Adam Woltag: Designing Sustainable Spaces

They say home is where the heart is, and it’s also where our story begins today. This week on Sea Change Radio, we talk to two people doing their best to make everyone’s home a happy one. First, we speak to architect Adam Woltag to discuss how sustainability factors into newly constructed buildings. We learn about a high-end luxury apartment building in Honolulu that is incorporating some cutting-edge technologies to conserve both power and water, examine how consumer demand for environmentally conscientious buildings continues to increase, and look at how this correlates to office spaces as well. Then, we dig into the archives and speak to Shamus Roller, the Executive Director of the National Housing Law Project, about housing challenges, evictions, and homelessness.

00:02 Narrator – This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

00:23 Adam Woltag – You have all of these, these wonderful companies here in the Bay Area that are pushing hard and achieving higher standards and putting that out there to attract the same community that wants to be a part of and support that effort to be more sustainable and work in more sustainable environments.

00:41 Narrator – They say home is where the heart is, and it’s also where our story begins today. This week on Sea Change Radio, we talk to two people doing their best to make everyone’s home a happy one. First, we speak to architect Adam Woltag to discuss how sustainability factors into newly constructed buildings. We learn about a high-end luxury apartment building in Honolulu that is incorporating some cutting-edge technologies to conserve both power and water, examine how consumer demand for environmentally conscientious buildings continues to increase, and look at how this correlates to office spaces as well. Then, we dig into the archives and speak to Shamus Roller, the Executive Director of the National Housing Law Project, about housing challenges, evictions, and homelessness.

01:40 Alex Wise – I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Adam Walter Tag. He is a design partner at WRNS Studio. Adam, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

01:50 Adam Woltag – Hey, good to be here. So we recently had an architect on Sea Change Radio from Gensler talking about the opportunities to transform some of these slumbering downtown areas and and re outfit office space into into residential space.

02:11 Alex Wise – I wanted to talk to you today a little bit about. How sustainability has changed the way you do your work, how clients are now looking at things through a different lens. Why don’t we first start on the residential space. You’re working on a high end residential condominium in Hawaii right now in, in, in Oahu. Why don’t you explain? The impetus behind that and how sustainability is informing your work.

02:40 Adam Woltag – Oh, absolutely. Well, I mean first and foremost WRNS say, I mean sustainability is something that we bring to every single project. We’ve been doing that for many, many years. It’s part of how we work. Doesn’t matter if it’s a luxury product or if it’s a school or an office building, it’s something that’s just how we work. It’s kind of in our DNA, you know. And when we started the practice, it was just a part of what we wanted to do. We saw the challenges facing us as a community, as a city, as a global community about climate change. And so that really we saw that as architects, we could really contribute to benefiting, you know these challenges by designing buildings that were very efficient. You know that actually helped improve the health and Wellness of their inhabitants, but also started to think about sustainability from a broader context. So, you know, looking at the project you’re referencing in Honolulu? It’s called Alia. It is a condominium near downtown Honolulu, in an area called Kaka’ako. And we are approached by the Kobayashi group of local development company to design their next luxury mixed-use product. And they wanted it to be the most sustainable residential high rise in Honolulu. So when we heard that, we jumped at the opportunity and said yes, absolutely. We’d love to kind of think about what that means in Honolulu and how WNS could can contribute again to this, this effort to try to make buildings more efficient and more sustainable.

04:05 Alex Wise – So when you walk us through some of the features that this property how a newly designed luxury building might be designed today with sustainability in mind than if you had been designing it in 1980?

04:31 Adam Woltag – So you know the team got together when I say the team, it was developers and engineers and architects got together to really try to get our heads around the concept of what luxury could mean here, right? It’s not the same in every single location. It’s not the same for every market. We got together and had a really rich conversation about what luxury could mean here in Honolulu and what we arrived at was. And this goes in a way to kind of create identity for this project, but where we arrived at was an idea that luxury here was not about an object, right. And it wasn’t about a brand name and it wasn’t about the veneer of something the veneer of surfaces and object. What we wanted to really highlight and amplify was the idea that luxury was really about opportunities and experiences and choices and offerings that that was going to define the concept of luxury here for Alia and Kaka’ako.So that really kind of folded into a building that offered a lot of wonderful amenities. For the residents, lots of different types of experiences for them to have places for them to gather as families, spaces to be outside spaces, to connect with the community. So the building is very, very rich with that from a sustainability perspective, sustainability guided the design decisions from the very beginning of the project. How could design decisions, everything about this project all bend towards creating a more sustainable building for the residents, but also for the community around. You know that surrounds this this develop. And how that folds into a a wonderful feeling of health and Wellness and vitality for the for the residents that live here.

