The Oakland EcoBlock Project: Sustainable Building Practices and Community Design

By Katie Robinson
Engineering Analyst Intern
Sustainable Investment Group (SIG)

The Reason for the Oakland EcoBlock Project

Industrial and technological advancements have led to rapid population growth and subsequent urbanization. Cities in the United States now contain over 80% of the country’s population. Forty percent of the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions stem from buildings, and over fifty-three percent of those emissions derive from residential properties [1]. This urban housing sprawl places extreme pressures on infrastructure systems and invites impactful climate change effects, leading to a demand for buildings that utilize fewer resources and can withstand extreme weather events.

This demand raises questions among experts: How can communities made up of old, inefficient homes become part of a “clean-air, low-carbon and low resource-use” network? Can these individual structures be incorporated into a block-scale community, enabling adaptation and response strategies for climate change effects? How can community support and investor buy-ins be incorporated into the new network of buildings and homes [2]?

Urban adaptive responses that answer these questions must combine sustainable practices, integration of community wishes and other social responses, adherence to legal and regulatory pathways, and financial innovations that inspire investment. The extensive number of neighborhoods requiring retrofitting provides a “huge opportunity to create greater urban sustainability and resilience at a distributed, fine-grain scale” [3].

One response to growing need for communities that fit these parameters lies in the concept of the Oakland EcoBlock Project. Harrison Fraker, professor of architecture and urban design at the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley, alongside his partner Daniel Kammen, professor of energy and public policy at UC Berkeley and chair of the Energy & Resources Group, and a team of experts have drawn up the theory of a community concept that would “apply existing renewable technologies to a block of 30 to 40 adjoining residences to help reduce their fossil fuel and water consumption” [4].

The Oakland EcoBlock Project consists of a “multidisciplinary team of over 30 researchers, architects, urban designers, engineers, social scientists, and policy experts from academia, private industries, nonprofits, and local, state, and federal governments” [4]. First conceptualized in 2014, the project received research funding in 2016, and its final report was distributed in December of 2017. From that point forward, the team has been working on gathering funding for the estimated $9 million dollar budget from a variety of sources and approval from the necessary governmental bodies and local communities, after which the project may break ground [5].  As of June 2018, among those partners numbered the following, alongside additional companies, research groups and governing bodies: Veolia, Rexel, Ramboll, Arnold & Porter, Morgan Lewis, David Taussig & Associates, Perkins Coie, SOM, the University of California, Berkeley and the City of Oakland. The project itself will be of no cost to the homeowners, meaning lower- to middle- income homes may receive retrofitting as easily as upper-income homes.

The project aims to individually retrofit the “energy, water and waste-water systems of 28 contiguous houses in a block situated in Oakland’s northwestern Golden Gate neighborhood” [6]. Homes are to be linked to a solar power grid with storage capabilities and residents will be able to share 28 electrical vehicles (EV) for which charging stations are provided, resulting in round-the-clock reusable energy and sustainable transportation options. Water used in sinks, showers and washing machines will be processed through a recycling system, while the remaining “black water” and collected storm water will be used for compost and irrigation purposes, eliminating water waste and contributing up to 40% in savings. This system guarantees food security through providing the necessary resources to maintain fruit and vegetable gardens and helps to nourish the local environment, resulting in a lush green space devoid of urban heat-island effects [6].

rendering of Oakland EcoBlock Project

Image credit: Source [5]

Though located in Oakland, the EcoBlock Project is not limited to its preliminary area. Adjusting for differing climates and current infrastructure systems, the EcoBlock can be implemented in any city around the world. As such, Fraker and his team have received international interest in the project from countries located in Europe, North Africa and Asia [4].

Though the project certainly has a positive environmental impact, the team and the projects’ interested parties needed to know the economic and social impacts the project may have. The preliminary planning and research stages involved opportunities for community input, and community needs are a focal point for the design and building process. The project will provide employment opportunities to skilled craftsmen and laborers during the construction process, and will act as an independently resourced island, requiring very few city services. These EcoBlocks will help to raise property value and bring a sense of pride to communities utilizing them [7].

The design team behind the Oakland EcoBlock Project are not the first to share in the idea of retrofitting areas with sustainable practices. There are several similar groups and projects following the same themes, in locations such as Parkmerced and India Basin in San Francisco, the UC Berkeley Global Campus, Denver’s Sun Valley EcoDistrict, the Regen Villages in the Netherlands and in Bayview Glen Snap, Toronto [5].

The number and variety of projects following this theme demonstrate that sustainable living is the future of housing, should we wish to maintain or improve our quality of life in urban settings. The demand for sustainable practices will grow as climate change produces more extreme weather events around the world. The most vulnerable of our homes are those built in centuries past – without intervention, climate change and its effects will decimate our cities and leave millions stranded.

“Fundamentally, the way we shape cities is a manifestation of the kind of humanity we bring to bear” – Peter Calthorpe, San Francisco-based architect, urban designer and planner, and founding member of Congress for New Urbanism [8]

Sustainable Resources

If you are interested in how your business can become LEED certified, want to improve your office’s energy performance, or want cut costs in other ways, please visit our website. Sustainable Investment Group (SIG) provides Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) Consulting, LEED Exam Prep TrainingGreen Building Consulting, and Technical Services from our offices in Atlanta, GA; Boulder, CO; Minneapolis, MN; New York, NY and San Francisco, CA.


© 2019 Sustainable Investment Group (SIG). All rights reserved.