A New California Gold Rush

Aug. 14, 2015
When the Foothill Gold Line Construction Authority was tasked with building a light rail and operations center, it seized on a chance to get LEED Gold certification after seeing more chances to improve sustainability efforts.

When the Foothill Gold Line Construction Authority began planning a new $265 million light rail operations and maintenance facility as part of the Gold Line extension project, leaders knew they wanted to make a model facility.

Plans for the 132,000 square foot, $265 million campus situated on 24 acres in Monrovia, California, was planned to handle 84 light rail cars for service and eventually hold about 200 operations staff once the line gets running in September. Leaders also planned to fit sustainability into the effort by the concept of getting it LEED Silver certified by the U.S. Green Building Council.

But as plans proceeded, authority leaders found themselves in a predicament and they had to ask themselves a crucial question: Were they doing all we can to meet sustainability goals?    

“Once we got underway and after getting everything out the door from the procurement, we felt good about the budget and were fortunate to have contractors with an aggressive schedule, so we were able to take a deep breath and look at what that maintenance facility was and look for opportunities,” said Habib Balian, CEO of the authority.  “What we once imagined as silver certification could be gold, so that’s what we started looking at.

“Why settle for silver? That sounded like a great aspirational goal, but we took a deep breath and decided why not challenge the designers and engineers on that facility and look at things included in that $265 million piece of the [Gold Line Extension] project.”

After years of planning and work on the facility, the operations campus was dedicated on May 23, and the authority had hit LEED Gold certification. It’s handing a facility to the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro), which will use 35 percent less water and 32.5 percent less electricity than buildings of the same type.

Not Your Normal LEED Facility

The facility was constructed as part of a design-build joint venture contract between Kiewit Corp. and Parsons Corp. After an initial design was set, Parsons planners and engineers refined the plans to meet sustainability goals along with optimizing operational use.

Roland Genick, chief architect of rail and transit systems for Parsons, said the required LEED Silver certification set forth by the authority made planners and engineers look at different points of the operations center to identify for sustainability efforts. However, given it’s a train facility, it meant they had to get creative with their designs.

“We kept making design adjustments and we did do fairly well because we were being aggressive on the points we pursuing just because we wanted to have some additional buffer because we were not quite sure how we were going to be evaluated,” he said. “We had to be a little creative and aim high as far as silver points were concerned and I think we were motivated from that to be gold when they saw our scorecards.”

Adjustments can be made to an operations center given it’s much like a typical office facility, but the actual area where trains were set created more challenges on meeting USGBC goals.

“Open spaces,” said Carmen Cham, senior architect for Parsons when asked about the challenges. “With the optimized energy credits, we felt a lot of the categories and the energy model they’re using, they’re not use to this type of building. A lot of open spaces aren’t efficient, but we took advantage where we could.

“For example, we took advantage of this to provide lots of daylighting with special skylighting. We opened it up a lot to natural daylighting with south facing windows and skylights on the roof.”

Genick said they also had to establish a boundary for consideration on the LEED Gold certification because it’s a 24 acre campus. A boundary allowed planners to determine what credits would count towards LEED certification and what points may hurt it.

“We resubmitted it twice in terms of eventually agreeing on the site boundary,” he said. “They had to acknowledge you can’t just evaluate it the same way as a standard operations building through the standard process and evaluating it in a standardized way. They were pretty good at acknowledging there were some pretty unique circumstances.”

Balian said the project had a good budget and was making good pace on completion, but when the engineers determined there was a chance to get LEED Gold certification, it was a good time to talk with Parsons and Kiewit about it. 

“It’s not like an office building or a school or a hospital. It’s a little bit different of a facility” said Chris Burner, chief project officer for the authority. “It certainly has office spaces, but it also has shops and areas where maintenance of light rail vehicles occurs, so that was a little bit of a challenge.” 

Burner said during the design build process, his staff came to him to alert the potential of getting LEED Gold certification, so they kept the conversation going to see how plausible the idea was.

“I know it was something Habib and the board wanted to achieve, so we talked to my staff about what we needed to do to ensure we get it,” he said.

Getting the certification to Gold didn’t have any issues on the contractual side of the project either.

“Everybody wanted to do it and that’s sort of the unique setup,” Genick said. “Often times when you’re in a conceptual design-build somebody just wants to get it done. But, we had something high end to showcase that the authority wanted to get credit for being LEED Gold, so you have three motivated parties who all wanted to see this completed.”

A Solar Solution

When the project was first envisioned, solar panels were never part of serious consideration despite the facility’s location in southern California.

The authority was putting together the design-build procurement in 2009, Balian said, so solar didn’t make initial consideration at the time because it wasn’t part of Metro’s plans and it was something the authority thought was not reliable enough to be used on such a scale. From 2009-2014, the project still had the resources and it was going well, so when told it wasn’t too late to take advantage of more chances to go for LEED Gold and add solar panels, especially seeing how the technology evolved in five years, authority leaders pounced on the opportunity.

“We all scoffed at solar at first. It had not been around that long and it cycled in opportunities in the 90’s, but for an agency building, it wasn’t part of Metro spec, so why take a chance on solar,” Balian said. “But here we were, in a time when solar got bigger and bigger.”

Genick said there were also financial constraints on going for gold certification because Parsons-Kiewit was given a lump sum design build project. Some plans had to be discarded due to that, but it did push for the addition of the photovoltaic canopy system.

When the decision was made to add solar panels, Cham said it wasn’t disruptive because the project was far enough along that retrofits weren’t needed.

