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Ocean Beach offices county's first net zero building

An Ocean Beach architecture firm’s new offices will be the first commercial building in San Diego County to qualify as net zero -- meaning it generates as much energy as it consumes.

Architects Hanna Gabriel Wells converted the 54-year-old Ocean Beach Auto Repair shop into a modern office building expected to enjoy no monthly energy costs, said Jim Gabriel, principal at Architects Hanna Gabriel Wells.

The firm has called Ocean Beach home for the past 12 years and jumped at the chance of ownership when the auto repair property became available. The location at 1955 Bacon Ave. is ideal; situated near to the small beach community’s shops and restaurants, and just one block from the beach, Gabriel said.

In converting the building, architects added modern details while keeping 90 percent of the original building intact. Still visible are the steel beams used by mechanics for lifting engines, cinder block walls and polished concrete floors.

“The big auto repair bays they use for automotive work are actually perfect for what we do because we need a lot of space too,” Gabriel said.

The interior of the building is simplistic with large open space bounded by floor-to-ceiling windows on one side. The workspace exhibits obvious remnants of the building’s former use while offering creative modern details such as LED bar lamps hung at intersecting angles and window frames of varying-sized rectangles pieced together in a seemingly geometric yet asymmetrical fashion.

Now completed, the building is 49 percent more efficient than required by code and is expected to receive a Leadership in Energy Efficiency (LEED) Gold rating -- the second-highest designation for sustainable design awarded by the U.S. Green Building Council. To achieve the rating, architects incorporated solar thermal water heating, low-flow plumbing fixtures, natural ventilation, a cool roof and took care to recycle 86 percent of construction waste. The building’s orientation will help to provide 90 percent natural light within the building.

Outdoors, pavement was replaced with drought-tolerant landscaping and a low-water irrigation drip.

The building’s greatest energy-saving component is its natural ventilation system that eliminates the need for air-conditioning, Gabriel said. Heating and cooling costs are typically the greatest source of energy consumption for commercial buildings.

The cost of the building was supplemented with $36,000 in grants from San Diego Gas & Electric meant to offset the greater cost of designing highly efficient buildings. The utility has $40 million in rebates available this year to local business customers for construction of energy-efficient buildings and renovations that increase efficiency.

Since 2004, SDG&E has provided incentives to 11 projects through its new construction programs, said Alex Kim, director of customer innovations for SDG&E. Buildings designed to be at least 10 percent more efficient than required by state building code are eligible for the incentive program.

The utility also leases space atop commercial rooftops where it installs and operates solar panels. SDG&E leases space surrounding a 16-megawatt photovoltaic solar panel system atop Architects Hanna Gabriel Wells’ offices. The system was installed by Escondido-based solar provider, HelioPower.

SDG&E also installed free of charge, a state-of-the-art monitoring system for the offices. The system will collect data relating to the building’s energy consumption, production and efficiency under different conditions. The system will help SDG&E better understand the performance of net-zero buildings, Kim said.

“We think this will help our other customers see the benefits of net-zero buildings,” Kim said. “Energy efficiency is definitely the future of buildings.”

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