There are many ways in which a  building can be built in conjunction with the energy resources of the particular site. Whether a building is designed to consume a great deal of energy from a site with readily available resources, or its designed to conserve energy on a site where natural resources are scarce, most buildings these days are designed with some consideration of the growing green movement. Although there are extreme buildings types in both directions, I believe the most radical attempt to live “greenly” take form in structures built off the grid. These structures are built exactly how the title entails, completes separated from the main or national electric grid. Normally built in countries or areas with little access to electricity, these types of buildings can either be singular stand-alone systems (used for one building), or multiple buildings on one mini-grid which would provide a smaller community with the necessary electricity. In all cases these single buildings, or small communities live self-sufficiently, with zero reliance on one or more public utilities.

Although there are many examples of this type of building, spanning from many different countries, a rather important one is the EcoCenter at heron’s Head Park in San Francisco. San Francisco has always been at the forefront of urban planning and environmental innovation; however, there are still necessary green measures to be taken to make the city more livable. San Francisco began to push for a greener landscape in 1997 with a city-wide Sustainability Plan and in 1999 passed a more specific Resource-Efficient City Building Ordinance[1]. Although these codes help, there is still much room for improvement, especially in private sector development, where people have avoided taking the sustainable route due to tradition, building codes, expenses, and external costs. The EcoCenter is leading the green movement in San Francisco and educating the public at the same time.

The EcoCenter is located in Bayview Hunters Point, an area that has undergone extreme transformations over the past decades. In the mid-1800s, the neighborhood transitioned into an industrial hub with the construction of the city’s largest wastewater treatment facility, a power plant, and many other large scale industrial buildings. Just after World War II, the Radiological Defense Laboratory conducted research on the effects of radiation and decontaminated shipping vessels exposed during atomic bomb testing. Some of the radioactive waste was disposed of without safeguards in onsite landfills. About 40 years later, the shipyard used was declared a Superfund or “hazardous waste site in need of extensive clean up.” Residents continue to be effected by the exposure to hazardous substances in the air, soil and water. And the landscape, not yet recovered, is home to hundreds of brownfield sites. The EcoCenter was designed as a reaction to the contextual history.

As an off-the-grid building, the EcoCenter was designed with direct correlation to the energy sources available to the site. Instead of being connected to the main electrical power grid, the building utilities are powered by renewable energy harnessed onsite, which produces approximately 2 kilowatt-hours more each day than it consumes.[2] The building uses multiple energy systems to remain powered including solar energy, passive design strategies[3], and daylighting. Most of their energy comes from solar photovoltaic panels installed on the roof of the EcoCenter, which capture light during the day. This energy is stored in a battery storage bank that consists of 16 lead-acid batteries, which is vital for any time when the sun is not directly shining on the building. In terms of passive design strategies, the south facing wall is a Trombe Wall[4] made up of windows and the floor is concrete.[5] Another important material consideration is the use of Structural Insulated Panels on the exterior walls and rooftop, which help to insulate the building interior. These strategies work together to trap the warm air inside when it’s cool out, and keep the cool air inside when it’s warm. The building is also oriented to take advantage of daylighting with strategically placed windows and skylights to keep the building naturally lit during the daytime hours. When the lights do need to be turned on, the high efficiency LED lights can be turned on with very little energy consumption. Another solar energy strategy that is in the works is a radiant floor heating system. These energy systems are just a few examples of design strategies that reconsider how a building can relate to the significant historical and current energy context. As the first 100% off-the-grid building in San Francisco, this landmark of youth education is an example of designing with supreme contextual awareness.


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[3] Passive Design Strategies (Sustainable Design Strategies: The Basic Principal of Passive Design. Terri Boake, Professor at University of Waterloo.


[4] Trombe Wall


[5] Glass Passive Design Strategy (Sustainable Design Strategies: The Basic Principal of Passive Design. Terri Boake, Professor at University of Waterloo.