06:03 Alex Wise – Just comparing it to an urban renewal project that we hear about trying to revitalize urban areas with a community-based perspective and architects wanting people to be outside and similar stuff that you’re talking about. But then now we’re talking about multi $1,000,000 luxury suites – kind of compare and contrast how this building might look compared to, let’s say, something that’s been popping up in South Beach in San Francisco, let’s say.

06:35 Adam Woltag – So one of the things we did from the very beginning was really try to understand the nature of place of this place and what that means is understanding how this this incredibly rich neighborhood is going to be evolving and transforming, you know, over the next few years understanding that the climate, the specific aspects of climate here, wind patterns, sun pattern, you know, rain patterns, and how we could take advantage of those right to help create a more sustainable building, and then also thinking culturally about how people residents in the community might use this building, all of those informed some early design decisions. So I’ll go into some specifics maybe about the tower itself, you know, so the building is you know overall it’s over 1,000,000 square feet. It’s the tower itself is topside at about 400 feet. There are over 450 units in this building mixed-use forty of those units are are reserved for reserved housing for more lower income housing, as well as market and luxury units. So it’s a very mixed-use project when we are laying out the tower and the orientation of the tower. One of the first things we did is rotate that power so that it actually leans into the primary wind direction. And what that does is it maximizes the amount of opportunity for these units in the in the tower to passively cool right to basically take advantage of those winds right to cool the unit. So they’re not relying on air conditioning all the time. As you were saying, maybe you know a glass box here. No, these you know, the idea here is that these units would be able to take advantage of of the trade winds to help cool and comfort the interior space. And then the facade, the, the the faces of the building that were exposed to sunlight most of the time, it’s Hawaii. It’s a very high aspect ratio there. We projected balconies or lanais and we were very, very careful about how those lanais leaned out, because what that does is it creates A shading pattern across the facade. And it also draws residents outside to be outside and to engage in the outdoors, which we think is a wonderful benefit to living in a high rise luxury. And minimum many of the ones you see are just glass boxes and here we didn’t want to go down that route. We really wanted to open the building up. We wanted to give residents the opportunity to be outside and in so doing, we found this reciprocal benefit that those lines actually cooled the tower and helped us reduce our dependency on on air conditioning.

09:10 Alex Wise – And Hawaii is paradise in terms of its weather, but how much foresight have you put into how that perfection may be altered in the future with climate change?

09:23 Adam Woltag – Hawaii is one of the most remote landmasses on the planet, right? It’s sitting there in the middle of the Pacific. So all the resources there are very precious. We’ve got to be very careful about how we use them. That goes to, you know, fresh water and building materials as well as energy. And so one of the things that we’re very, very proud of with Alia is that our team of engineers and obviously with the support of our client, we relly push this to create a very efficient building and right now we are an all-electric building. We feel really, really proud that we are able to engineer building that is all electric and actually produces vast amounts of electricity on site to help reduce the demand. For electricity from the grid, so the building is producing a lot of its own energy that’s clean energy, which we think is great, which has a fantastic impact on our carbon footprint. So we’re trying to reduce the impact of the of the resources in Hawaii when it comes to potable water, clean water. Hawaii has a limited supply and one of the things another one of the things we’re most proud of this project is that we are able to recycle and reuse. A lot of the gray water that’s generated on site and that in turn reduces our demand for potable water.

10:44 Alex Wise – How do you do that? I’ve been interested in how the Saudis, let’s say, have incorporated a dual sanitation system. I always find it very wasteful that we’re taking potable water and peeing and pooping into it.

10:57 Adam Woltag – And flushing it down the toilet.

