By Brian Kraemer
Published in the July 2006 issue of Today’s Facility Manager
From the outset, the goal of the new Solano County Government Center was to bring together all aspects critical not only to running a good building but also to supporting an effective organization. Recognizing the importance of investing in its workers and constituents, Solano County wanted to create a beautiful building that would cater to the needs of workers and visitors.
Along the way, the county became interested in making the environment a top priority as well. The result would be a building that could act as a community center as well as serve as a physical testimony to responsible environmental stewardship.
The driving force to build a new administration and community center was to provide one stop shopping for the residents of Solano County. Previously, 16 departments were scattered over 20 offices and two different cities. This meant that in order to conduct business, a citizen might have to travel all over the county.
“The idea was that the citizenry wouldn’t have to travel all over to accomplish really basic goals,” says Kanon Artiche, Solano County architect. “This way, if someone had a date with the judge, he or she could go to the courthouse; if the person had an appointment with the sheriff after that, he or she would head over to the jail; and if the sheriff sent someone on to probation, that person could go there next. But for anything else, visitors would go to the county administration center.”
Built on the main campus of the Solano County Government Center, the structure would have to be simple and convenient, yet it should convey a sense of elegance. “The driving question behind the construction was ‘how can we be a more effective organization to meet the needs of the public we serve?’” adds Artiche.
The answer came in the form of a six story, 300,000 square foot building that would house everything an average person might need from his or her county government.
“In 1995 and 1996, when we were in the early stages of planning the building, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) was just on the cusp of becoming a major focus in the industry,” says Artiche. “But as we got further into the project, LEED became the norm not only statewide, but nationwide as well. It became evident to us that the responsible and sensitive thing for us to do would be to achieve LEED certification.”
But because the concept of sustainable buildings hadn’t caught on yet, an education process had to occur within the project team and among decision makers at the local level. Artiche continues, “The original design was compatible with LEED, so we pursued it. We discussed it with the builders and concluded that it could be done. Next, we asked if we could meet the qualifications without changing the overall project cost. We could, and the board approved it. The result is the first LEED certified building in Solano County proper.”
The specific systems installed in the building could be considered visionary when taken into account they were planned 10 years ago. “I wanted to stress energy conservation,” says Jason Campbell, facilities operations manager, “and the architect’s office was happy to comply, so we installed a daylight harvesting system.”
The system functions by dimming the overhead lights of the building while the sun’s rays are most intense. This allows natural light into the building, which can increase worker productivity and morale while at the same time reducing the amount of energy consumed. When coupled with motion sensors in conference rooms and private offices the energy savings is even higher.
“We wanted to treat natural light like an amenity,” explains Artiche, “as something that should be shared with as many employees as possible. Over 90% of work stations have direct access to daylight, so employees don’t feel like they are working in a cave.”
Other primary concerns included diverting waste from landfills and specifying products, such as system furniture, that are made with recycled content. [For more on this topic, see “Green Buying Guidelines.”] The newly constructed parking garage even prominently features solar panels that act as a source of shade and provide energy to the campus.
“The motivation came from the highest levels of the county,” says Campbell. “But it surfaced after we suggested it was time for this type of innovation.”
From the beginning, facility management was involved in planning, designing, and purchasing for the center. “From preliminary discussion through project development to the design and construction, facility services were very involved,” says Campbell. “That’s our philosophy here. We get involved in every capital building project from the very beginning. The model works extremely well and gives us an opportunity to have input from the outset.
“For example, one of the things that I really took into consideration was the HVAC system,” he continues. “This building has no central plant. Instead, we have a district plant that now operates the entire campus.”
This meant there would be no boiler room or chiller plant located anywhere inside the building—everything would come from the central cogeneration plant. This design construct freed up space within the building so it could be better used by employees or visitors to the center.
“Going to a district plant approach was an opportunity for us to save energy in the sense that we could have new, more efficient chillers supply each of the buildings in the campus,” adds Campbell. “It allowed us to get rid of some older equipment and maximize efficiency, not to mention giving us more flexibility in the overall design.”
“Unfortunately,” Campbell jokes, “higher gas and energy prices have subsumed the majority of the bottom line savings we would normally see. But we do experience efficiencies in the baseline of our consumption.”