“It was clear that the building in it of itself would not get to gold initially, “Genick said. “It was a political decision to push the limits to go for the higher rating.”

The addition of solar panels made up for shortfalls in the physical building’s sustainability because Genick said you can get more LEED points by adding to the size of onsite alternative energy production.

“So, once the decision was made to go for LEED Gold it wasn’t a risky decision because we wanted to make sure we absolutely get there,” he said.

Cham and Genick said they had considered solar canopies over the parking area and the main roof of the facility, but they were determined to not be part of the facility.

“They really wanted to showcase it was worth going for and after we did our studies and determined it could be done without impacting the schedule it was a no-brainer,” Cham said.

The solar canopy did push LEED Gold status on the facility, but Balian said there were some concerns about what it could do to the look of the campus.

“We didn’t want it to look like weird cables all over the place and we didn’t want it to look like an afterthought. We wanted it to look good,” Balian said. It’s very visible from the 210 where you can look down into this large campus, so they assured us when the design work went to the board that it was basically the right time to do something like this and a good enhancement to the structure.” 

Burner said the panels were able to fit in the budget and ended up looking nice, using a slightly translucent material so people can partially see through them when the sun is out. The authority was also pleased it didn’t mess with the schedule.

“It went pretty smoothly. It’s a triangle shaped canopy, not like a flat roof,” Burner said. “I was concerned on how they were going to be able to build it, how it was going to flow and look contiguous, not sort of pieced together, but the way they installed the panels, it looks good, it look contiguous, not uneven or disjointed at all.

“It was built pretty fast too.”

A Creative Look at Train Operations

Genick said once the decision was made to go for gold certification and the construction authority was on board, planners had to reach out to Metro because it will be the final owner-operator of the facility.

“The current owner was an agency who delivers the project but doesn’t stand to gain from the benefits from the savings, so there were some very unique constraints on some of the sustainable features,” Genick said.

“And it’s a highly unusual building per say and for LEED certification, even more so,” he added.

Because of the large amount of ballast used at rail yards, Cham said designers also used it to provide a quality stormwater system and storage.

Balian said the city of Monrovia was looking at storm water issues in the community, so the authority took the time to look at its own system. Parsons came up with a storm water waste management system underground which collects and treats the water.

“It wasn’t a requirement, it wasn’t a mandate, but the city was interested, so why not look at it when you have all this surface area on-site to collect on-site and clean it before it goes into the aquifer,” Balian said. “It was a $1 million change to the project and not something Metro required, but we thought it was a good investment.”

LED lights were also used around the facility given a rail yard is a 24 hour facility, so it lowered the potential use of power. Materials like rails in the yard were also salvage to bump up points.

Cham said electrical designers were also challenged to meet optimized energy consumption and use while still meeting a standard amount of foot candles of light needed for a rail facility.

“Metro requires redundancy for HVAC is rooms with very, very vital equipment for train controls,” Cham said. “That redundancy needed to be included and that needed to be explained to USGBC on what these things exchanged.”

Given rail operations and maintenance is an extremely male dominated industry, Genick said designers took advantage of the workforce demographic in order to take advantage of water consumption.

“There were also some indirect ways it was made more sustainable through efforts not directly tied to LEED,” Cham said. “There was an initial preliminary design when we took it over and when we were trying to play around with the layout and the materials and the overall shape of the building to make it a more efficient layout, it had the double benefit of reducing costs and the amount of materials that were originally planned for the building, so it created a lower overall impact of the building.”

“All the things you could do: the irrigation system, all the bathroom facilities, the state-of-the-art monitoring sensors in the bathrooms and hallways of the facility, now small grid areas that monitor what’s going on with power usage are all available now in the operations building,” Balian said. “This is unheard of in a maintenance shop of a railroad year, but we included them again because it was something that occurred to us before it wasn’t too late.” 

Genick said USGBC standards used in a similar project can be a good tool to use, but you need to look in a holistic manner to perform more suitably in areas it can to overcome issues. 

“I think that any facility that doesn’t fit the model of USGBC requirements needs a lot more thought to fit those standards,” he said.

Burner suggested consideration of such a project early in the design of a facility. The authority didn’t bring in a LEED consultant, but he said it may help in evaluating better options to maximize LEED level or points.

“We didn’t do that, so we were really relying on the design-builder,” Burner said. “They did a good job and they really helped us get to the gold level, but we were early in the process and able to change thing and make things happen in the planning phase to stretch to that goal. Maybe if we had a LEED consultant come in in advance to the development, they could have done some sort of exhaustive evaluation of the potential ideas in order to achieve the strategic goal.”

“Take the time to plan it out and don’t be afraid to be bold with your goals and think it through and plan it out,” Burner added. “You can achieve some pretty lofty things if you set bold goals for yourself and do the planning necessary to make it happen.”

About the Author

Joe Petrie | Associate Editor

I came to Mass Transit in 2013 after spending seven years on the daily newsbeat in southeastern Wisconsin.

Based in Milwaukee, I worked as a daily newspaper reporter with the Waukesha Freeman from 2006-2011, where I covered education, county and state government. I went on to cover courts for Patch.com, where I was the main courts reporter in the Metro Milwaukee cluster of websites.

I’ve won multiple awards during the course of my career and have covered some of the biggest political events in the past decade and have appeared on national programs.

Having covered local government and social issues, I discovered the importance of transit and the impact it can have on communities when implemented, supported and funded.   


Parsons Corp.

July 22, 2009