August 1, 2021 Breaking News, Latest News, and Videos

SMa.r.t. Column: Texas Comes to SMMUSD

Last week Texas suffered a dramatic blow out between the loss of power and the related water system collapse caused by climate change. Just to be clear, climate change includes a relentless increase in average temperatures (global warming) punctuated by random dangerous wild fluctuations of both severe heat waves AND severe cold snaps. Dozens of people died last week and Texas’s economy shut down but the refusal to understand that climate change affects everything is not limited to Texas.

Here too, there is no urgency in responding to climate change. Everywhere you look in Santa Monica, the same climate change denial governs public policy directions although always camouflaged by a relentless “green” public relations effort. Build 8800 new units with no water: no problem. Demolish perfectly adaptable historic buildings: no problem. Failure to require all new buildings be net zero (meaning they generate onsite all the power they need to operate): no problem. The list goes on and on. Wherever the reality of climate change collides with the old “normal” way of doing things, the appropriate climate change response always needs to wait. This delay guarantees the suffering, recovery cost, and collapse will be even greater in the immediate future, than if we were to act decisively today. 

So what does an appropriate climate change response look like? Essentially it has two components: sustainability and resilience. Sustainability means living within our means: e.g. not consuming limited resources at a faster rate than can be regenerated whether this is pumping out our City’s water table, producing more trash than we can recycle, or polluting the air with our internal combustion cars. On the other hand resilience is the City’s ability to keep minimally functioning after the punch of devastating but predictable powerful events such as droughts, heat waves, earthquakes, epidemics, tsunamis etc. 

In Texas’s case, their power failed on both counts: it was not sustainable (only about 28% at best of their power is from renewables) and their power sources were not resilient because they had not weatherized their power infrastructure from severe cold.

The biggest restraint in creating a sustainable and resilient City is that it costs slightly more to prepare for climate change, than to keep doing the same thing that got us into the climate change problem to begin with. Probably our biggest public offender is the Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District because they are over funded in their capital budget which they squander on unnecessary overpriced projects, tolerate cost overruns, and neglect maintenance while they consistently refuse to take the necessary steps to build the really needed school district of the future. In other words SMMUSD has the funds but doesn’t have the vision of what’s really needed. 

For example in a District with a benign climate and lots of flat roofs on one story buildings, there is no reason that ALL those buildings can’t generate all the power they need, and more for, for example, recharging student electric bikes and scooters and even employee cars. The entire District should be net zero. But the benefits of this approach are not just for sustainability. They would also increase our resilience. Most of our renewable power in Santa Monica comes from dams, windmills and solar collectors on the east side of the San Andreas Fault. So not only do we give up, every day, the long distance transmission loses, but we are also always very vulnerable (along with 39% of our imported water) to being cut off by earthquakes along that sleeping dragon. Therefore, some sizable batteries or other storage technologies will also be needed to buttress our school resiliency and to help us to quickly reopen school after major quakes.

Naturally a net zero district that saves on power expenses, frees operating money for all the other initiatives it wants: reducing the pension overhang, more teachers for project based learning, closing the achievement gap etc.. 

This supply of abundant power would allow us to air condition every classroom with measurable benefits to the learning outcomes of our students. Initially that airconditioning would only run in the September heat waves, but just as our fire season has expanded to become a year round event, our air conditioning would regretfully eventually have to run for some hours during the entire school year. Modern air conditioning embodying the newest air flow lessons of Covid 19 combined with high rating HEPA filters would allow us to close schools later and reopen earlier during the inevitable periodic epidemics. Finally, when we start encountering the inevitable killer heatwaves, that knock out the entire grid, our fried seniors could come to schools as survival cooling centers. This is not a pitch for air conditioning, since natural ventilation (openable windows) is always preferable, but the world has changed and will continue to get hotter and more virus laden, so we must change with it.

Because about half the life cycle energy of a typical building goes into constructing it and half into operating it, every time you tear down a building you are wasting all that initial “embodied” construction energy which then needs to be reduplicated when rebuilding its newer version. It’s much more efficient to update an older building than to start over. But our School District happily wants to completely demolish the entire high school campus except 3 buildings and start all over to the tune of billions of wasted dollars. Naturally included in this gleeful demolition plan is the centerpiece of that campus, the History Building, a building presciently placed on top of a hill to take advantage of cooling breezes. Any district that has lost an eighth of its attendance in the last two decades, in spite of massive out of district recruitment, should not be building any new classrooms. Whether for maker spaces or for preschools, it should be adaptively reusing existing buildings. 

Likewise, in a City starved for open space, the school open spaces are part of the City’s overall usable public open space inventory. But now the school district is misguidedly trying to cram as many new unneeded buildings as possible on as many campuses as possible, destroying this valuable open space. A school district that just sent its students home for a year, should instead quickly complete the City’s broad band dark fiber open network as a City utility, to make its access to all students, seniors and businesses as affordable as possible while waiting for the next inevitable epidemic. Finally as our relatively flat and dry City pivots painfully slowly to a bicycle (and scooters etc) mobility model vs. automobiles, the school district should be joint funding dedicated separated bike paths particularly to the high and middle schools. This should be the natural part of its excellent “safe routes to school” program. Today parents are rightfully afraid (the City’s average traffic fatality of four per year is unchanged in about a decade) to let their kids bike to school. More separate dedicated bike paths would reduce that fear while allowing elementary school kids to ride on sidewalks would also help. Finally student bicycle parking areas should have camera surveillance to reduce all too common bike thefts. These simple initiatives are just a small example of the way a real 21st century school district should be thinking. 

In other words SMMUSD has the funds but doesn’t have any idea of what’s really needed today. Now they are blowing through the last $100 million of the recent (2018) $485 million bond. So they will certainly come back in 2022 to try to increase the taxes on all the renters and owners in Santa Monica with another squandered bond. In short, if the School District wants to repeatedly use its residents as its personal ATM, it needs to deliver something of real long term value to the entire City. 

Texas painfully found out the inconvenient truth that failure to plan is really planning to fail. SMMUSD, is tragically repeating this mistake. It urgently needs to wake up and deal realistically with the new world we and our children are and will be living and learning in.

By Mario Fonda-Bonardi for SM a.r.t.

(Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)

Ron Goldman, Architect FAIA; Dan Jansenson, Architect, Building & Fire-Life Safety Commissioner; Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA, Planning Commissioner Commissioner; Robert H. Taylor, Architect AIA: Thane Roberts, Architect; Sam Tolkin, Architect; Marc Verville accountant ret.; Michael Jolly, AIRCRE

For previous articles see

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