The most famous definition of architecture comes from Vitruvius, the ancient Roman writer, who said the word applied to structures that are (in my inexpert translation) beautiful, useful and well-built. What has long impressed me about this unsurpassed definition is how intrinsically different these three qualities are from each other. In a building, beauty has little to do with either practicality or comfort. Similarly, good construction has no necessary relation to good looks or convenience, although these things can co-exist very happily. My standing joke is that a building, to be of interest, should fulfill at least one of the three criteria. As it turns out, surprisingly few new buildings meet even these lowered expectations.

This admittedly pedantic lead-in may help explain why I find the Beverly Hills reverse-osmosis water treatment plant a fit topic for CP&DR’s inaugural Innovations column. The plant is a public building that cost the city nothing to build (although it did entail other financial obligations). The water-filtration plant helps solve the city’s, and the region’s, long-term water-supply problems. The building supplies office space and even educational space — something very unusual for a workhorse piece of infrastructure like a water treatment plant. And, as a fine piece of architecture designed by Mehrdad Yazdani of Cannon Design Group, the building adds visual quality to the fast-gentrifying industrial area of Beverly Hills.

The origins of the reverse-osmosis plant probably owe much to Government Code § 5956 that allows municipalities to contract with private firms to design, build and operate certain facilities. The design-build process, according to Beverly Hills Public Works Director Robert Beste gave the city more control because the city started with a fixed cost and asked the developer what it could achieve for the money. The more traditional route would be to design the project, and then asking builders to compete on a cost basis. The design-build process “allowed us to get a building that the community wanted, and yet the building performs a very technical function,” Beste said.

The company that won the job was Earth Tech, a Long Beach-based division of Tyco International, the manufacturing and services conglomerate. Earth Tech agreed to build the $17 million plant at its own cost on land the city leases to Earth Tech for a dollar per year. The city supplied, at its cost, four new water wells, which are not reflected in the construction budget. The city also has an agreement to purchase the water Earth Tech treats.

The plant currently processes 2.7 million gallons daily, or nearly a quarter of the city’s water needs. The water is not cheap. At $530 per acre foot, the locally purified groundwater is more expensive than the supply available from the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) at about $420 to $470 per acre-foot.

Making the deal feasible is a subsidy from MWD of $250 per acre-foot. That hefty assistance reflects the Met’s goal of encouraging local water providers to develop their own supply.

In public finance, the attraction of the deal is that the cost of the locally purified water remains stable while the cost of MWD water fluctuates with demand and could increase in the future as the region continues its startling growth. Intended to be “cost neutral” to the city, the plant could end up saving money for the city by eventually producing water more cheaply than it can be bought on the open market, according to Beste. After 20 years, the developer-operator will have recouped its costs and realized its profit, and the city will take possession of the plant (although the city has an option to buy the plant in as soon as five years).

To sweeten the deal further for the developer, the city instructed Earth Tech to provide 30,000 square feet of office space to house the city’s public works department. Sergio Bazerevitsch, the project manager for Earth Tech, would not disclose the office lease rates, which I estimate are about $36 per square foot annually. The building also includes a public meeting room suitable for conducting environmental-education classes for school kids. Visitors can see the water-filtration plant, which, in reality, is little more than two giant steel barrels, connected to pipes, with no moving parts. Educational, perhaps, but hardly entertaining.

Although Beverly Hills has a reputation for having a tough design-review process, architecture did not enter the picture until several city councilmen, in negotiations with the developer, suggested that the plant needed more design. Beverly Hills’ so-called industrial area is a thin ribbon of aging office buildings and warehouses tucked behind City Hall. Unlike most other industrial areas, the Beverly Hills site is highly visible. The area is one of the few in the city where creative tenants can find the funky, old buildings they prefer, and the area has slowly gentrified. Madonna’s independent record label, Maverick Records, has its offices in a former ice plant here.

Yazdani’s design for the façade is exuberant and curvilinear, which may seems at odds with the big, dumb box immediately behind the fancy wrapper. The façade is not falsification, however: The architect has located the public rooms and the office space at the front of the building, where they belong. The prominent curved protrusion in the front of the façade is the public meeting hall, while office space is located behind the tower at right. The architect has talked about the possibility of a municipal band rehearsing in the public meeting room — certainly a first for a water-filtration plant.

The point of architecture, as we suggested at the outset, is to do more than one thing at the same time. Beverly Hills’ mixed-use building is an example of how a single structure can respond to a multiplicity of requirements — financial, architectural, governmental and technical. On the Vitruvius scale, it gets three thumbs up.