San Francisco PUC: Now the Hard Part

San Francisco Public Utilities Commission

The San Francisco PUC promises long life and low cost for its super sustainable $200 million headquarters.

THIS ARTICLE WAS PUBLISHED IN THE ‘Q’ – THE REGISTRY’S PRINT PUBLICATION – IN OCTOBER 2013

By Neil Gonzales

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he free biweekly public-tours speak to how proud the owner and planners are of the sparkling, glassy tower that is the new San Francisco Public Utilities Commission headquarters.

Overlooking the neoclassical Civic Center, the modern 13-story structure at 525 Golden Gate Ave. is certainly an attraction—far from the drab, utilitarian construction for which government offices are typically known. The spacious, elegant lobby features a trendy café and a digital-arts wall that shows the PUC water-system operations and other educational material through interactive videos. The tours start in this lobby where workers, visitors and schoolchildren on a recent field trip created a scene more reminiscent of a museum than a public administrative building.

[quote]“Once the building is up, the question is: How does it really perform?” Ralph DiNola, executive director for the New Buildings Institute[/quote]

Catania Galván, coordinator of citizen involvement for the PUC, serves as a tour guide, explaining the building’s deeper allure: the innovative environmental and energy-saving elements from the water-recycling system to the façade-integrated wind turbines and rooftop solar array. “This building will be paid for in about 25 years,” Galvan said. “It is built to last 100.”

San Francisco Public Utilities CommissionIndeed, the sustainability goals have been set extremely high for the PUC headquarters, built for $201.6 million (including design and other factors) and finished in June 2012. The building is expected to exceed the recent state requirement for energy efficiency in new office buildings by 55 percent. It is expected to reduce heating, cooling and ventilation costs by 51 percent, will need 45 percent less energy to illuminate the interior compared to typical Class A office buildings and generate up to 7 percent of its own power needs. Over 75 years, the building should save $118 million in energy costs.

One year after opening, there’s no verdict yet on exactly how the building’s actual performance stacks up against these lofty goals. In July, the building earned Platinum certification from the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program, the top rating for environmentally conscious construction from the U.S. Green Building Council. The building garnered a major national award from the American Institute of Architects in April when it was named a Committee on the Environment Top Ten green project for its sustainable design and reduced energy consumption.

Any level of LEED certification is worth bragging about, but Platinum “is quite a big leap,” said Lynn N. Simon, senior vice president at Thornton Tomasetti, an international engineering firm that provided sustainability consulting for the project. “It takes a tremendous effort, from the design team to the owner. There’s no wiggle room. You have to do high-level water and energy efficiency, indoor air quality and other issues.”

But neither the LEED measure nor the AIA recognition is based on the building’s actual operation over time, the ultimate measure of success. The wind and solar panel systems weren’t even fully deployed until May 30. The PUC had to first hammer out a connection agreement with Pacific Gas & Electric Co. to operate the wind turbines and solar array on a 24-hour basis, including lots of systems testing.

“Once the building is up, the question is: How does it really perform?” said Ralph DiNola, executive director for the New Buildings Institute, a nonprofit in Vancouver, Wash. “It’s important that tenants know what the energy assumptions are and are engaged.” The New Buildings Institute works to improve energy performance of commercial properties.

Despite its untested state, the PUC headquarters still impresses DiNola: “Overall, it is an outstanding building,” he said. “There’s a nice integration of renewable technology in a pretty dense area, [and] it serves as a model for the private sector and demonstrates strategies and technologies [of] a high-performing building.”

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Photography courtesy of SFPUC

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