written by:
photos by:
February 1, 2009
Originally published in All Together Now

Architect Robert Swatt, designer of the GreenCity Lofts condo complex on the border of Oakland and Emeryville, California, makes no claim to longstanding environmental expertise.

GreenCity Lofts exceeds California Title 24 energy requirements by 15 percent.
Photo by 
1 / 4
“We don’t punch holes in walls to create little windows,” he explains. “In most cases, we’ll take as much of a wall as possible and make it glass.”
Photo by 
2 / 4
The interiors fit in with Swatt’s interest in simplicity.
Photo by 
3 / 4
Swatt’s decision to create five separate buildings with open-air corridors incorporates a concern for cooling through cross-ventilation.
Photo by 
4 / 4
greencity lofts exterior
GreenCity Lofts exceeds California Title 24 energy requirements by 15 percent.
GreenCity Lofts

Architect Robert Swatt, designer of the GreenCity Lofts condo complex on the border of Oakland and Emeryville, California, makes no claim to longstanding environmental expertise. Standing in front of a model in his East Bay office, he says, “We’re not one of those firms who make green building the hallmark of our work. There are firms out there like that, but we’re not one of them. For us, design will always be the driver.”

When Swatt began GreenCity Lofts, he had little idea what it meant to be green. In fact, his firm, Swatt Architects, had never done an eco-friendly project of this magnitude—a 62-unit complex split into five separate buildings. “The green aspect was completely educational for us,” says Swatt, who credits an “enlightened” developer with the concept. “At first, it was like a seminar, where you learn about products and practices.”

In some ways, though, Swatt’s inexperience with sustainable building techniques made him the ideal architect to build the units. A multifamily condominium dwelling poses different design challenges than an eco-friendly single-unit house: It has to make money for the developer at the start, rather than pass on savings to the residents in the long term.

GreenCity Lofts didn’t begin as a green project; it just started off as tall. The location the developer, Martin Samuels, chose fell squarely between the city lines of Emeryville and Oakland. To build something on the scale he desired (75 feet high), Samuels and the architects at Swatt had to go before both city zoning boards to get an exception on the 30-foot height limit in Emeryville and the 65-foot limit in Oakland. In 1998, Oakland’s then mayoral candidate, Jerry Brown, told them that to get a permit to build, they would need something “compelling.” Samuels credits Brown for the idea of making sustainable condominiums, which in 1998 wasn’t exactly on the tip of everyone’s tongue.

Swatt brought in environmental and marketing consultants to develop a plan; business concerns frequently competed with environmental features. “We went down the LEED matrix [the voluntary guidelines used nationwide for green building] item by item with the developer to figure out what we could and couldn’t afford.” And although the architects planned for the lofts to meet LEED’s platinum level, the hefty cost of attaining LEED’s stamp of approval proved prohibitive. For instance, photovoltaic panels to provide solar energy for residents would have been a “no-brainer” if Swatt were designing for an individual home, but the developer had no incentive to invest in it. “We had to make green a good business decision,” Swatt says. “The developer is not totally altruistic.”

Swatt has no firm numbers on how much green features might have added to the building cost—he has heard between 2 and 12 percent—but many of the environmentally sound features were both practical and inexpensive due to the increased market for such wares. Items like low-VOC paints, used in the project, and recycled-content carpeting are becoming standard. It’s a testament to how mainstream green living has become that GreenCity doesn’t “wear its green on its sleeve,” says Swatt. “You won’t find any straw bale here. It’s not really obvious.”

Indeed, the complex gives no visual cues to its sustainable underbelly. In the five structures, there are  three scales of units for sale: studios, townhouses, and lofts, which run from about 500 to 2,000 square feet. Standing in a courtyard of GreenCity, one is struck by the rigid angularity of the buildings, which stand out among their surroundings. Lined with steel staircases and girded by cement walls, the units have an unquestionably industrial feel. However, colorful touches like the mustard-yellow doors and lantern-red bay windows balance the Gotham metal with California whimsy.

As for the sustainable specs, GreenCity is impressive. It exceeds California Title 24 energy requirements by 15 percent. The building process was vetted for its sustainability—95 percent of the demolition waste from construction was recycled, surpassing Oakland’s legal requirements of 50 percent. The steel superstructure and interior framing contain as much as 90 percent postconsumer recycled content. The cement pours contain at least 25 percent fly ash, and the roof was painted gray, not black, for its cooling benefits.
For Swatt, designing such a large structure was a professional trade-off. On one hand, he didn’t get the same freedom to take the kind of artistic license with details that he does when working on a single-family home. On the other hand, GreenCity Lofts allowed his firm to master sustainable building techniques, which both he and his partner Steven Stept agree are the future of home design. Swatt says his firm has already received offers to build more green apartment complexes, in the Central Valley of California, which they are weighing. “It’s a chance to make a difference in a community, make a public impact. It’s an aspect that I find to be…” He pauses for a second, looking at the skyline, before settling on a word. “I find it to be good.”

