The Scavenged Building: Berkeley’s Brower Center

May 5, 2009 at 5:20 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 26 Comments

Yesterday, we were given a special sneak-preview of downtown Berkeley’s David Brower Center, a bold 50,000-square-foot experiment in “green from the ground up” architecture that opens to the public on May 10. A whopping 53 percent of its construction involves recycled materials, which makes this complex of offices, conference rooms, public space, art gallery, theater, organic restaurant, and more into the world’s biggest scavenged building.

Come along with us on a photo tour of the Brower Center’s many scavenged components.

The curved façade of the Brower Center, at Allston Way and Oxford Street.

The curved façade of the Brower Center, at Allston Way and Oxford Street.

Recycled, repurposed, and reused goods infuse the walls, carpets, furniture, fixtures, plumbing, and other aspects of this four-story structure which is expected to receive LEED Platinum, the highest certification, from the U.S. Green Building Council.


A table made out of repurposed planks from an old wine vat.

On the ground floor, executive director Amy Tobin showed us salvaged-wood tables, benches, and a lustrously smooth black-acacia countertop created by Paul Discoe, an ordained Buddhist priest and author of Zen Architecture whose Oakland-based company, Live Edge, utilizes lumber from urban street trees that have been cut down due to storm damage, disease, and for other reasons.


The center’s soaring concrete walls include up to 70 percent slag. Runoff from the steel-smelting process, slag was long unwanted but is now hailed for its fortifying properties and its ability to help concrete bear weight. The presence of slag in construction also significantly reduces CO2 and cement content.

The ground-floor reception area is set into a geometric grotto whose walls, in soaring bands of varied browns, are a mixture of plaster and salvaged soils. It’s a permanent art installation, dubbed “Earth Niche” by its creator, Marisha Farnsworth, whose company The Natural Builders specializes in construction with such substances as earth, cob, and salvaged straw.

“We think of the Brower Center as more ‘art’ than ‘building,'” Tobin says.


The south side of the building, showing the shading devices over each window and the solar panels on the roof. The U.C. Berkeley campus is visible in the background.

Ever since planning began in 2000, the process has focused on sustainability, from methods to materials. The resulting structure, designed to be 40 percent more energy-efficient than conventional ones, includes a daylighting program that employs zinc siding and photovoltaic panels that double as sun-shades so that, optimally, artificial lights need never be used during daytime in many parts of the building; high-efficiency lighting with automatic controls limit use when daylight is adequate. Windows that actually open and close (a rare sight in office buildings) and low-pressure ventilation via a raised floor system increase indoor air quality.


Some nonprofit tenants have already moved into the not-quite-finished building.

Radiant heating and cooling operate via tubes set into the concrete structural slabs. Non-toxic fabrics and finishes are used throughout. Upright steel cables create a “self-healing seismic system” designed to protect and preserve the center during an earthquake; much of Berkeley is built atop a fault. An interactive real-time systems-monitoring dashboard, set to be mounted in the lobby, will allow passersby to monitor the building’s energy consumption.


A table made from a salvaged urban tree, standing on replaceable carpet tiles.

Interface FLOR carpeting, which includes the industry’s highest percentage of recycled content in both the pile and the backing, is used throughout the center. While it runs wall-to-wall in some areas, in others it is laid in tile form, with each small square separately detachable. So in the event of a spill or stain, the whole rug need not be ripped out of a room and replaced: rather, just a tile or two.


Restrooms are a building’s “private parts,” and the counters in the Brower Center’s restrooms largely comprise chunks of recycled glass. The water in the toilets is repurposed too: Faintly yellow, it looks like you-know-what, but it’s really rainwater, collected in a cistern. “Toilet water,” Tobin reasons, “doesn’t have to look drinkable.”


Elsewhere in the building, a chain fashioned from recycled bits of artillery shells is used to channel rainwater into a vessel, where it is saved for re-use. And water isn’t an issue at all in the men’s-room urinals, which are Berkeley’s first waterless urinals.


“In trying to build the right way,” Tobin says, “we’re trying to send a message here, to establish a track record and a model so that other communities can see how it’s done. We’re setting a standard. We need to change how we build cities.”

Well…we can start by scavenging.


The salvaged black-acacia countertop in the lobby.


A bench also made from salvaged wood.


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  1. This is a great idea for a building. I’d love to see more ideas like this especially in tax-supported buildings such as schools, libraries and government buildings.

    I also just wanted to thank you for “The Scavengers’ Manifesto.” It’s a thorougly enjoyable book. Having always been something of a cheapskate, it’s encouraging to find that there are other kindred spirits out there.

  2. […] Rufus, coauthor of the recently published Scavenger’s Manifesto, takes us through a photographic preview of the David Brower Center, a multipurpose space in downtown Berkeley that will house non-profits […]

  3. Thank you so much for bringing attention to this fabulous project! What a treat to see beauty, function, and scavenging so wonderful intermingled. I am inspired to make the scavenging and repurposing that I do a bit more beautiful.

  4. […] “Recycled, repurposed, and reused goods infuse the walls, carpets, furniture, fixtures, plumbing, and other aspects of this four-story structure which is expected to receive a LEED Platinum rating, the highest certification, from the U.S. Green Building Council” according to The Scavenger. […]

  5. […] “Recycled, repurposed, and reused goods infuse the walls, carpets, furniture, fixtures, plumbing, and other aspects of this four-story structure which is expected to receive a LEED Platinum rating, the highest certification, from the U.S. Green Building Council” according to The Scavenger. […]

  6. […] 70 percent slag. Toilets: flushed with urine-colored rainwater. Greener than thou: priceless. The Scavenged Building: Berkeley’s Brower Center […]

  7. […] 70 percent slag. Toilets: flushed with urine-colored rainwater. Greener than thou: priceless. &#183 The Scavenged Building: Berkeley’s Brower Center [Scavenging] Posted in […]

  8. […] 70 percent slag. Toilets: flushed with urine-colored rainwater. Greener than thou: priceless. &#183 The Scavenged Building: Berkeley’s Brower Center [Scavenging] Posted in Curbed […]

  9. Hi ,

    Thanks for writing such an interesting article. It’s really good to know about the real estate and home decoration and renovation in detail. At some point in time every Berkeley homeowner is going to need a plumber. The convenience of plumbing can become a nightmare without proper up-keep. Water in the wrong place can be disastrous and what starts out as a tiny drip if left without repair can end up costing thousands over time.

    Of course many Berkeley homeowners can save some money by handling the small problems themselves such as replacing a gasket under a faucet stem or unclogging a kitchen drain but it’s also important to know when it’s time to call in a professional plumber. While plumbing isn’t necessarily difficult, much of it is beyond the abilities and knowledge of the average homeowner and a botched job can end up costing you way more than if you had called an experienced plumber in the first place. Choosing the right Berkeley plumber can mean the difference between a positive outcome and a complete disaster, so it’s important use care when selecting a plumber.

    – Sibley

  10. I love the table made from a salvaged tree, looks realy natural yet modern. Lovely building, not sure about the colour of the toilet water tho!! :)

  11. I would say i love most things inside and the whole building itself.The recycling project was really successful and it tells us how a trash material can still be used everyday.

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