EPACENTER Youth Arts & Music Center has achieved LEED Platinum – making it one of the most sustainable buildings in East Palo Alto.

The achievement is an important milestone for sustainable design in the community – but it’s certainly not the end of the conversation. We see the LEED rating system less as a measure of straightforward success, than a pledge to uphold standards for the future. We’re all enjoying the moment of celebration, but ultimately we know that the true measure of sustainability is time.

Time is the often forgotten fourth dimension of architecture. Architects talk about a project’s “completion,” but really it’s just the beginning – a building comes to life as inhabitants take ownership of their new spaces, forming new narratives, habits, and ways of interacting. Working with EPACENTER students and community organizers during the intense eight-month period of workshops and outreach events made us all the more aware of the project’s relationship with time – a design that directly impacts the futures of young people in an area which has experienced severe disinvestment.


We’ve designed multiple LEED certified buildings over the years – not least GRAM, the first museum in the nation to achieve LEED Gold. However, highly sustainable structures stand to be even more impactful in East Palo Alto, where water shortages and underdevelopment have led to a lack of opportunities for a young and diverse population. EPACENTER isn’t only a space to promote arts education and build community; the organization also equips young people with skills to access alternate worlds – worlds which might be as close as the booming tech hubs of Silicon Valley.

Ultimately, a building designed to foster the futures of young people must take into account the future of the planet as a whole. Students are among the strongest advocates for environmental action, and the process of developing professional and creative skills is part of a wider story about how to live responsibly in relation to nature and human communities. Environmental education is a key component of EPACENTER’s mission, and the building’s sustainability credentials can be read like an open book. Here are a few of the key features:



Water shortage in East Palo Alto is a deeply controversial civic issue – the city has a significantly lower water usage threshold compared with neighboring towns, a factor which has discouraged new development and opportunities for employment. From the beginning of the design process, we worked closely with the municipal government and our engineering team to establish standards for water-use reduction – the solution was an innovative graywater re-use and filtration system.

The concept of “graywater” might not sound very appealing, but it’s gold when it comes to water conservation. A 60,000-gallon cistern under the courtyard gathers rainwater over the course of the winter, which can then be used throughout the year. The water is passed through a filtration system, which has purposely been left visible – an automation system tracks the building’s water efficiency, and the building will feature a display board which will continue to educate students and staff about the inner life of the building and its positive impact on the environment.



Issues of environmental sustainability play out in shades of green, brown, and grey – and rehabilitating a brownfield site is no small undertaking. The underlying soil of the site was deeply contaminated, and excavating the soil is a long and laborious process, but the act of restoring a site to health is inherently valuable — both for the land and the community. Whenever it rains, toxins are liable to rise to the surface and carry over to neighboring areas. By rigorously testing and replacing the soil over time, the construction process actively improves the prospects for local development and sets the standard for responsible land use. We’ve also applied a series of bio-methods for ensuring that the soil is kept healthy; planters and sunken rain gardens act to filter water and aerate the soil, also serving as a reminder that nature is the best developer.


Several WHY buildings feature a prominent roof with strong overhangs and generous porticos – it’s a way of connecting the inhabitant to their source of shelter, and in the case of the EPACENTER, the expansive wooden roof is almost entirely covered with solar panels which feed back to the grid. The use of timber was an important consideration – a cubic meter of wood stores the equivalent of a ton of absorbed carbon dioxide – and low-emitting materials were prioritized throughout the building.

We also developed a distinctly East Palo Alto aesthetic for ecological sustainability, celebrating the humble materials used around the city. Douglas fir plywood cladding might not look flashy, but it’s perfectly in tune with the ad-hoc vibe of the woodshop, recording studio, and the instrument practice rooms. The theater, likewise, exposes the building mechanics, and the down-to-earth feel of the experimentation spaces is offset by the use of high-quality materials such as maple wood in the café and breakout areas.



We’re strong believers in the principle of “cook from what you find” – often, the best design solutions can be found right at your doorstep. The building’s colorful fishscale tiles were inspired by the architecture of East Palo Alto, and we decided to use the simple fiber-cement shingle seen on houses throughout the neighborhood. Typically these tiles are bought in bulk with a single color, but we chose eight shades drawn from an EPA palette and arranged each tile to form an impressionistic “map” of the city.


Sustainable design requires an imagination for the future – an understanding of what it means to design in relation to time. The students who first joined us for those intensive outreach workshops have now moved on to college and beyond, and now a new generation of students will take ownership of the new building this summer. None of us can predict what the future holds, but we can create structures designed to support and adapt to their environment through the many changes to come. Sustainability is not about stasis or perfect stability; it’s about sustenance, strength, and the capacity to thrive in time.

Photography by Henrik Kam


Article by Matilda Bathurst
April 22nd, 2021
Education,  Interiors,  Performing Arts,  Sustainability,  WHY Features
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