Two-Star Certified Pilot Project

Location: Santa Barbara, California
Project Size: 0.25 acres
Project Type: Residential
Site Context: Urban
Former Land Use: Greyfield
Terrestrial Biome: Mediterranean Forests, Woodlands & Scrub
Budget: $120,000
photo by: Holly Lepere Photography

Project Overview

Victoria Garden Mews, located in the historic El Pueblo Viejo Design District in downtown Santa Barbara, is an infill project that brings together a dense, sustainable, urban lifestyle without sacrificing luxury, comfort or a strong connection to the environment. Three couples, with the dream of “aging in place”, formed a team of passionate green building professionals to design and build four units that share a habitat-friendly open space which provides storm water retention, food production, beauty, and a place to gather as friends. Previous to redevelopment, the 11,271 square foot site held a derelict single-family, Victorian-style house and a few accessory structures dating from the 1890s-1920s. The site now features a historically accurate reconstructed Victorian in the front and a three-unit Spanish style condominium in the rear. The garden 'mews' sits between the two structures and extends via artful walks to the private alley and the public street. The site was chosen for its walkable proximity to parks, schools, shopping and civic opportunities. The use of innovative parking solutions reduces the typical footprint of vehicle-related paving from 40 percent to 5 percent of the lot.

Regional Context

The Mews is located in the urban core of Santa Barbara, California. The site sits within the coastal plain between the the Santa Ynez mountain range and south-facing beaches. Situated in a relatively flat-lying neighborhood, the property slopes less than 3 percent throughout. The groundwater level lies between 35 and 70 feet below grade. Due to a long history of heavy use, the existing clayey loam soil was heavily compacted. Extensive soil amendment and the installation of storm water infiltrators have restored soil permeability and on-site storm water infiltration. The Mediterranean climate, with an average annual rainfall of 17 inches during the winter months, is moderated by coastal fog and moisture which allows more plant variety than inland neighbors. Prolonged periods of drought typify the rest of the year. The marine layer keeps summers temperatures mild and moist ocean air provides supplemental moisture.

SITES Features + Practices

Sustainable Materials Selection: 100 percent of the lumber used in the project originates from sustainably harvested forests (FSC certified) and all concrete uses a 50 percent fly-ash mix, significantly reducing the project's CO2 contribution. Additionally, permeable paving materials were used throughout the site.

Stormwater Management: 100 percent of the rainwater that falls on the site is retained through collection and reuse, bioswales, and infiltrators. A 14,000-gallon rain water harvesting and storage system is fed by runoff from the roofs and is designed to meet 90 percent of the projected established landscaping water budget. Storm water infiltrators collect, store and allow site storm water to percolate into the soil.

Outdoor Gathering Spaces: Abundant outdoor living spaces and landscaped areas, rare in this urban setting, include both shared and private spaces for large gatherings and intimate spaces for quiet contemplation. The large garden courtyard includes productive trees, flowering shrubs and abundant wildlife (birds, insects, reptiles and small mammals).

Sustainable Site Selection: The project was built in a neighborhood with ample existing amenities (sidewalks, streetlights, bike paths, parks) and nearby public transportation (local bus, electric shuttle, regional train) to encourage walking, biking and bus use. There is also plentiful, secure bike storage and easy-to-use bike racks that encourage biking.

Age In Place Features: The project utilized universal design and the use of energy efficient, sustainably built elevators to service the basement, the garage/parking/bike storage area and each residential level of all living units.

On-site Food Production: A large veggie garden in the common mews area, large pots on decks and in private spaces provide individual veggie- and fruit-growing space and over 30 fruit trees allow for extensive food production on site. Intensive pollination for maximum production is achieved by the inclusion of pollinator attracting plants and bee hives. Optimal soil health for optimal plant health, nutrient content and food production is promoted with heavy mulching, on site composting and the use of an innovative organic soil microbe nutrient product delivered via automatic injector system. High intensity production methods – cordoned and espaliered fruit trees, trellised vining plants such as cucurbits, tomatoes and legumes - provide maximum food production in a small footprint.

Water-Wise Practices: Food bearing plants that require supplemental irrigation are heavily mulched. A patch of lawn, mandated by the city's Historic Landmark Commission, requires 75% less water than comparable turf grasses. All other plants are adapted to the Mediterranean climate and are drought tolerant once established.

