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PUC Yeah!
After delays, utilities commission breaks ground on SF's most sustainable office building
Delayed for more than a year, the new PUC headquarters has finally broken ground in San Francisco.
Courtesy KMD Architects

Never say never. After a three-year wait, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (PUC) finally broke ground last week on a new headquarters that is on tap to become the city's greenest office building. The $190 million, 13-story project, outfitted with environmental features like rooftop wind turbines and solar panels, is designed to exceed a LEED Platinum rating when it opens in spring 2012. The glass-clad tower is expected to use 32 percent less energy than a typical Class A office building.

the project incorporates extensive green features, including wind turbines and huge solar cells.

“Our intent from the beginning was to create the most energy-efficient office building developed in an urban setting in the United States,” said Ryan Stevens, director of design at KMD Architects in San Francisco, the building designers.

The 270,000 square-foot headquarters will come with a variety of water conservation features like a grey-water wastewater recycling system that will reuse water for the building’s toilets and cooling system. Waterless urinals, faucet sensors and on-demand water heaters are expected to shave water usage from an average of 12 gallons per day to five. Day-lighting features, like sun-filtering shades and window glazing, will be used extensively. A solar chimney, which improves ventilation through air convection, will also be added.

Still, some flashy design features were scrapped for cost and energy efficiency. Out went the line of wind turbines up the building’s northern face and the photovoltaic cells embedded between the windows.

For well over a year, it did not seem like the PUC would get a new headquarters at all. The agency's new general manager, Edward Harrington, balked at the rising price tag when he was hired last summer and put the project on hold. Concern over a ratepayer insurrection—the PUC was spending billions on seismic upgrades—was an added incentive for the delay.

The recession, however, forced agency executives to reconsider their decision. Building materials and labor were cheaper, and falling interest rates made borrowing money easier. Consolidating its 1,000-member staff from two leased buildings into one building would also save money. “The numbers came down to the point where it became economical to build,” said Tyrone Jue, a San Francisco PUC spokesman.

Since 1978, when California voters approved Proposition 13, municipalities have needed a two-thirds vote, instead of a simple majority, to issue bonds. COPs have become the preferred way for cities across the state to put up buildings without voter approval. In September, the agency raised $172 million through the sale of COPs, and is waiting to receive $18 million in federal stimulus funds.

Kristina Shevory