Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

December 2021

Live and Let Live

Frederick Fisher and Partners’ Municipal Building is a Green Systems Champion


Architecture, Articles, Fred Fisher

Santa Monica City Hall East deceives with its clean-cut appearance. Sleek and boxy, like a midcentury office building, it features a facade that’s tailored like a gray flannel suit. But the 50,200-square-foot companion to the city’s 1939 Art Deco City Hall is no paper pusher. Behind a bureaucratic exterior lurks a bohemian sensibility and a suite of high-performance green-building systems—including the old countercultural staple: composting toilets.

City Hall East reflects a local mandate established in 2013 that stipulates new structures must be net-zero energy and net-zero water. Such a rigorous approach to sustainability posed a challenge for architect Frederick Fisher and Partners (FF&P), which, along with engineering firm Buro Happold and general contractor Hathaway Dinwiddie Construction Co., worked to make the design meet Living Building Challenge criteria and fulfill the design-build RFP requirements set by the City of Santa Monica.

“We had to balance sustainability and cost,” notes Joe Coriaty, managing partner at FF&P. “There was a consciousness that it would be a demonstration project.” Not only did the project need to model Living Building practices, like self-sufficiency, natural ventilation, and solar energy generation (there are nearly 15,000 square feet of photovoltaic arrays fitted to the roof and the adjacent structure), but it was designed to have a life span of 100 years—more than three times longer than typical construction.

The three-story building accommodates a host of municipal departments previously located in satellite office spaces around town. These include Housing and Economic Development, Finance and Risk Management, the Office of Sustainability and the Environment, Architecture Services, Civil Engineering, and Cultural Affairs. Bringing them together meant establishing a common office culture. The building is also where citizens interface with the mechanisms of local government. As regulars at the Santa Monica public counter, the FF&P team aimed to create a welcoming space for pulling a permit or getting a plan check. The counter and waiting area are flooded with natural light, carefully modulated by fritted and clear windows that look out on newly planted greenery.

The Living Building Challenge is probably best known for supporting sustainable systems and materials; however, equity and quality of life are critical parts of the initiative. Considering how people feel and interact in the space had a direct impact on the design. Windows are operable, and there are no conventional finishes like drywall or acoustic tile. Concrete surfaces were left raw (something typical in creative workspaces, but rare in municipal edifices), and there are no private offices.

To deprioritize bureaucratic hierarchies and create transparency between departments, FF&P created an open plan at the center of the floor plate. Meeting rooms, bathrooms, and storage were pushed to the south end of the skinny building. The north end was reserved as a staff lounge—a less-formal spot for colleagues to gather for lunch and collaboration.

“This building represented a big change for the city,” says architect and FF&P founding partner Fred Fisher. “We took a holistic approach to improving life for people and the community. We looked at what is the nicest part of the site, and that’s where we put the communal kitchen, lunchroom, and workspace.”

Employees are also part of the site ecology. The new courtyard between City Hall and the city services building, flanked by the wings of the former’s U-shaped structure, is shaded by a colonnade of date palms and filled with edible plants. The design and landscape teams envisioned staff harvesting tangerines or picking aromatics for tea. It’s foreseeable that an afternoon snack eventually finds its way via the toilets into the large compost tanks in the basement, where waste is digested by a mix of sawdust, worms, and beetles. Using a fraction of the water employed by conventional plumbing, the toilets helped the design meet net-zero requirements. It’s a technology that users rarely, and probably don’t want to, discuss. But it is one that connects humans and natural processes in a closed-loop system.