Innovative Irrigation: Highly efficient rotator nozzles were used on the turf for the establishment period. Experimental high-pressure subsurface irrigation has been used on the turf since establishment, resulting in savings of over 50% of the projected lawn water budget. The same high-pressure subsurface irrigation is used on all trees (including fruit trees), resulting in zero loss from overspray, runoff and evaporation and overall lower water use (as compared to drip irrigation). Drip irrigation is used on the plants that are to be watered through establishment then only occasionally during drought. On site ET rates and a smart irrigation timer "fine tune" irrigation run times and frequency to respond to actual site conditions.

Public Outreach: Site tours for the public, trades and allied professionals have been offered at all stages of the project and continue today. Case studies of the project are presented at relevant events and venues (American Institute of Architects, American Planning Association, USGBC, Association of Professional Landscape Designers, Garden Writers Association and more). The project team's main strategies during the entire process - design, construction, operation and maintenance - were as follows:

  • Waste as little as possible.
  • Use as little potable water as possible. If potable water is to be used on the landscape, use it to grow food.
  • Keep all storm water on site: rain-water harvesting from roofs is used for irrigation; storm water that falls on site, if heavy, runs to infiltrators. In this way, all water falling on site eventually percolates into the soil, replenishing the aquifer.
  • Create habitat for humans and pollinators alike.
  • Maximize usable, livable space.
  • Use the integrated team approach to maximize efficiency and maximize every opportunity to "be green".


The project is the first of its kind in many ways in Santa Barbara. Numerous agencies' requirements, design review board guidelines and special ordinances applied to the project development. It was difficult to negotiate the project through the review process because many of the technologies, building methods and products used at the Mews were not familiar to agency staff. The Historic Landmark Commission (HLC) had jurisdiction over architectural and landscape design as it pertains to city codes and to the historic El Pueblo Viejo Design District. Design elements mandated by the HLC include: the Victorian style of the front house, the Mediterranean-influenced style of the rear building, the inclusion of lawn in the front yard (which pushed the landscape water budget to the limits of the rainwater collection and storage capacity), plate height limits (which made engineering and design for the car lifts challenging) and all components of the photovoltaic array were to be hidden from public view (which threatened to shade the solar collection surfaces).

It was only through the commitment, perseverance and dedication of the home owners and the project team that saw the project through the process with its original goals intact. After project completion, the owners held an event for agency staff and city dignitaries to share the success of the finished project. The owners and team hope that Victoria Garden Mews demonstrates the value and success of sustainable building to local regulators and that the project has paved the way for a more streamlined process for future sustainable projects.

The central innovation that led to the success of the Mews is the integrated team approach from the outset of the project. The entire team of owners, builder, architect and landscaper were involved in all aspects of the project design, including site selection, building orientation, site layout, site engineering, integration of building components and systems with the site, all phases of construction and on-going maintenance. This approach provided efficiency across the disciplines, minimized waste and ensured that no opportunities were lost. Together the team was develop thoughtful solutions to critical issues on site.

Maintenance + Stewardship

From the outset of the project, the owners were committed to creating the most sustainable project possible. Inherent in this goal was a direction for every major decision to be made. From creating a team of experienced green builders and designers to researching the newest products during construction and finding the perfect infill site where the residents could fully realize their "community within a community", sustainable living was the goal. The site was built with maintenance at the forefront, making sure that all materials would stand up with time, making for less reconstruction and waste for generations to come. Feasible maintenance contracts and programs have been established to ensure long term success of the site.

The site has been assigned one of Grace Design Associates' knowledgable maintenance experts who has specific knowledge of the plants, materials and irrigation on site. He is committed to following the maintenance program laid out in SITES. Biannually, GDA will perform 'horticultural maintenance' to make sure the entire site is functioning at optimum capacity and efficiency. The site will be monitored by Dennis Allen, owner and general contractor, who will review energy and water usage, document site use and food production.

This SITES project has been the location of many community educational workshops, tours and social events. The effects are just beginning to show, as the project was completed in 2011. The City of Santa Barbara is streamlining the procedures of moving sustainable projects through the review process and creating programs for water wise landscaping. Dennis Allen, owner and builder of the Mews, was named Santa Barbara's first "Water Hero" for for his role as the project's developer, builder, and visionary-in-chief as part of the city-wide campaign to reduce potable water consumption.

