A city uses its conservation concepts

In this flat, often sun-drenched, frequently wind-blown community in California's fertile central valley, the energy-saving lessons of the '70s not only live on, they've virtually become a way of life.

The integration of solar concepts into the city's building code has been perhaps the most publicized of Davis's energy initiatives, but projects have run the gamut from waste recyling to more efficient city lighting. As a sampler, the city council has passed ordinances:

* Requiring that building lots be oriented so that the major walls of a house face north and south.

* Mandating that a minimum of 10 percent of land in a commercial development be devoted to landscaping (for purposes of shade and cooling).

* Encouraging ''cottage industry'' in residential areas, with an eye to cutting down on commuting to and from places of work.

Then there's Davis's trademark - its transportation system built around the bicycle. Every street in the city, by law, has to have marked bike lanes.

One of the more controversial energy measures taken by the city has been its ''retrofit ordinance.'' This law specifies that before a house can be resold its owners must bring it up to four standards set by the city: adequate attic insulation (R-19), weatherization of outside doors, installation of a water heater insulation blanket, and low-flow devices on showerheads.

Homeowners were predictably concerned by the measure, with its hint of ''let the seller beware.'' In a spirit of compromise, the city fathers prudently specified that the cost of upgrading couldn't exceed $500.

The community's energy activism took root as this once sleepy university town sprouted from a mid-'60s population of 12,700 to nearly 40,000 today. Davis, in fact, has become something of a teacher in the energy field, drawing hundreds of inquiries and dozens of visits each year from conservation-minded city planners in the United States and abroad.

What sparked the city's conservation program?

In the early '70s, recalls longtime city manager Howard Reese, a couple of professors from the University of California at Davis, together with some graduate students, formed an organization called the Low Energy Research Group. It put forward a number of energy-saving ideas, most notably the passive-solar technique of positioning buildings east-to-west in order to make best use of the sun in heating and cooling.

Those ideas and others eventually worked their way into the city's building code. That was often far from easy, and Mr. Reese well remembers the give-and-take among town officials, energy activists, and local builders.

Some area builders were eager to test the new energy-conscious construction methods and even to add a few twists of their own (see accompanying story on the Village Homes subdivision). But many others were leery of what they suspected were the increased costs entailed in the city's conservation measures. And beyond that, says Mr. Reese, there was the Westerner's ingrained resistance to having government tell him what to do.

But most builders gradually came around, in Mr. Reese's words, to this recognition: ''Look, we've done it, it works, and it isn't expensive.''

The oil embargo of 1973-74, when energy prices ''went bonkers,'' also ''went a long way towards convincing them,'' chimes in assistant city manager Robert Traverso.

But the overriding factor in translating conservation concepts into local ordinances, says Mr. Reese, was ''the kind of political leadership dedicated to making it happen.'' Through thick and thin, he says, there was a solid consensus that energy conservation was a worthwhile undertaking.

Bob Black, former mayor of Davis and a community activist since his days as a student-body president in the late '60s, has summed it up this way: ''Davis has been kind of a model of accomplishing local initiatives in the energy field.''

Are the innovative steps taken by Davis applicable to other communities?

Both Messrs. Reese and Traverso are quick to point out that while the conservation measures adopted here could profitably be applied in other towns and cities, the political environment needed to implement them may be far less universal. Davis, as a community, has many features not likely to be duplicated elsewhere: the university, with its research facilities and penchant for fostering local activists; a young and largely progessive populace; and perhaps the highest number of energy consultants, per capita, of any city in the country.

Another thing to remember, says Mr. Traverso, is that many of the most practical ideas now couched in city building codes have been around for years, if not millennia. He recalls the response of a group of Japanese visitors when the city's guide started explaining to them, in some detail, the passive solar technique of orienting buildings east to west. They smiled knowingly and informed the guide that Japanese architects and builders had been doing that for 2,000 years.

''The concepts weren't novel,'' concludes Mr. Traverso, ''but what was different was that Davis instituted them.''

And what might this remarkably energy-aware community institute in the future? One major project in the works, says Mr. Reese, is an in-depth study of the solar access question - how to prevent one homeowner or property holder from blocking his neighbor's access to the sun's rays.

''It hasn't been a big problem,'' notes Mr. Reese, ''but it could be down the road.''

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