The activists who founded the town of Portola Valley, Calif., in 1964 were determined to protect its scenic hillsides south of San Francisco from large-scale residential development. That same ethos came into play 40 years later, when the town decided to replace a surplus school with a multi-use town center. The top priorities: preserving open space, restoring natural habitat, and connecting to the landscape.
The new, $16 million Portola Valley Town Center occupies an 11-acre site beside a meadow and walnut grove. But its three main buildings—a library, town hall, and community hall—are placed away from the location of the old school, which was discovered to have been straddling the San Andreas Fault. By tucking the new complex in a corner of the site, the architects made space for a new baseball field, tennis courts, and a 300-foot-long stretch of restored creek that had been diverted into a culvert.
Designed by two Emeryville, Calif., firms—Siegel & Strain Architects with Goring & Straja Architects—the handsome civic center benefits from the enlightened views of town staff and highly involved citizens, who raised most of the money for the complex privately. The buildings huddle around a paved plaza and public lawn, where events such as an annual barbecue festival are held. Wide gabled roofs lend a familiarity to the buildings, whose deep sheltering porches and sunscreens of reclaimed Alaskan yellow cedar shade generous windows. Reclaimed vertical redwood siding relates the buildings to two towering redwood groves on the site.
Sustainability was a vital issue to the town, which consistently raised the bar as the project advanced. “Most of our projects get watered down as they go along,” says architect Larry Strain. “This one got greener and greener.” Rather than demolish the old school, they disassembled it to salvage materials. Douglas fir planks were remilled into wall paneling and ceiling slats for the new buildings. Concrete and asphalt were ground and reused as base rock for paths and service roads. In all, some 90 percent of the material from the deconstructed buildings was saved from landfills.
The comfortably scaled interiors reveal other eco-friendly gestures. Flooring in the community hall’s large meeting room, for example, was milled from local eucalyptus trees. Alder trees cut down to make way for the new ball field now wrap distinctive columns inside the buildings. And high-slag concrete—used in foundations, floor slabs, and library alcoves—lowered the project’s carbon footprint by 125 tons.
Building systems serve the sustainable agenda too. Passive design strategies include natural ventilation, daylighting, thermal mass, and exterior shading. In the most heavily used buildings, radiant-floor heating and nighttime cooling systems keep energy use to a minimum. Three arrays of roof-mounted photovoltaic panels, coupled with the efficient design, result in 53 percent less energy use than required by code.
Strain says the goal from the start had been to make the buildings green without seeking LEED certification. Midway through the process, the town decided to go for LEED Platinum. “We finally realized that the project would be easier to get built as a green project with LEED behind it—that the contractors understood what that meant,” Strain says. “It’s a way of implementing green.”