11:01 Alex Wise – I mean in California where we are, we’re even more right now. We had a very rainy season, but when we’re at the height of our drought season, I’m even more keenly aware of this inefficiency. How do you address it as an architect?.

00:11:21 Adam Woltag – I know it’s a funny concept, isn’t it? We take our the cleanest water and we use it to do the dirtiest thing. What we have in our gray water system here in Alia, where we’re basically collecting the water from sinks from washing machines and from showers. And we’re collecting all of that water in the building, and then we’re cleaning. It goes through filtration system and cleans it to, you know, one of the highest levels we can get in-state and then we reuse that water for irrigation, which you know, reduces our potable demand. We also use it to support our mechanical system. It goes into our cooling tower and reduces the need for that type of water. And that overall, I mean is saving millions of gallons of water a year of you know, so we’re not drawing from the aquifer, we’re not drawing from the potable water, the limited potable water resources in Honolulu, we’re actually reusing that water twice. So we’re very, very proud to be one of the first high-rise projects in Honolulu that can accomplish that.

12:20 (Music Break)

13:35 Alex Wise – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to Adam Woltag. He is a design partner at WRNS Studio. So Adam, speaking of ways that you’re trying to reduce the carbon footprint and the water waste in your buildings, let’s look at the commercial side of things. We’ve been talking about this residential building that is under construction in in Honolulu, how different are things now from your perspective in terms of the percentage of electric grid and water usage that go into a commercial property? This is something that, like a lot of, yes, a homeowner might be keenly aware of what their water bill or electricity bill is. But when somebody goes into an office, their brain kind of is in a different compartment, but obviously the earth doesn’t care about what your perspective might be on it. You’re still using those resources.

14:32 Adam Woltag – Right. It’s a great question, you know. But it all does start from just an awareness as you were kind of saying whether you’re a homeowner or you, you work for a company and you go into the office every day. You’re still engaging the built environment, right? And we’re all trying to be careful with those resources. And what we’ve found in a lot of the commercial clients that we work with because of the encouragement of a lot of the local cities, especially in the Bay Area that are pushing and pushing, you know, businesses to be more efficient that our clients are asking us to design very, very sustainable environments, right? And they see that in a number, a benefit to them in a number of ways. One, they’re creating healthy environments for their staff. And trust me, it’s competitive out there. And if you own a business and you can create a very sustainable environment for your workers, people that come there, you’re going to get a lot of interest. It’s really beneficial to them. They’re also seeing benefits when it comes to certain tax credits that comes to them so that they’re seeing that benefit come back to them in terms of productivity, people want to be at work, they’re healthier there, right? By creating these environments and they’re also seeing it come back in terms of the bottom line because they’re starting to be able to develop more square footage in certain cases. If they develop greener buildings. So there’s lots of incentives out there for commercial developers to do the right thing and invest in in green infrastructure. And we’re thrilled as a firm that we’ve been able to design these environments for some of the most cutting-edge Bay Area companies out there.

16:11 Alex Wise – I know that you’re not involved really in the marketing of these buildings, but you see how they’re being marketed differently. Maybe give listeners an idea how sustainability is incorporated in that marketing material differently than it may have a a couple decades ago, and I don’t just mean marketing, also on the flip side, the demand from consumers.

00:16:33 Adam Woltag – Oh absolutely and we’ve seen here in the Bay Area a lot. Especially in the workplace where people want to walk the walk. And what they want are they want to live a life, they want to spend their money on things that they believe in that that kind of aligned with their values. And if they’re buying things that are supporting the green economy on their own in their personal lives, they want to work for companies that are also conscious as well in doing and doing the same thing. And so we’ve seen some of our clients advertise, you know, that advertiser market to the workforce that you know their buildings are, for example, I’ll throw a benchmark number out there – LEED certified, LEED Platinum building, net zero energy buildings, carbon neutral buildings. And so you know, you have all of these, these wonderful companies here in the Bay Area that are pushing hard and achieving higher standard. And putting that out there to attract the same community that wants to be a part of and support that effort to be more sustainable and work in more sustainable environments.

17:45 Alex Wise – What innovations are on the horizon from a design and architectural standpoint that excite you?

