Newly-Completed, PG&E-Occupied Project in San Francisco Sets Unique Environmental Precedent

San Francisco, TEF Design, PG&E, Plant Construction Company, Rutherford + Chekene, Thornton Thomasetti, BFK Engineers, MHC Engineers
©Mikiko Kikuyama

By Jack Stubbs

San Francisco, and the Bay Area more generally, is often recognized as one of the nation’s foremost cities when it comes to delivering cutting-edge commercial real estate projects, especially when it comes to environmental sustainability. Many recent and in-the-works project teams look to accomplish adaptive reuse developments by incorporating more modern design elements into existing historic structures.

TEF Design, a San Francisco-based architectural design firm, recently announced the completion of Larkin Street Substation Expansion, a a 12,200-square-foot electrical switchgear building that provides a modern addition to the existing historic 1962 substation building, which was designed by PG&E to supply power to the northeastern part of the city. 

The team for the project — located on Eddy Street between Larkin and Hyde in the Tenderloin neighborhood – included Plant Construction Company LP (general contractor); Creo Landscape (landscape architecture); BFK Engineers (civil engineering); Rutherford + Chekene (structural engineering); MHC Engineers, Inc. (MEP engineering); Horton Lees Brogden Lighting Design (lighting); Urb-in (utility consultant/owner’s representative); and Thornton Thomasetti (sustainability consultant).

The Substation Expansion – which broke new ground as the first Net Zero Energy (NZE) targeted electrical substation building in the United States – incorporates several unique, environmentally-conscious design features that distinguish it from other projects of its kind, explained Paul Cooper, Principal-in-Charge at TEF Design.

“What I would say about the environmental significance [of the project] is that it went back to basic environmental tenets, natural ventilation is used…and LED technology and timed lights ensure that the systems in the building use the least amount of power,” he said. “The equation [involved] really looking at a building in a way that really hasn’t done that seriously in the [same] environmental way.”

The project includes several noteworthy elements that contribute to the environmentally-conscious thinking that went into the design process. The utilitarian structure features street-facing facades comprised of ribbed panels and a living green wall. The ribs on the surface cast changing shadows throughout the day, and the sloped panels are embedded with lighting fixtures that at night express the city’s electrical power grid.

On top of the building, 60-watt solar panels offset the building’s energy consumption, and large vents at its base help eliminate the need for artificial cooling methods, ultimately reducing the building’s overall energy load by 40 percent.

The various design moves are meant to reflect the surrounding Tenderloin neighborhood, detailed Cooper. “There was a lot of care given to the front façade…the Tenderloin is kind of a green desert and doesn’t have a lot of parks or green space. Speaking with PG&E, we thought it was important to give the neighborhood some biophilia and some sort of green element that could be seen,” he said.

The design team also looked to incorporate elements that would allow the expansion to conform with the adjacent historic substation building – originally built in 1962 – and the long-term fabric of the neighborhood. “We wanted to ensure that it was dynamic for the neighborhood…which historically had a lot of neon lights in it throughout its evolution…so we were pulling from these neon lights and trying to make it more dynamic,” Cooper added.

Beyond the city limits of San Francisco, the project also set an important benchmark and precedent. The expansion became the first targeted net-zero electrical switchgear utility building to get a rating from the International Living Future Institute’s (ILFI) Living Building Challenge, an initiative that looks to incentivize new developments to achieve greater sustainability through various design- and strategic factors including climate, building characteristics and community context.

“When we first started this project, we wondered whether we should do LEED, which didn’t have any [initiatives] for an unoccupied building…ILFI also didn’t have anything for a non-occupant building, but said at the time that they would work with us to incorporate this [project] into the ILFI rating system,” Cooper said.

Ultimately, the hope is that projects like the Larkin Street Substation Expansion will set a positive precedent for other developments throughout San Francisco and beyond, given the rising importance of environmentally-conscious efforts across the board, thinks Cooper. 

“[Everyone] helped to create a piece of architecture that gives back to the community…I would hope that this sparks a real re-interest in utility buildings contributing to the urban environment…all buildings in our environment contribute to it, whether in the Tenderloin or another part of the city, they’re all important.”

West Coast Commercial Real Estate News