‘Greenest Building in the World’ to be Built in Claremont

This summer, Claremont will become home to one of the most sustainable buildings on the planet: a Superadobe. The building, composed of more than 90 percent soil, will be located at 211 W. Foothill Blvd., near the intersection with Indian Hill Blvd. The groundbreaking for the construction is scheduled for Apr. 30, which coincides with Claremont’s celebration of Earth Day.

The Superadobe is being designed by Claremont Environmental Design Group (CEDG), which also designed the Social Room in the Smith Campus Center and renovated Little Bridges Hall of Music in 2001. Upon completion, the Superadobe will house the offices of Uncommon Good, a local non-profit with close connections to the Draper Center for Community Partnerships at Pomona College. Uncommon Good works with student volunteers at the 5Cs and elsewhere through its Clinic to College Mentoring Program and through various environmental projects.

“This will be one of the greenest buildings in the world,” said Nancy Mintie, Executive Director of Uncommon Good. “We are building a Superadobe using little more than the earth under our feet.”

Mintie added that the building represents Uncommon Good’s values.

“Very soon, we will have a building that demonstrates in a very palpable way how we may live simply so that others may simply live, to take Gandhi’s words,” she said. “It’s not that we’ll be suffering in these buildings either; they really are beautiful and comfortable.”

Nader Khalili, an Iranian-American architect, developed the Superadobe technique in 1984 for the construction of housing settlements on the moon and Mars. He came to the U.S. as a housing consultant for NASA and the United Nations while pioneering the Superadobe technique at Cal-Earth, which he founded in 1991 in nearby Hesperia, and later adapted the technique as a housing solution for low-income people. The Earth Dome at Pomona’s Organic Farm is actually a preliminary Superadobe, but on a much smaller scale than the Uncommon Good building.

The Superadobe technique is revolutionary because it uses minimal resources, both in the construction phase and after completion, making it even more green than some of the “greenest” buildings in existence.

The process for constructing a Superadobe begins with digging earth from the building site, placing it in long biodegradable bags, and stacking these bags in the shape of the building. The process demands no wood or steel, which require a massive amount of energy to produce. Sourcing most of the supplies from the construction site minimizes transportation, which is one of the largest energy-consuming aspects of construction.

Once completed, the Superadobe walls will provide passive cooling and heating while rooftop installations will capture rain water and a rooftop garden will provide added insulation. Lee Krusa, a Landscape Architect at CEDG and Research Coordinator for the Claremont Colleges and the Uncommon Good Superadobe Project, said that the CEDG team has researched carbon emissions and how much energy certain materials require.

“We’re thinking of every way we can to make the site a zero carbon emission [area],” Krusa said. “We’re doing things like erecting photovoltaic cells before construction begins so the tools that we use can be run off of that where applicable.”

The Superadobe will occupy around 25,000 square feet, about half of which will house offices for Uncommon Good. The organization currently resides in a building loaned to it by a local church, but Mintie said Uncommon Good started looking for a new space after the church notified her organization a few years ago that the building would be demolished. A United Methodist Church offered Uncommon Good a plot of land next to a community garden for construction of the Superadobe. The site happens to be on land that was occupied hundreds of years ago by the local Tongva tribe of Native Americans. When Mintie and her team at Uncommon Good realized this, they reached out to work with tribe leaders in hopes of honoring their heritage through the new building.

“We’ve agreed to share the site with them,” Mintie said. “We’re working with one Tongva, who is an ethnobotanist, and using plants in the landscaping that have particular meaning for the Tongva, like what they used for food, for medicine, and [for] their spiritual ceremonies. We’re also working with a couple of professors at Pomona to create solstice markers because the Tongva, like many indigenous peoples around the world, studied the stars and the skies very carefully.”

The Superadobe will also include a small museum with information about the history of the Tongva and relevant cultural artifacts.

In addition to professors, Uncommon Good is reaching out to 5C students who would like to be involved with the project.

“We have a really great relationship with the organization,” said Pomona’s Sustainability Office Coordinator Bowen Close.

Students have been involved with Uncommon Good’s mentoring and tutoring programs for low-income youth for years. Close said the Superadobe provides another way the organization and the college can work together on a mutually beneficial project.

“Part of what they want to do with the building is research the impacts of the building technique and the building itself,” Close said. “They’ve approached Pomona, myself, the Environmental Analysis and the Public Policy departments to think about how students might be involved in building techniques research, and maybe even helping to build the building—to be on site and really get their hands dirty, intellectually and physically, and understand what the benefits are.”

Krusa held a meeting at Pomona two weeks ago to inform students about research opportunities with the project. He said a number of students expressed interest, especially in recording aspects of the building process that have never been scientifically recorded before.

“We’re going to be tracking all parts of the building, embodied energy in the materials, and the operational energy, and then comparing that to conventional building types,” Krusa said.

Hsuanwei Fan PO ’12 was one of the students who attended the meeting.

“I hope to contribute to the project by helping out with a portion of the research associated with calculating the carbon footprint of the building’s construction process and monitoring its performance after it has been completed,” Fan said. “It is highly appropriate for our climate, since much of Southern California is, after all, desert-scape. Its ability to insulate is excellent, while the circular form and domes employed in the construction method make Superadobes much more resistant to earthquakes and other natural catastrophes,” he said.

Krusa said that depending on how much of the construction must be done by hand, which is more expensive, he expects the project to cost about the same as a traditional building of similar size.

“We’re really excited to be pushing the envelope to develop awareness of how the building industry can contribute to changing the way that we do things,” Krusa said. “It’s a feasible process for others to do, too. It just takes some dedicated clients, which we’re really thankful to have—people who are dedicated to doing the right thing. We’re building momentum and it’s really just a matter of commitment,” he said.

Mintie said Uncommon Good won a $836,406 Clean Air grant to construct the Superadobe because of its exceptional sustainability. The grant is part of a settlement reached in 2000 by the Chevron corporation after a lawsuit was filed against the corporation for violating the Clean Air Act. Chevron was found in violation of Environmental Protection Agency-required pollution-control technology when transferring petroleum, which allowed volatile organic compounds (VOCs) to escape into the atmosphere, contributing to L.A. area smog. Chevron settled for a record-setting seven million dollars, one million of which went to a fund for environmental improvement projects like the Superadobe building.

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