17:52 Adam Woltag – You know, I’ll speak for myself, I think right now I’m most excited to see technologies and systems coming, you know, coming available that reduce carbon. They’re addressing the carbon problem that we have and right now, we’re having conversations with cement companies about how to reduce the, you know, cement has a lot of huge carbon footprint and right now there’s some really cutting edge technologies out there that look really, really viable to kind of really hit the market in a much more significant way here shortly that will reduce the carbon impact of concrete that would be fantastic, right?

18:30 Alex Wise – We did a piece on concrete. I don’t know if this is taken off, but we did a piece on how they’re using bio-mimicry they’re using. What a lobster does in nature, with their shells to kind of reduce that. The tremendous amount of heat that goes into producing concrete.

18:45 Adam Woltag – On so, no, but that that’s really that. That’s super exciting because we use concrete every single day it’s our biggest building material. But also looking at some of the new technologies around wood construction and seeing heavy timber. I’m a, you know, a a very viable option for many kinds of markets, whether it’s, you know, commercial or educational or residential markets now.

19:07 Alex Wise – What does that mean exactly? What is heavy timber?

19:10 Adam Woltag – Heavy timber is a category in building where you’re using lumber. You’re building up sections of wood into structural members, you’re laminating them, gluing together that have incredible structural capabilities.

19:24 Alex Wise – And that’s different from the way we used to use wood in what way?

19:27 Adam Woltag – It’s different in the sense that it actually goes back to kind of the earliest ways we used to build when we only used wood, right? You use these very large members, and you would use it in a very kind of efficient way. We’ve moved away from that in a lot of ways and use metal and steel in these composite systems that that really don’t have a good carbon footprint but wood is a renewable resource. So if we can incorporate more wood construction in our buildings, we’re using renewable resources. We’re reducing the dependency on concrete and steel which have higher. carbon footprints, obviously, and we’re creating really beautiful and healthy spaces to be in so that’s a very exciting system. These systems are coming out right now, you’ll see CLT, DLT, you’ll see a lot of these kind of acronyms out there for these lumber systems that are wonderful to use. The other ones that have kind of been out there, but maybe are being used a little bit more, I’m going to say with more impact now are some of these building management systems. You can control your building remotely, right? Whether it’s a house or it’s an entire campus, it can, you know, at any moment in time, you can understand what’s happening every outlet. Every light fixture, every ceiling fan you can understand how it’s being used. So once you get to that point where you understand that you can really start to conserve and tune the building for its most optimal use. And as these systems get more and more efficient and easier to use, I think more and more people will like. It’s like the nest system you might have at home where you can kind of tune your home to when you want it to be a certain temperature, how you want it to function. These are on a larger scale for some of these larger buildings. It’s very, very exciting.

21:04 Alex Wise – And that kind of speaks to my question about fine tuning in the future, that Aliyah building as the climate might change down the road in Hawaii, where you’re talking about exactly.

21:15 Adam Woltag – Yeah, it gives us all flexibility and choices. And I think at the end of the day, that’s. What we that’s what we all want.

21:20 Alex Wise – He’s a design partner at WRNS studio, Adam Woltag. Adam, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

21:27 Adam Woltag – Thank you so much. That was great.

21:43 Alex Wise – I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by my friend and neighbor Shamus Roller. He’s the executive director of the National Housing Law Project. Shamus, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

21:54 Shamus Roller – Great to be here with you, Alex.

21:56 Alex Wise – So explain the mission of your organization, the National Housing Law project.

22:01 Shamus Roller – We’re a national legal and advocacy support center, so we help legal aid attorneys and other advocates around the country do housing law protect tenants protect low income homeowners and then we do a fair amount of advocacy at the federal level around housing.

22:16 Alex Wise – What stimulated your interest in in the issue of housing?

22:20 Shamus Roller – Well, I started my career working on doing direct outreach with homeless youth and adults. And so I was doing work on the streets helping people find access to services, get basic first aid. So I really understood kind of how you end up being homeless and what are the barriers to getting off the streets. What are the things that happen to people that that result in them being homeless? And so I really wanted to think about how do you, how do you deal with the upstream problems? And I went to law school and I’ve been working on housing for my entire career.

22:49 Alex Wise – Before we dive into some of the solutions, let’s outline some of the problems that you and your colleagues at the National Housing Law project handle on a daily basis. First, let’s talk about evictions, because I imagine that is a pretty big palette to work with right there.

