaced by a parking structure. The staff began pulling resources together to look for other office space. Caught by the urgency of the situation, they aimed at finding a modest, and preferably sponsored, building in the area.

Jennifer Lee, a high school student at the time and member of ‘Teen Green’, an environmentally focused internship program run by Uncommon Good, returned one day from an environmental analysis class, deeply inspired by a pioneer of sustainable architecture Nader Khalili. This Iranian visionary (and later Claremont resident) developed a simple technique for constructing buildings entirely out of on-site materials. This practice grew from his understanding of ancient architectural systems still found today in certain parts of Morocco. Khalili originally investigated the technique as a possibility for housing on the moon, a project mandated by NASA, and went on to found Cal-Earth, the California Institute of Earth Art and Architecture, an educational non-profit.  Cal-Earth leads ‘earthbag’ construction projects around California even after Khalili’s death in 2008.

A “ground-breaking” design

At Friday’s event, ten workers from Cal-Earth proudly showed off their work, explaining the technique to community members and giving guided tours of the construction site. A webcam records their progress day by day, and an accelerated video of the construction process can be viewed via youtube.com/claremontumc.

“This building represents a milestone” said attendee Erik Peterson, of the Claremont Environmental Design Group, a sustainability-driven architecture firm overseeing the project. “It automatically uses less energy.”

Indeed, every step of the process is aimed to offset our carbon footprint. The earth, used as the primary building material, is put into bags and reinforced with barbed wire. Tunnels are built underground as a ventilation system, and the sun will serve as a natural heater, its energy absorbed through a solar chimney. Even the carbon footprint from the worker’s commute to work will be offset, thanks to a giant photovoltaic panel on-site providing three times the power the building needs.

“This is the beginning of how you save the planet” declared Peterson.

The building, named “Greenspace”, is the first of its kind in the country – perhaps even in the world – and was funded by a grant from the Reformulated Gasoline Fund, Unocal, and is located just north of Foothill Boulevard in Claremont.

Today, the project has gained massive recognition and support from the community, but the picture looked a lot different five years ago. “There was a lot of opposition,” recalls Carlos Carillo, the Uncommon Good Mentor Program coordinator. The Teen Green high school students, however, embraced the project wholeheartedly and canvassed Claremont for sponsors to lend them the necessary space.

It was the Claremont United Methodist Church who accepted to partner with Uncommon Good for the realization of this project. Remembering this episode Reverend Sharon Wickett said she was glad to have found a mission so compatible with the ministry’s ideology of “being faithful and being sustainable.” The president of the Claremont School of Theology Dr. Jerry Campbell said he took “great pride” in how the project was going, and emphasized the importance of individual actions in making a real impact on the world.

As Nancy Mintie, Uncommon Good’s Founder and Executive Director, pointed out, we are “the first generation that’s ever been tasked with saving the whole world.” If after Bill McKibben’s lecture on Thursday this seemed like a daunting task, the Superadobe project gives us a glimpse of hope, one earth-filled bag at a time, to reach McKibben’s goal of dramatically decreasing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. The building is scheduled for completion by 2012.

For more on Uncommon Good's superadobe project, please visit http://uncommongood.org/?page_id=377