The state of state buildings

East End project represents a new approach that officials hope will save money and the environment

Workers put the final touches on the new Education Building, which will open this summer.

Workers put the final touches on the new Education Building, which will open this summer.

Photo by Larry Dalton

Standing in the southeast quadrant of Capitol Park, with the Capitol to your right and a mass of construction to your left, you can look up at six floors of gleaming gray glass and gray stone. You’re not just looking at the Department of Education’s new building—you’re looking at the state of California’s new sustainable state building policy in action.

In the past, new state buildings were designed to meet minimum environmental standards at the lowest possible construction cost. Now, the state is also considering what a building will cost to maintain and repair over its lifetime. Such lifecycle costing makes sustainable building practices appear more cost-effective than standard practices over the long term, especially if you factor in worker productivity, which can be improved by factors like access to daylight and improved air quality.

As the state embraces sustainable building practices in the Education Building and the rest of the Capitol Area East End Complex—the state’s largest-ever construction project—they’re also creating a market for “green” building materials, which may change the way we construct buildings in the private sector as well.

Walking under the protruding arch that overhangs the front entrance of the Education Building, Jim Ogden, project consultant from 3D/International, exhibits all the signs of the house-proud.

“Forty percent fly ash in the concrete,” he says. “Never been done in Northern California before.”

Fly ash, a byproduct of coal-fired electricity generating power plants, sets up like regular concrete. The more the project uses, the less Portland cement needs to be trucked to Sacramento. Even the gas it takes to power the trucks is considered an avoidable waste of resources.

The building’s cavernous lobby is covered in a combination of sand-colored granite, gray marble and travertine. Nearly 18 tons of gray marble was salvaged from the historic Library and Courts Building west of the Capitol and some of it lies in strips in the floor.

Ogden keeps using the word “organic” to describe the desert colors and open airy space of the lobby. He seems much more impressed with the data on recycled materials than he does with the aesthetics of the building’s interior. He explains that the huge oval depression in the middle of the floor will hold a large rock with a sculpture on top and medallions around it. “I think it has something to do with the constellations,” he says.

By July, employees of the Department of Education will begin moving in to fill the 1,350 workstations upstairs, vie for the 215 parking spaces in the underground lot, make use of the completed parking garage nearby, and enroll 100 of their children in the onsite childcare facility. They’ll have access to charging stations for their electric cars and showers and lockers if they want to ride their bikes to work.

To some degree, they will be living in a fish bowl. The Center for the Built Environment will collect and analyze data regarding their work habits, sick days and general satisfaction and compare it to data gathered from their current locations scattered around the city. The state hopes to use this research to validate its claims that sustainable building really does save money and improve worker satisfaction.

Though all of the state’s new techniques have been tested, and some design principles, like exposing employees to more daylight, have been studied in depth, other technologies are still slightly experimental. One of the most cutting-edge will be nearly invisible. It’s the Education Building’s “raised floor,” which allows the heating and cooling system to lie under employees’ feet rather than above their heads.

In most office buildings, heating and cooling systems are installed in the ceiling and air is pushed down through ceiling vents into the rooms. In the Education Building, raising the floor that employees will walk on a couple of feet above the actual floor leaves a space large enough to run all the ventilation ducts. Letting air rise from the floor uses less energy, improves the flow of air through the building, and offers employees an extra bonus: they can open or close the vents in their own workstations to adjust temperature.

The whole Capitol Area East End Complex, following sustainable building practices, will potentially save the state approximately $400,000 annually in energy costs alone, though administrators have difficulty breaking down that figure to determine if it’s the raised floor or some other innovation that leads to the greatest savings. Their estimates come from raising the building’s overall efficiency of 30 percent above the state’s usual standard. To do this, they’ll incorporate new technologies and old.

On the roof of the Education Building, photovoltaic panels rise from the roof, which is painted white to deflect heat. From a distance, the panels look like polished granite. They won’t generate all the energy in the building, but they’ll contribute to it, and any extra power can be routed to the power grid for distribution elsewhere.

Inside the building, on the top floor, which is basically complete, the cubicle walls are covered in colors similar to the stone in the lobby. The building plan insists on materials with low volatile organic compound emissions and high recycled content. To further protect air quality, most of the walls are painted white because the more pigment you add to paint, the higher the chemical content.

Daylight is a hot commodity in office buildings, so the outer walls are primarily windows. Though they look smoky gray from the outside, inside, the cubicles have natural light flowing in and out through small windows in the cubicle walls. Every cubicle in the building, says Ogden, is designed to receive some natural light. Exceptions are made for bright corner conference rooms.

To save energy, all of the indoor lights are on automatic sensors, adjusting based on the amount of daylight in a room. They’re also on motion sensors.

Outside the Education Building, the rest of the complex is still under construction. At this stage, most of the science goes into recycling tons of construction material.

As Midtown residents will remember, the East End Complex was recently a series of deep holes where tons of dirt had been removed to build parking garages below each building. Usually, much of that soil would have been sent to landfills, but 96 percent of this soil was used to build up the foundations under other construction projects, including two new Home Depot stores.

Members of the task force also tracked 104 tons of steel that were removed from pre-existing buildings. They watched as it was melted down, turned into new rebar, and then sent back to the site to form the infrastructure of the new buildings. This kind of closed loop system, says Ogden, is just what the Waste Management Board likes to see.

Despite sustainable building techniques, the East End Complex has been criticized for a variety of missteps. The buildings are set far back off the street and the dark windows are uninviting, says Greg Taylor, a member of the Civic Eight, a group of local architects who weren’t allowed to participate in the early planning process.

Patricia Barnard, another local architect who specializes in “green” buildings, says that the Los Angeles architect, Johnson Fain Partners, didn’t consider the “Sacramento vernacular.” She believes Sacramento’s inferiority complex keeps us from designing like a big city. She refers to cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles as cities that protect their unique aesthetic.

In response to those who say that such projects will revitalize downtown, Barnard says, “After 5:00, those buildings will be as sterile as all get-out.”

Despite detractors, members of the Sustainable Building Task Force are proud of their complex. They managed to integrate sustainable building techniques in spite of historic hurdles, including heavy initial costs that will only pay for themselves over time, and concerns that the buildings won’t run at peak efficiency unless maintenance people embrace the new technologies.

The Education Building, according to state architect Steve Castellanos, is the “greenest,” the most sustainable building the state has ever constructed—and some of its technologies, like the raised floor, are right now getting their first real test in a state facility. How well employees embrace these types of innovations may determine whether we continue to use sustainable building techniques in the future.

As members of the Task Force say, nobody wants to build an expensive, high-profile building that doesn’t work.