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Building Green

Sustainable construction is on the rise in Wine Country, as residents and entrepreneurs work to preserve the area’s timeless beauty.

Bardessono Hotel and Spa

Photo Courtesy of Bardessono Hotel and Spa

In 1905, author Jack London established Beauty Ranch in Glen Ellen, an early (albeit failed) attempt at sustainable agriculture. This type of environmentally conscious thinking continues to resonate with Napa and Sonoma Valley residents today. With an expanding list of professionals specializing in green building, it’s easy for everyone to be part of the solution. Plus, with so much talent in the area, there’s no need to sacrifice form for function. Skeptical? Check out a handful of Wine Country’s ever-growing pool of eco-friendly structures, from hotels and wineries to a school. Then, go pay them a visit. You’ll surely be enlightened.

The Bardessono Hotel and Spa, Yountville

Photo courtesy of Bardessono Hotel and Spa

To date, LEED, the internationally recognized green building rating system, has certified only seven hotels as Platinum—meaning the structure adheres to LEED’s highest sustainability practices. Bardessono, one of Napa’s most luxurious resorts, has earned this top honor. The 62-room boutique hotel, which opened in 2009, was built from the ground up by Napa-based construction company Cello and Maudru. “At the time, there was only one hotel in the world that had achieved Platinum status,” recalls Bill Schaeffer, operations manager and partner for Cello and Maudru.

The $46 million project took 30 months to complete and a small army to build. “There’s an added expense when you commit to building sustainably that’s hard to quantify,” says Schaeffer. “But roughly, it costs 10 to 15 percent more than a standard build.”

Photo courtesy of Bardessono Hotel and Spa

The hotel uses solar panels to generate its own energy, and geothermal wells to control air temperature in the guest rooms and heat the domestic water supply. That’s green building 101.

The devil is, of course, in the details. To conserve water, the hotel uses dual flush toilets and waterless urinals. Gray and black water get treated and recycled for irrigation uses. All glues, adhesives, finishes, paints, carpets, and fabrics used in the construction process were low-volatile compounds, an approach that vastly improves indoor air quality.

Photo courtesy of Bardessono Hotel and Spa

The design also called for recycled materials to be used whenever feasible. The walls of the hotel’s entry area and dining room are made of repurposed tufa stone quarried in Napa County 80 years ago for the original Bardessono farmhouse. Walnut trees uprooted at the end of their productive life by farmers have been milled into flooring, guest-room doors, and furniture.

At the time of Bardessono’s construction, sustainable building was in its infancy. This meant that sourcing materials for the grand-scale project wasn’t easy. Tracking down responsibly harvested lumber, for example, required lots of research. “These days, you can pick up FSC [Forest Stewardship Council] –certified lumber at the local Home Depot,” says Schaeffer, who credits Bardessono and other early adopters of sustainable architecture with serving as catalysts of change. “Many of the details Bardessono insisted on incorporating are now standard practice in the industry.”   

Bardessono Hotel and Spa features 62 guest rooms; Lucy Restaurant and Bar, with an on-site California Certified Organic Farming culinary garden; and a full-service spa. 6526 Yount St., Yountville, (707) 204-6000, bardessono.com.

The Sonoma Academy, Santa Rosa

LEED may be the most universally recognized green building certification system, but it’s not the most rigorous. The new nonprofit Living Future Institute is pushing the envelope with its Living Building Challenge. The goal: Create structures that not only minimize a building’s impact on the environment but help repair it. To date, only 79 projects have met these stringent requirements. The Sonoma Academy, an independent school in Santa Rosa, hopes its nearly complete building will make the grade.

Photo by Kevin Falkerson

The structure—which includes a commercial kitchen; a dining facility; and studio spaces for metal fabrication, digital media, and sound editing—was designed to create more energy than it uses and thereby return surplus energy to the grid.

Many of these systems—an energy recovery ventilation system, geothermal heating and cooling, and solar panels—are useful but utilitarian by nature. However, Sonoma Academy’s distinctive vegetation-covered living roof does double duty. “It improves the building’s aesthetics while simultaneously minimizing a building’s impact on the environment,” says Kevin Falkerson, principal at Symbios Ecotecture, the firm contracted to install the roof scape.

The expansive roof features a variety of native California plantings designed to simulate a meadow habitat. “The plants were selected to be an active habitat garden throughout the year,” says Kerrie Lee Cole, Falkerson’s partner.

Photo by Kevin Falkerson

From an environmental standpoint, living roofs benefit both the building and the community at large. For starters, they generate oxygen and create an urban oasis for birds and insects. They also help manage storm-water runoff. Planted roofs also make for excellent insulation, meaning the underlying structure stays cooler in summer and warmer in winter.

And finally, living roofs can improve the energy output from a solar-panel system. “In the summer, traditional roofs can get as hot as 180 degrees,” Falkerson explains. “And although it may seem counterintuitive, solar panels function less efficiently in extreme heat.” To that end, Falkerson and Cole surrounded Sonoma Academy’s panels with shade-loving plants. “Turns out, these plants adore the solar panels,” says Falkerson. “It’s a win-win.”

Also a victory: All the rooftop plantings are irrigated using rainwater collected and stored in on-site tanks and cisterns. Excess water is used inside the building for flushing toilets. And water conservation, admirable in any construction plan, is especially critical here in drought-prone California.