Site Challenges

Fourteen different government agencies, departments and review bodies had jurisdiction over the project. Multiple planning challenges delayed the project for many months. Once the project broke ground it was critical to move quickly and efficiently. With multiple functions densely packed into a small space, the typical job-site choreography with materials staging and trades coordination was exceptionally intricate and challenging. The entrance to the new rear building is located in the rear side yard to provide access from the garage as well as the central garden. Because sight lines were not intuitive between structures, the landscape design was vital to way-finding through the site. City parking requirements and traditional design models would have left the property without any functional open space. The amount of land dedicated to automobile use was reduced from 40 percent of the site to 5 percent on this compact, urban lot. The innovative solution combined careful spatial planning with automated car lifts to store eight cars in the footprint of four and use of the adjacent alley to reduce driveway space. This created room for a generous, productive, tranquil community garden space.

Project Goals + Successes

The overarching goal of the owner-developers of this project was to create a "community within a community" comprised of "as green as possible" homes where the residents could age in place. Three of the four units are occupied by the project owners, two of whom are long-time residents of Santa Barbara who wanted to move closer to downtown to enjoy a more pedestrian-friendly lifestyle and contribute their energies to further enhancing the human-ness and sustainability of Santa Barbara.

Long-practicing green designers and builders, the project team was inspired by Ed Mazria’s 2030 Challenge goal of carbon neutral buildings. The project team was motivated to pursue SITES certification for the opportunity to both learn and influence sustainable practices. As landscape builders and designers, the team has held sustainable practices as an integral way of thinking in every component of our business. SITES is seen as a chance to put practices into measurable objectives that could potentially influence a new standard in sustainable site development. At the same time, participating in the SITES pilot project gives the team reasons to research and try new technology, practices, materials and vendors. Lastly, the team hopes that attaining SITES certification for the Mews will help set a precedent for other projects in the community and inspire other professionals to think about design and construction as a holistic, integrated, sustainable system - from site selection all the way through operations and maintenance.

This project is a model for green residential building in southern California. These residences demonstrate how homeowners can conserve energy, natural resources, and dollars by adopting and using the latest in green practices, technologies and products. Green showcase tours provide product demonstrations by sponsors and offer visitors - from the consumer, professional and trade communities - the opportunity to learn the latest about sustainable living, energy efficiency and environmentally friendly building products, appliances, hardware, and services. The project has already received LEED Platinum Certification and numerous green building awards from the Santa Barbara Contractors Association and the local chapters of the AIA and USGBC. It has been recognized as a precedent for the future of green residential design and construction.

The Victoria Garden Mews project resulted in permanent change to the standard for Santa Barbara City parking requirements via first-time, innovative use of hydraulic car lifts for tandem parking that reduce the on site paving footprint to a miniscule 5% of the property. Perhaps the most important measure of this project's success is the high level of homeowner satisfaction, as it ensures the longevity, maintenance and overall livability of this urban, multi-family residential infill project. The owners previously lived in estate-like settings where they were accustomed to having their own space and access to nature on their own properties. Their commitment to living more sustainably brought them back into the urban core where they now have walking access to all the necessities of daily life. They are watching the Mews ecosystem thrive, as evidenced by the emergence of rarely seen native doves, prospering bee boxes, abundant food production and the simple and gratifying joy they experience from living amongst friends in the little community perfectly suited to their needs.

Lessons Learned

Participating in the SITES pilot program required us to step back and analyze every step of the design and construction process from start to finish. Placing specific measures on SITES benchmarks and guidelines required the team to critically analyze our design solutions and quantify results. Preparing the SITES submittal package reinforced the inter-connectedness of every design component and the accumulative and interactive effects of every design decision. It was a gruelling process, made especially so by the fact that the project was designed and under construction when it was accepted into the SITES pilot program. After going through the SITES certification process, the team now is more mindful, resourceful, and rigorously analytical designers and builders. Finally, the team is better able to measure results, assess what works and what doesn't work, and design a better solution.

This project has allowed the team to test, monitor and fine-tune innovative strategies, materials and techniques that are now implemented with confidence on other projects. It is often difficult to teach the average client enough about a new technology or material to have them agree to its use on a project. Opportunities such as this project allow designers to practice and measure the success of innovative strategies, systems, technology, and materials as a case study with willing owners who were committed to their goals despite the higher costs and longer process associated with setting a new precedent in the green building industry. In addition, having a tangible example where clients can see, touch and experience unfamiliar materials and construction methods provides critical decision-making information and is a powerful motivator. Finally, the team is better able to recognize areas of strength and areas that can be improved as a result of doing the critical thinking required by Victoria Garden Mews' participation in the SITES pilot program.

Project Team

Thompson-Naylor Architects
Dennis Thompson, Architect

Allen Associates
Dennis Allen, Owner/General Contractor

Grace Design Associates
Margie Grace, Landscape Design and Construction

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