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

45 dva 2270 persp1 cmyk 0
The prospect of retirement doesn’t just signal the end of a career; it offers the chance to recalibrate and re-prioritize in life.
July 25, 2016
You don’t have to choose between sustainable energy and curb appeal.
July 19, 2016
jakemagnus queensland 1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
July 06, 2016
content delzresidence 013 1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
June 29, 2016
abc malacari marwick stair 01 0
A simple set of stairs is a remodel’s backbone.
June 28, 2016
Design Award of Excellence winner Mellon Square.
Docomomo US announces the winners of this year's Modernism in America Awards. Each project showcases exemplary modern restoration techniques, practices, and ideas.
June 27, 2016
monogram dwell sf 039 1
After last year’s collaboration, we were excited to team up with Monogram again for the 2016 Monogram Modern Home Tour.
June 27, 2016
switch over chicago smart renovation penthouse deck smar green ball lamps quinze milan lounge furniture garapa hardwood
A strategic rewire enhances a spec house’s gut renovation.
June 26, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent coralie gourguechon treviso italy cphotos by coralie gourguechon co produced by isdat planche anatomique de haut parleur1
Coralie Gourguechon's paper objects will make you see technology in a whole new way.
June 26, 2016
green machine smart home aspen colorado facade yard bocci deck patio savant
Smart technology helps a house in Aspen, Colorado, stay on its sustainable course.
June 25, 2016
Compact Aglol 11 television plastic brionvega.
The aesthetic appeal of personal electronics has long fueled consumer interest. A new industrial design book celebrates devices that broke the mold.
June 25, 2016
modern backyard deck ipe wood
An angled deck transforms a backyard in Menlo Park, California, into a welcoming gathering spot.
June 24, 2016
dscf5485 1
Today, we kicked off this year’s annual Dwell on Design at the LA Convention Center, which will continue through Sunday, June 26th. Though we’ve been hosting this extensive event for years, this time around is particularly special.
June 24, 2016
under the radar renovation napa
Two designers restore a low-slung midcentury gem in Napa, California, by an unsung Bay Area modernist.
June 24, 2016
Exterior of Huneeus/Sugar Bowl Home.
San Francisco–based designer Maca Huneeus created her family’s weekend retreat near Lake Tahoe with a relaxed, sophisticated sensibility.
June 24, 2016
light and shadow bathroom walnut storage units corian counter vola faucet
A Toronto couple remodel their home with a special emphasis on a spacious kitchen and a material-rich bathroom.
June 24, 2016
Affordable home in Kansas City living room
In Kansas City, an architecture studio designs an adaptable house for a musician on a budget.
June 23, 2016
modern lycabettus penthouse apartment oak vertical slats office
By straightening angles, installing windows, and adding vertical accents, architect Aaron Ritenour brought light and order to an irregularly shaped apartment in the heart of Athens, Greece.
June 23, 2016
kitchen confidential tiles custom cabinetry oak veneer timber house
A modest kitchen addition to a couple’s cottage outside of Brisbane proves that one 376-square-foot room can revive an entire home.
June 23, 2016
feldman architecture 0
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
June 22, 2016
Blackened timber Dutch home
A modern dwelling replaces a fallen farmhouse.
June 22, 2016
hillcrest house interior kitchen 3
Seeking an escape from bustling city life, a Manhattan couple embarks on a renovation in the verdant Hudson Valley.
June 22, 2016
Atelier Moderno renovated an old industrial building to create a luminous, modern home.
June 21, 2016
San Francisco floating home exterior
Anchored in a small San Francisco canal, this floating home takes its cues from a classic city habitat.
June 21, 2016
modern renovation addition solar powered scotland facade steel balcony
From the bones of a neglected farmstead in rural Scotland emerges a low-impact, solar-powered home that’s all about working with what was already there.
June 21, 2016
up in the air small space new zealand facade corrugated metal cladding
An architect with a taste for unconventional living spaces creates a small house at lofty heights with a starring view.
June 21, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent marjan van aubel london cwai ming ng current window
Marjan Van Aubel makes technology a little more natural.
June 21, 2016
urban pastoral brooklyn family home facade steel cypress double
Building on the site of a former one-car garage, an architect creates his family’s home in an evolving neighborhood of Brooklyn.
June 20, 2016
Modern Brooklyn backyard studio with plexiglass skylight, green roof, and cedar cladding facade
In a Brooklyn backyard, an off-duty architect builds a structure that tests his attention to the little things.
June 20, 2016
the outer limits paris prefab home living area vertigo lamp constance guisset gijs bakker strip tablemetal panels
In the suburbs of Paris, an architect with an eco-friendly practice doesn’t let tradition stand in the way of innovation.
June 20, 2016