We created a net-zero building for NIAC in Santa Cruz. Maybe you would like to use it?

Pamela Davis, CEO of NIAC, has worked with her board to build a net-zero building on the Westside.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Pamela Davis, CEO of the Nonprofits Insurance Alliance of California, is a bit of an anomaly — a woman atop an insurance company. Her leadership style involves compassion and humility and she founded the nonprofit when everyone said she would fail. She is also passionate about the environment — about “caring as deeply about other living things as you do about yourself” — and, with the NIA board, helped build a three-story, net-zero building on Santa Cruz’s Westside. Now, NIA is opening the building’s community room — a large conference room with an outdoor, landscaped terrace — to any local nonprofit that needs a space to meet. It even has turtles.

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I founded the Nonprofits Insurance Alliance of California (NIAC) in 1989, and from the start, this nonprofit and I have been something of an anomaly.

That’s not hard when you are a female CEO in the insurance business.

I built the company from an idea — a desire to help nonprofits when no one else would — and today we are the nation’s leading property and casualty insurer group exclusively serving nonprofits. We have 24,000 member-insureds — 12,000 in California and more than 200 in Santa Cruz County, as well as 1,300 in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Essentially, I thrived using a cooperative business model everyone said would fail. Whoever heard of a nonprofit insurance company? I was convinced that leaders for the future need compassion and humility, not the ego-driven, lone-wolf entrepreneurs we typically associate with success.

By humility, I mean a true sense of our own insignificance in the face of the daunting challenges facing life on the planet. And by compassion, I mean understanding that sustaining life on this planet means caring as deeply about other living things as you do about yourself.

I don’t understand why our culture admires and lauds CEOs who disrespect our communities and the people and creatures with which we share the world. Why do we honor those men (yes, it’s mostly white men), who find the most effective ways of transforming natural resources and human lives into private profit?

We need leaders with vision and drive for community well-being, not for themselves, if we are to have a livable planet.

That is why, when the City of Santa Cruz came to us about five years ago and told us it wanted to purchase our building on Front Street (the one that currently houses Lookout’s offices), I knew we needed to build something that demonstrated our values of commitment to community and environmental sustainability. My board of directors supported me every step of the way to incorporate sustainability and equity in all our operations, including how we invest our financial assets and in real property.

NIAC’s new building was completed in 2020, and we received our occupancy permit the March morning before the COVID-19 shelter-in-place order took effect. Since insurance is an essential service, we had to stay fully operational with no interruption in service. While the majority of our workforce works remotely, the open architecture with lots of fresh air and light proved to be a godsend for those of us working in the building during the pandemic.

Nonprofits Insurance Alliance is headquartered in a three-story, net-zero building on the Westside.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Our new building is a climate-responsive, net-zero, mixed-use facility on the Westside (300 Panetta Ave.) that optimizes Santa Cruz’s mild coastal climate and maximizes physical and emotional wellness. It’s a space that helps reduce our carbon footprint and serves as a living example of how the built environment can be designed to help fight the existential threat of global warming.

We worked closely with San Francisco-based design firm EHDD and Devcon Construction (the contractor) to create our three-story, 26,000-square-foot headquarters, which has a courtyard in the middle.

Every aspect of the design and construction was assisted by feng shui master Aelita Leto. Even those who don’t subscribe to the notion of feng shui (that nature is alive and filled with energy that can be advantageously directed by the built environment) can feel there is something different about our building the moment they enter.

The NIAC building was designed according to feng shui principles.
(Via Brian Chernicky)

Our space is functional and welcoming and, we think, inspires interconnection — not only with the environment, but with each other. In addition to workspace, the building features outdoor patio spaces, common areas, small meeting rooms, and three ground-floor studio apartments for visiting employees, board members and affiliates who need a place to spend a few nights.

Net-zero power consumption

Not adding to the ongoing carbon load on the environment was a top priority for our board of directors and me. NIAC’s building produces all its own power with 356 rooftop solar panels. An onsite battery storage system is equipped to power the building for up to a week of continuous operation.

Exterior design features shade the building during the hottest part of the day. Instead of any forced-air heating or cooling, a radiant floor heating and cooling system is powered by an efficient heat pump. A rooftop weather station tracks outside conditions and automatically opens or closes windows for indoor temperature control.

Low-energy ceiling fans provide constant air circulation and the building’s open courtyard captures ocean breezes. Even during 100-degree days, the ambient temperature inside the building remains pleasant.

Energy and water conservation

Beyond net-zero energy consumption, resource conservation is evident throughout the building. All lighting is controlled by motion sensors, and office spaces are oriented to take advantage of natural sunlight.

In the office design layout, the architect paid attention to the seasonal movement of the sun. We framed workspaces with floor-to-ceiling windows that receive bright, indirect sunlight throughout the day. Additional track-style lighting reflects off the ceiling to further illuminate workspaces.

NIAC's courtyard garden is landscaped with drought-tolerant plants
NIAC’s courtyard garden is landscaped with drought-tolerant plants. The courtyard’s waterfall feature and stream are fed by a circulating water system.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

To save water, we used low-flow and low-use appliances in the restrooms and common areas, and the courtyard garden is landscaped with drought-tolerant plants. The courtyard’s waterfall feature and stream are fed by a circulating water system. We even have fish and turtles living among us.

NIAC's courtyard features fish and turtles.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

A computer program plays subtle sounds of a meandering stream throughout the common areas to mask ambient office noise with sounds of nature. The soft sound of the water mimics the courtyard stream and creates a surprisingly peaceful background.

NIA community space

We also created a flexible meeting space we have opened to all local nonprofits. They can reserve and use our space for fundraisers and meetings during business hours at no cost.

Good meeting space is limited in Santa Cruz, especially for nonprofits that are operating on tight budgets. As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit ourselves, our mission is to help nonprofits further their work in the community.

The NIA Community Space meeting room holds up to 125 people and can be divided into two smaller spaces. The space accommodates classroom and boardroom-style seating arrangement, and features access to an outdoor patio. Room reservations are open to all Santa Cruz area 501(c)(3) nonprofits. NIAC membership is not required, but proof of insurance is required if the nonprofit is not a NIAC member. We charge a small fee for meetings and events held after business hours.

NIAC is offering its conference space, with an outdoor landscaped patio, to all nonprofits for free.
(Via Brian Chernicky)

The building also has space on the first floor that includes 23 cubicles and two private offices, which NIAC hopes to lease to a local nonprofit as soon as people are getting back into the office.

I see this as a win-win for us all. For us, it is a chance to live what we believe and do our part to alleviate climate change — a little. And for the community, it’s an opportunity to come together in a lovely space designed with care and commitment to community betterment.

Pamela Davis is the CEO of Nonprofits Insurance Alliance (NIA), the nation’s leading property and casualty insurer exclusively serving nonprofit organizations. Davis founded the company in 1989 in Santa Cruz as a social enterprise to assist in the long-term sustainability of the nonprofit sector. She received a bachelor’s degree in economics from UCSC and a master’s in public policy from UC Berkeley. She has lived in Santa Cruz for 40 years.

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