Sonoma Academy, a college-preparatory high school, is situated on a beautiful 34-acre campus nestled at the base of Taylor Mountain in southeastern Santa Rosa. It’s worth a visit to see the amazing progressive structure, although no tours are currently available. 2500 Farmers Ln., Santa Rosa, (707) 545-1770, sonomaacademy.org.

Odette Estate Winery, Napa Valley

Building a structure that blends in with its surroundings is an aspect of green building that can prove challenging. But Juancarlos Fernandez, the architect behind Odette Estate’s new wine-production facility, has made the task look effortless.

Photo by Adrian Gregorutti

The curved living roof fuses so seamlessly with the environment, you might have to do a double take to spot it. “We knew we needed to create an organic shape,” says Fernandez, a partner at Signum Architecture in St. Helena. “All you need to do is look at the hills behind it to see the design.”   

The structure, certified as LEED Gold one year ago, is sustained by 2,500 square feet of solar panels, which generate 30,000 kilowatts of solar power per year. “That’s enough energy to sustain the building’s needs most of the year,” says Fernandez. “Making wine takes a lot of energy, so during crush season, they supplement it with regular energy sources.”

The entire building—with the exception of an employee lounge, office, and wine lab—relies on a passive heating and cooling method. In other words, there’s no AC or furnace. The rooms stay temperate due to the building’s design. One of those design elements: a dozen 16-foot-tall perforated screens made out of 100 percent recycled aluminum. They cover the entrance and filter sunlight. “We chose aluminum because it doesn’t retain heat,” says Fernandez. “The perforations provide for natural air flow.”  In addition, thick layers of insulation help the building retain heat in winter and repel heat in summer.

Photo by Adrian Gregorutti

Another green aspect: a foundation built with a mixture of concrete and fly ash. “Fly ash is a coal byproduct that’s used to reduce the amount of cement you need to make concrete,” says Fernandez. The design also includes an underground cistern, which is used to collect rainwater then irrigate the grapes.

To age Odette’s wines, barrels rest in caves dug out by the previous estate owners now made more eco-friendly by replacing all the incandescent lighting in the 18,000-square-foot space with LED lights. In addition to being more energy efficient, LED bulbs produce less heat, so the caves stay cooler naturally.

The 45-acre Odette Estate Winery is tucked into the dramatic palisades of the Stags Leap District. 5998 Silverado Trail, Napa, (707) 224-7533, odetteestate.com.

Breathless Wines, Healdsburg

In 2011, three sisters—Sharon Cohn, Rebecca Faust, and Cynthia Faust—launched Breathless Wines, a boutique operation specializing in bottled bubbly. They quickly attracted the attention of connoisseurs and racked up dozens of awards. On the heels of this success, they decided to add an on-site tasting room. And while that’s nothing new in Wine Country, here’s what is: They built the entire thing out of repurposed shipping containers. The project, the first of its kind in Healdsburg, required a team of out-of-the-box thinkers.

Photo by Suzanne Karp

To get the job done, the sisters put their trust in contractor Paul Malone of Santa Rosa. “I’d never worked on a shipping container project before, but I had done a project where I’d built a client an office in an old water tower without using a single piece of new lumber,” says Malone. “It opened my eyes to how you really can repurpose old materials.” And recycling shipping containers makes good eco-sense. These prolific storage boxes clutter up our nation’s ports and warehouses because returning empty containers to their point of origin is cost-prohibitive.

Photo by Suzanne Karp

To construct this specialty building, Malone ordered four 8x20 shipping containers from a company in Concord called Container Solutions. “They are surprisingly inexpensive,” says Malone. “I think we paid around $1,900 per box, including delivery.”

That said, building with shipping containers isn’t always a money-saving venture. Done right, the cost of prepping the building site with a suitable foundation and retrofitting the containers with steel beams to comply with building codes quickly adds up. “You may or may not save money, but you will save a lot of trees,” says Malone, who points out that wasted material is a reality in the construction biz. “The building industry in general is far too wasteful. Starting your project with a shipping container—a repurposed product—you are both saving natural resources and diverting, quite literally, tons of material from the landfill.”   

Photo by Suzanne Karp

Malone and his team faced a number of hurdles as they worked to erect this unconventional
structure. “This was Healdsburg’s first shipping container building,” Malone says. “Hat’s off to the city for their willingness to think outside the box with us.”

For example, Malone’s team went overboard on roof insulation. “We filled the entire roof cavity with foam,” says Malone. “It’s probably twice as much as what’s typically up there.” The upside: The energy required to keep the space at a comfortable temperature is minimal. Additionally, the steel beams and supports used to reinforce the welded-together containers are practically impenetrable. “That thing isn’t going anywhere,” says Malone.

Visit Breathless Wines just three blocks from Healdsburg Square. Learn how sparkling wine is made in the traditional méthode champenoise, and get a tour of the container facility. 499 Moore Ln., Healdsburg, (707) 395-7300, breathlesswines.com.


These buildings are just a sampling of the ever-increasing stock of eco-structures that dot our landscape. Next up for Wine Country: Napa Creek Village, a 48-unit townhome complex anticipated to achieve LEED Platinum certification. For folks contemplating a move, the complex is slated for completion in the spring of 2019.

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