With a specified desire for this somewhat unusual HVAC system from the outset of the design, the plan was adapted to meet the present and future needs of the occupants. By not having to specify space for a boiler room, the design team was able to take into account the long-term life cycle of the building.
“We overbuilt this structure,” says Artiche. “10% of the government center is unoccupied with the idea of having space for future growth. We didn’t want to construct a building that would immediately be at full occupancy and then have to start the process of decentralization again.”
Instituted from the outset of the project and facilitated by close interaction throughout, the cooperation between the architect and facility manager allowed for the goals of one division to dovetail into the other.
Zoned To Perfection
As most facility managers know, filling a building with employees is not a task that should be approached in a haphazard manner. It requires careful planning and deliberation in order to determine which departments go on which floor and how much space should be set aside.
“Each department was conceptualized as a suite,” Campbell says. “Each suite has a maximum zone size of 1,500 square feet, which allows employees to have more control over their space in terms of temperature and comfort.”
The HVAC for the government center was designed to coincide with the way the building would be vertically zoned throughout. This would allow the facility management team and the architect’s design team to work together to make sure the finished product worked for the building staff as well as other employees.
“Facilities are living, breathing animals,” says Artiche. “Each one has a life of its own. You can’t just build a facility and walk away from it. You’ve got to plan a facility in such a way that the organization can be prepared to embrace it, take care of it, and maximize its useful life.”
It was decided that, in addition to breaking each floor down into suites, the floors themselves could serve a dual purpose in the government center.
“We attempted to put all the departments that have the most intensive public functions on the first and second level,” Artiche explains. “This way, members of the public would not have to penetrate the higher levels of the building unless they had specific appointments.”
This design is useful for several reasons. First, instead of having to trek up and down stairs or elevators to find the right department, a person in off the street knows that any business to be conducted will be immediately accessible.
“The kinds of departments on the first and second floors provide service on a drop in basis,” says Artiche. “Then, hierarchically, the visitor would encounter the board of supervisors, county administrators, and county council. The higher up in the building, the more sensitive and less public the office.”
By keeping the more sensitive functions of the county further away from the general population there is less chance of a potentially dangerous or harmful encounter. However, security is always a potential powder keg waiting to explode. And both Campbell and Artiche recognized the fact that placing someone higher up in the building wouldn’t necessarily keep that person safe.
“We do house the district attorney, public defender’s, and tax collector’s offices in this building,” says Campbell. “Each one of those departments needs to be treated differently. The tax collector’s office deals with cash handling, which means surveillance and access to those locations was critical. We installed access control, CCTV, and even some bulletproof glazing where it was necessary.”
But the cooperation between facilities and the designers did not end there, explains Artiche. “We realized that in the future, there may be a need for additional security. Right now, we don’t have a magnetometer in the building, but we designed and built the hook ups in the infrastructure. So, if there is a need at some point, we can just hook one in.”
“We planned for the future,” adds Campbell.
Committing To The Building
Unlike the zoning of the building, which was planned in a bottom up manner, the move into the space was done in exactly the opposite way—top down.
“The move occurred over 31/2 months,” says Artiche. “Normally, a move like this would go from the bottom up, but we started at the top and went down, because the lower levels of the building were still under construction. Even though there was still work being done, the top floors were functioning and filled with county staff. The process actually worked better than I expected, because the contractors literally worked themselves right out of the building as they finished.”
Once the construction staff was out and the county staff was entirely moved in, it was time for both the design and facilities team to sit back and enjoy what they had just finished planning and building.
“Everyone is amazed at what a beautiful building we have,” Campbell says. “We have a courtyard with a reflecting pond, public art, and a fountain in the plaza. But what I like most about the building is the lobby, with its simple, high quality finishes. Marble floors, amazing wall coverings, and the way the overall space flows is somewhat breathtaking—even for a facilities guy.”
“Some Friday afternoons we have weddings or civil ceremonies in the lobby,” says Artiche. “It’s wonderful to see the building in use and have people coming here to make that lifelong commitment in a public space. In the end, a building is about the people who inhabit it.”
The Solano County Government Center is a perfect example of what can happen when two groups commit to one another for the good of the building. Design can mirror function, and function can take advantage of good design. It’s just a matter of coming together.