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Santa Monica Plans High-Tech, Super-Green City Services Building

A look inside a project that Santa Monica hopes represents the future.

It will have an open office plan. Work will be mostly digital. It will produce as much energy as it consumes and capture as much water as it uses. The toilet system will make compost. There will be a food-growing garden.

This isn’t a tech startup or some deep-pocketed institute. It’s the new city services building for Santa Monica, Calif.

The city has already selected a design firm on the project and is now sifting through bids to help it achieve its tech ambitions. Santa Monica has a long wish list for the building, including moving workflows to the cloud, developing e-signature capabilities to help it cut down on the amount of paper it uses and putting a program in place to help make its workforce more mobile. It will house 250 workers, or about 12 percent of the city’s current workforce.

“While we’re designing this building, we get to set up the workforce for this transition, basically for the 21st century,” said Susan Cline, the city’s director of public works. “We’ve been backfilling City Hall since 1938, we really haven’t expanded the footprint of the building since then.”

When the city moves into its new space in 2020, it may just be the most eco-friendly municipal building ever. When city workers applied for certification from the Living Building Challenge — a standard even more stringent than the commonly used LEED system — the organization behind the challenge informed them that they were the first city in the world to apply.

“We hope that this sets a standard for how our buildings are constructed going forward,” Cline said.

She doesn’t just mean Santa Monica government buildings — Cline is referring to private buildings in the city, as well as buildings throughout the area. Cline, as well as Santa Monica Sustainable Building Advisor Joel Cesare, want the city services building to serve as a model for government agencies they’ve partnered with throughout their region.

The city wasn’t sure if they would even be able to accomplish all they wanted at first. So they did a feasibility study.

“Once we became aware it was possible we started shooting much more intently,” Cesare said.

The need for such projects is deeply woven into Santa Monica’s location. Importing much of its water from the northern part of the state and paying the price for it, the city has set a goal of becoming water self-sufficient by 2020. Santa Monica exists in Southern California, one of the driest parts of a state that is more than five years deep in a drought. A stronger-than-usual El Niño season, which brought downpours to the parched state, wasn’t enough to fix the problem.

“We have to plan for drought conditions from here on out,” she said.

So there will be a water collection system on site that will feed into a treatment process to get the water ready for human use. The toilets, which normally use about 60 percent of such a building’s water, will be “composting toilets” that use very little water at all. Instead, a foam will take waste to the basement, where natural processes will turn it into compost that can be used in a variety of ways afterward — including, possibly, agricultural fertilizer.

“It’s ancient technology, composting human waste,” Cline said. “Societies have been doing it for centuries. The green building industry is evolving, we’re coming more full circle to these ancient technologies that we’ve strayed away from in our reliance on these mechanical building systems that are energy- and resource-intensive.”

Then there’s the energy side of the equation. California has set some of the most ambitious greenhouse gas reduction goals in the nation, part of which includes a legislated mandate for buildings to quickly become more energy efficient.

So there will be solar panels on the roof. Weather systems will help capture cool air blowing in from the Pacific Ocean and use it to cool the interior of the building. Passive windows will prevent the sun from heating the building unnecessarily.

All said, it will not be a typical government building.

“We [want] to make sure that we’re ready to move into this new building and do business differently,” Cline said.

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.