Designing Net Zero Civic Facilities

Public agencies are facing unique challenges in the drive to eliminate fossil fuel from facilities. Future buildings will need to reach sustainability goals while providing essential services and resiliency in all conditions.

In a busy central district of a growing Southern California city, LPA designers are working with the city and fire district officials to develop a model for the next generation of sustainable, energy-efficient fire stations.

Rancho Cucamonga’s Fire Station 178 is designed to safely run off the grid for at least 24 hours without using fossil fuels. The fire station will also house one of the first electric fire trucks in the United States, taking the next step toward developing a fire station that eliminates the reliance on fossil fuels and can operate in emergency situations when the electric grid may not be available.

The fire station is one of several current LPA projects exploring the challenges facing public agencies as they move toward net zero energy service facilities. The projects are different — ranging from police stations to libraries — but each is solving for ways to develop resilient, efficient facilities that will be able to adapt to new energy standards and operate with clean, carbon-free energy sources, providing maximum return-on-investment for public funds.

“Cities are asking, how do we get to net zero and still provide the same level of service?” LPA Director of Civic + Cultural Jeremy Hart says. “Communities are demanding healthier, more sustainable facilities, but budgets remain tight.”

The current projects have varying programs, goals, scales and budgets. But each is being designed and developed with an eye to the future, knowing that net zero energy is an important goal for many public agencies. At the same time, they are preparing for an all-electric world, including vehicles, with many states likely to follow California’s example and make plans to phase
out combustion engine vehicles.

“We’re preparing these facilities for what’s next,” Hart says. “Part of resiliency is creating buildings that can be customized to reach larger goals down the road as technologies improve and goals change.”

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Preparing for the Future
The City of San Pablo in northern California is building a new police station that won’t be net zero when it opens in 2025. But the designers worked with the police department and city to make the facility flexible and able to adapt if demand shifts and money becomes available for projects. Plans include putting in place now the infrastructure to support future growth, including electrical vehicle (EV) chargers for the department’s patrol cars. Parking canopies with photovoltaic (PV) panels can be added to offset the increased energy load from the charging stations.

“They can’t afford the EV charging now, but they know they are going to need them,” Hart says.

The push to electric vehicles is one of several elements that will change the equation for net zero buildings, especially for agencies with large vehicle fleets.

“Going from current facilities with few EV charging stations to new facilities where 20% of the parking spaces include Level 2 EV chargers will typically require larger electrical service and switchgear,” says LPA Director of Engineering Erik Ring. “With all-electric facilities that incorporate on-site renewable energy, battery energy storage systems, significant EV charging, and demand response capabilities, we are asking more of our electrical infrastructure than we ever have before.”

The Rancho Cucamonga fire station will be home to one of the first electric fire engines in North America, but more are sure to follow. While net zero was not a specific goal, the two-story, 12,176-square-foot facility, developed through a design build process, will include a 24-hour battery backup system capable of supporting an electric fire truck and the station’s full operations for a day, when the power grid goes down.

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The library in Wimberly, Texas, leaves roof space for PV panels and integrates the energy plan with a “One Water” system to capture and reuse stormwater.

To meet the energy needs, 250 photovoltaic panels located on carports coupled with a battery storage system will produce enough energy to power the station. An energy management system will direct energy from the PV panels either to the batteries, the building loads or the grid.

“For us, 24 hours provides that safety net for the community to ensure that the station is still operable should we lose power,” says Rancho Cucamonga Fire Chief Mike McCliman. In addition to reducing the station’s carbon footprint, a more efficient electric station will also significantly reduce energy costs, Chief McCliman says. “One of the things that Rancho Cucamonga Fire District holds as part of our core values is innovation.”

In addition to the electric fire engine, Fire Station 178 is designed to service an electric emergency vehicle. “When designing the battery storage system, we were really taking into consideration what the additional needs may be in the future,” said LPA’s Project Manager Jessica Isler. “It was figuring out what we have now versus what we have capacity for later.”

Part of the design process focused on determining the station’s true energy demands. Multiple disciplines were involved to determine exactly what happens in a facility each day. How often are the microwaves used? How long is the lighting on? “Even though they may seem like small usages, they all need to continue to function in the need of a power outage, even for 24 hours,” Isler says.

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A new fire station in Rancho Cucamonga is designed to support one of the first electric fire trucks in the United States.

A Holistic Approach
Any net zero design starts with making the building as energy efficient as possible. Natural ventilation, shading and high-efficiency systems will help reduce the energy load, regardless of the sustainability goals. Water management and healthier environments are all part of a broader approach to create more sustainable, efficient public buildings, shared by every public agency.

In Wimberly, Texas, the city wanted a library expansion to increase services to the community and provide a teaching tool on how to live within the environment. The renovation of the existing 8,000-square-foot library and the 8,000-square-foot expansion embraces the site in the heart of Hill Country and is designed to meet net zero energy. The siting of the building, the sloping of the roof and the massing will increase operating efficiency, boost natural light and create direct connections to the environment, with the southern roof exposure reserved for PV. The design also reflects the community’s “One Water” initiative, with a comprehensive system that captures and reuses stormwater and integrates water with the landscape design.

“The community wants to be good stewards of the environment,” says San Antonio Studio Director Sara Flowers. “They’re a very conscientious community who want to do the best they can with what they’ve got.”

Each community brings its own issues, priorities and resources to the sustainability discussion. Every community is unique and approaching net zero targets from their own timelines and resources. For the City of Moorpark in Southern California, a new net zero energy city library, the first phase of a new master-planned civic center, will serve as an example for future development. The 18,000-square-foot, all-electric library will be three times larger than the existing library on the same site. Energy use will be reduced through smart planning and passive design strategies. A 130 KW roof-mounted photovoltaic array will offset 100% of the building’s anticipated energy use, while a battery backup will supply nighttime energy loads to add an extra-layer of resiliency.

For us, 24 hours provides that safety net for the community to ensure that the station is still operable should we lose power.

In Beaumont, one of the fastest-growing cities in California, the city wants to replace an aging police station and create a new facility that can evolve as the community grows. The new 47,000-square-foot facility is designed for durability and the ability to adapt to future changes. Plans call for shaded parking with PV arrays and the potential to add battery backup to allow the facility to operate off the grid. “Nobody said this project must be net zero,” Hart says. “This is just the smart thing to do as we plan.”

For durability and safety reasons, the exterior of the building is conceived as precast concrete panels and concrete block. This approach to the building skin, paired with the cross-laminated timber (CLT) structure, provides a flexible plan with a secure perimeter that can serve the city for the next 50 years.

Police departments have their own unique mix of priorities, including complex communication, operational, training and security requirements. Layering sustainability on top of the other priorities can seem costly. Early design discussions often focus on the value of adding energy infrastructure and the long-term savings, Hart says.

Every project is different. Right-sizing PV and battery systems will pay dividends for many years. At the same time, designs need to recognize that technology is changing. Battery systems may not be able to meet 72-hour essential service standards cost effectively now, but these systems are rapidly evolving. Energy management systems will improve how energy is used in public buildings. PV and other renewable energy systems will continue evolve, in terms of pricing and efficiency.

“This is a holistic approach to resilient design,” Hart says, “with performance at the center of all systems from structural and energy down to longevity of materials."

Designing the Net Zero Police Station

In Beaumont, California, LPA designers are working with the city to develop a 47,000-square-foot facility that reduces energy costs in the desert climate and takes a long-term, holistic approach to sustainability. The design weaves together the needs of the expanding police department, with energy and water management systems that allow the facility to expand and adapt as technologies improve and requirements change, including battery backup to allow the facility to operate off the grid.

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