Not that it wasn’t a battle to persuade the campus bigwigs — who have to sign off on maxi-projects and pass them through the university architects — to approve the two percent more that Mack estimates a LEED Platinum building will cost. “Erica and I made that happen,” he says proudly. “I was the fixer, she was the scrapper, the voice, the speechifier on the soapbox. She bullied the university to create this symbol of our green future. You really should ask her about it.”
True (solar) grid: You can see right away that Erica Johnson, the girl racing up to the deck outside Starbucks, here beside the Euclid trolley station, is always in a hurry. She is all vivid movements, and her speech sounds like a tape recorder on fast playback. She has an hour away from Sullivan Solar, where she works as a publicist and as their lobbyist at City Hall. Until this year, she was completing a degree in environmental studies and public relations at San Diego State. And by now, she should have been starting work on her master’s in PR and business at UC Berkeley. But the battle for the new student union building changed that.
“The fight for our LEED Platinum building? Oh boy,” she says. She sits down and takes a gulp of coffee. She has fighting, playful eyes. “When I first got involved as a student leader at SDSU, it was through this progressive organization named Enviro-Business Society — usually known as E3, because it seeks to bring together ecology, ethics, and economics. This was 2005. People said, ‘Environment and business? That’s an oxymoron.’”
As president, Johnson turned E3 into the largest student organization on campus. “And that’s when they started to take us seriously.”
Like with the Bike Crusades.
“People were being ticketed up to $250 for riding bicycles or skateboards on campus. So students who lived within a mile of the university started driving to school every day. Unnecessary pollution! We tried to get a bike lane on campus. On Bike Crusade Day we would walk our bikes on campus, in long lines. We said: Think of all the carbon emissions. Eventually, they agreed to establish bike lanes throughout campus. It’s a passion-driven organization. I had no idea we would be so successful.”
She became a green commissioner. “The Green Love Board — it allocates funds for green actions, like solar installations at the pool — made us the most environmentally progressive student government in the nation. It institutionalized sustainability at SDSU.”
The student union building was a challenge of a different magnitude. “Students voted a long time ago to increase the fees they paid to make this new building a reality,” Johnson says. “I just wanted it to be green. I started talking about LEED certification, which guarantees sustainable building and design practices. Nobody knew what it was. But I kept turning up to the meetings, kept saying, ‘Well, what if we incorporated renewable energy, a building that will produce its own energy for 50 to 60 years…’”
Johnson wanted the highest-rated LEED Platinum building, which meant asking students to shell out more money.
“You have no idea how nervous and scared I was. I was about to graduate. I had exams that I was supposed to be studying for. I had to convince the council. I stayed up for, like, two full days writing a resolution.
“At the council, people said, ‘Why are we spending more money?’ And I said, ‘This is the most responsible decision you guys are going to make. This is going to be your legacy.’ But the [University] architect — and especially the developer — they were saying, ‘This is going to cost millions and millions of dollars. It’s not even possible to have a LEED building.’
“Then I found Drew George. He founded the United States Green Building Council LEED San Diego chapter. He helped develop the LEED certification. He lives right here in Pacific Beach.
Drew George confirmed that “Platinum will definitely cost more.”
“Drew met with me for six and a half hours. He told me developers are against LEED because it’s checked by third parties. There’s no cutting corners. There’s a certification process. Contractors want to make money. They don’t like that someone is coming and checking that the wood is from 50 miles away, max. That they’re using recycled materials. That they’re covering every single thing at night, and there’s no chemicals being put in.
“We went through the costs. The architect, the manager, they were all sitting around. This is the final day, when I’m going to the AS council for a vote. And it’s 30 minutes before, and we’re trying to cost this, top university officials and Drew and me, 22, a student struggling to pass her final exams.
“I said, ‘I need everybody to agree that we can do a LEED Platinum building with the LEED premium [extra costs].’ Some said those costs would be 3 percent, others 7 percent. So I said, ‘How about 5 percent?’ And they agreed. I included that clause, went to the council, told them LEED could be had for 5 percent premium, and it passed!
“I was so nervous, the whole time I was doing it. I had all these fears about failing my classes. Because I really wanted to go to Berkeley for grad school. I told myself, ‘Berkeley’s not going to happen if I do this.’ And that’s what happened. My grades definitely suffered, my last year of college. But it was an opportunity to make an impact for future generations. I hope this building does.”
This summer Johnson graduated from SDSU, although not summa cum laude. That was the price she paid to get her building. That, and no acceptance into UC Berkeley. Fortunately, Sullivan Solar, a solar-power company based in San Diego, snapped her up to become its lobbyist and PR person. She is 23. The average age at Sullivan Solar is 27. “I like to think that the green boom is driven by this young generation,” she says. “We are the green generation, definitely, unless you happen by a fraternity house on a Friday night. There’s nothing green about that.”