23:06 Shamus Roller – Yeah, that’s been a lot of COVID, in particular in the last 18 months of my life has been thinking about how do evictions play into the COVID pandemic that we’re in right now. So there’s quite a bit of very good data at this point, showing that the higher levels of eviction to your community have the higher level of COVID transmission you have because the result of eviction is almost always that you move into substandard housing or you move into doubled up options where you’re around more people where there’s higher likelihood of transmission of COVID and the longer term effects of evictions can be homelessness as well for part of the population. So I’ve been working so much on how emergency rental assistance works. Some of the federal funding programs that are helping people prevent evictions to pay back the rent that they owe to their landlords and to stay housed in this difficult time.

23:59 Alex Wise – And one thing that I don’t think a lot of people think of is the trickle down effect of an eviction in a community. Maybe speak to the exponential effect that kicking one family out of 1 unit has on many, many people around that same neighborhood. We think of it as a just, ohh, that person couldn’t afford it, so they’re gone, but it’s not so simple, is it?

24:23 Shamus Roller – It’s not so simple I think. First, it’s important to think about that people getting kicked out for not that much money, right, which is that oftentimes an eviction is over less than $1000 across the country. In many cases, that’s the majority of evictions and many jurisdictions. So it’s a small amount of money, but that eviction, if you know the most the demographic factor. That most likely predicts that you’re going to be evicted is that you have small children. And so that means that your kids are going to have to find a new school system. Often it means that you’re going to live in an overcrowded condition. You’re going to move in with family or friends. Their higher rates of suicide, higher mental health related issues after evictions, COVID is so clearly demonstrated that link between between eviction and poor health. And so what we’re doing is spinning a family kind of into this time of uncertainty, of instability for that eviction. And I guess my public policy urge is that fixing that problem is pretty inexpensive in comparison to other public policy interventions that we do that we can protect the stability of families and of individuals by stopping evictions, which is this moment that that creates huge instability in their lives.

25:40 Alex Wise – How can federal lawmakers or or people in charge of government assistance programs on a state level as well? How can they work with the most needy and vulnerable populations better to try to communicate and allow them to kind of budget some of these potential people credits and assistance programs? It must be hard to access them, especially when a lot of them don’t have access to the Internet.

26:05 Shamus Roller – So the biggest housing program at the national level is the Housing Choice Voucher program, previously called the Section 8 voucher program. And that program serves about 1/4 of the people nationally who are eligible for it. And in big cities in particular, the waiting list to get a voucher can be 10 years.

26:26 Alex Wise – So obviously the idea for renters of this voucher is a popular one too popular. Should we just subsidize it more or is it different way to skin this? I mean, if I were to offer you up like, how are we going to solve the housing problem in the United States?

26:42 Shamus Roller – I mean, one is the federal government’s got to be a bigger player, the vouchers is one way or other. Federal subsidies around housing programs. And two, you got to undermine the challenges around getting housing built at the local level and the sort of racist zoning practices that we have across the country has got to be part of this three. You’ve got to reform landlord tenant law so it protects renters a little bit better than it does right now. It’s got to be a piece of how that works in practice. But I think really it’s from the federal government standpoint, money is a huge piece because the budget was so much higher in the 70s, you know, accounting for inflation and you know, we’re underfunding these programs as such a dramatic extent. When you look at a lot of Western Europe where there’s not really a problem with homelessness because they know, you know, like we do in this country, that homelessness is very expensive, it’s much more expensive to leave somebody on the streets than it is to find. But we just pay for it out of 10 different pockets, a little bit from healthcare, a little bit from social services, you know a little bit from the state, a little bit from local government, a little bit in policing that we don’t really take into consideration how expensive that that end outcome really is for us.

27:54 Alex Wise – Shamus Roller is the executive director of the National Housing Law Project. Shamus, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

28:03 Shamus Roller – Thanks, Alex.

28:17 Narrator – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis, and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by the Brecker Brothers and Don Ho. To read a transcript of this show, go to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast on our site or visit our archives to hear from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gavin Newsom, Stewart Brand and many others. And tune in to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.