ZGF debuts a net-zero powerhouse for the California Air Resources Board in Riverside

Breath of Fresh Air

ZGF debuts a net-zero powerhouse for the California Air Resources Board in Riverside

California, despite being America’s freeway-entangled historic epicenter of car culture, has emerged in recent years as a national leader in the reduction of transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions, which is, not surprisingly, the state’s largest single source of emissions. By 2035, all new cars and passenger trucks sold in the Golden States must be zero-emissions vehicles, and late last year the Biden Administration reversed a Trump-era rule that nixed the state’s decades-old authority to adopt its own stricter vehicle emissions standards.

Roughly 60 miles east of Los Angeles in the city of Riverside, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) has debuted a new headquarters dedicated to the development of advanced solutions that will further aid the state in reaching its vehicle emissions-reduction goals. All the while, the 403,306 square foot complex, which opened this past November as the largest and most advanced vehicle emissions testing and research facility in the world, is tackling head-on another significant source (roughly a quarter) of emissions in California: the building sector. Consolidating five existing facilities spread across Southern California, CARB’s new headquarters and testing facility is a LEED Platinum-targeting paradigm of a public agency truly walking the talk.

aerial view of a building with solar panel-topped roofs
The facility’s photovoltaic system spans over 200,000 square feet of rooftops. (Connie Zhou)

Aided by a 3.5-megawatt photovoltaic system and incorporating an exhaustive number of energy reduction strategies, the pinwheel-shaped three-story building was designed and built as the largest net-zero energy structure in the United States. Exceeding the state’s Title 24 building energy efficiency standards by 30 percent while lowering energy cost saving by 76 percent, the building, which requires considerable energy loads to carry out laboratory and vehicular testing activities, also meets all CalGreen Tier 2 building standards.

CARB’s new Southern California headquarters was designed by ZGF, which called the project a “landmark example of California climate policies in action.” Breaking ground at a site on Iowa Avenue not too far from the campus of UC Riverside in 2017, the facility cost $419 million, including $108 million in specialized laboratory and testing equipment. Per the agency, $154 million of the project costs came from fines paid by Volkswagen in the aftermath of the automaker’s emissions cheating scandal with additional funds coming from the state’s Motor Vehicle Account, Air Pollution Control Fund, and Vehicle Inspection Repair Fund. Joining ZGF on the design-build team was contractor Hensel Phelps and Affiliated Engineers.

Anchoring Riverside’s nascent Innovation District, the campus is named after Mary D. Nichols, an influential environmental regulator and former chair of the state’s clean air agency, which was established in 1967 by then-governor Ronald Reagan as a department of the California Environmental Protection Agency.

interior of an office space with bridges and stairs
The light-duty testing wing. (Connie Zhou)

“We were tasked with designing a net-zero energy building for which there was no existing benchmark and for a client who wanted to ensure that even with the evolved equipment and testing practices in the future, the facility would still operate as net-zero energy,” explained Shara Castillo, a ZGF principal based at the L.A. office of the Portland-founded firm. Designing this project with layers of ambiguity challenged us to design backwards to reach net-zero.”

Just as notable as the building’s net-zero bona fides is the breadth of program packed into the 19-acre campus: open office space flanking a sky-lit atrium, a large auditorium, conference rooms, specialized chemistry and hydrogen laboratories, and two separate wings dedicated to light and heavy-duty vehicular emissions testing. The headquarters’ 450-plus employees enjoy myriad amenity spaces including a lounge and gym alongside cafes and coffee bars peppered throughout the campus, which is strategically sited to encourage biking, walking, public transit, and use of zero-emission vehicles.

In creating a healthy and inviting work environment for employees, outdoor space plays a starring role in the design of the sprawling facility built from metal, concrete, and plenty of high-performance glass. As a means of creating “easy circulation, views, daylighting, and self-shading” while providing employees with “comfortable outdoor spaces” per ZGF, the low-slung structure is oriented around two main courtyards: to the east is a central courtyard that’s vehicle-accessible and large enough for public events while a more intimate courtyard is situated just to the west. Native and adaptive plantings selected for their low BVOC (biogenic volatile organic compound) emissions are featured throughout the campus’s outdoor spaces.

overhead view of a busy public courtyard with a truck and outdoor seating
Large enough for public events, the central courtyard can be accessed by food trucks and demonstration vehicles. (Connie Zhou)

Noting that it creates a “functional and metaphorical linkage,” Braulio Baptista, partner at ZGF, told AN that the building’s pinwheel formfacilitates CARB’s dynamic and complex workflow while weaving landscaped courtyards and social interaction areas into the experience of the campus.”

Bestowing CARB’s Mary D. Nichols Campus with an additional layer of mission-driven visual interest is what’s billed as the world’s largest public collection of artworks to specifically address air quality and the impacts of climate change. Curated by Dyson & Womack, the public art program features original, commissioned works by artists including Allora & Calzadilla, Refik Anadol, Kameelah Janan Rasheed, and Noé Montes. Also featured is Tomás Saraceno, the noted Argentine artist and environmentalist whose mirrored geometric forms representing air molecules can be found suspended above the building’s main entrance.

Clad in metal panels, the complex geometric form of the main entryway is itself striking. “The two juxtaposed colors of metal cladding express the notion of ‘unveiling.’ The gold tone symbolizes the value of the incredible work happening inside the campus,” explained Baptista. “Against the darker outer shell, the gold unveils itself at the entry to draw you in and celebrate the gateway into the world of CARB.”

a bay in a vehicle emissions testing facility
Inside the heavy-duty vehicle testing wing. (Connie Zhou)

As for the active and passive strategies helping the building to dramatically reduce its sizable energy demand, they are exhaustive. Among them are an adiabatic humidification system, Aircuity demand control ventilation system, active chill beam system, fluid cooler, interior and exterior LED lighting, electric vehicle charging stations (118 in total), fume hood occupancy-based sensors in the chemistry labs, Low-e glazing, and exterior louvers integrated into the southeast and west facades that help to reduce solar heating and glare.

Extensive natural daylighting strategies also play a prominent role in the design of the building. This, as Castillo explained, “provides CARB the dual benefit of reduced energy costs and enhanced employee wellness.”

“While the benefits of daylighting on work performance aren’t novel,” she said, “their weight multiplies in importance and necessity when CARB’s employees—who are working with highly specialized equipment—can reduce their risk of injury through this passive design strategy.”

co-workers of all abilities sit and relax in a an employee lounge
Employees congregate at a lounge in the office wing. (Connie Zhou)

As for the photovoltaic system, it spans 204,903 square feet across the building rooftops and parking pavilions and is anticipated to generate roughly 6,235,000 kWh of energy annually. That, per CARB, is enough to power an electric car for 25.6 million miles. Thanks to the numerous active and passive strategies that collectively work together to reduce the building’s energy demands, the solar array is expected to produce a surplus of renewable energy, which will be stored in an onsite battery system and used to power EV charging stations.

“Every element of the new Southern California Headquarters—Mary D. Nichols Campus, from the laboratory and vehicle test cells to the stunning architecture, reflects the high standards and notable achievements CARB is recognized for around the world,” said CARB chair Liane Randolph in a press statement upon the opening of the facility in November. “This new headquarters will be the incubator of innovative regulatory thinking and research, playing a pivotal role in the transition of transportation in California to zero-emission technologies. That will ensure that we accelerate our actions to protect those communities hardest hit by emissions from heavy truck traffic and freight transport.”