2011 Best Real Estate Projects: California ISO Headquarters & Operations Center

June 15, 2011

From the July 15, 2011 issue of
Sacramento Business Journal.

By Robert Celaschi

We’re introducing you to the Best Real Estate Projects of the Year. This is the special Judge’s Choice project.

For pure “wow factor,” it’s hard to beat the control room at the Folsom headquarters of the California Independent System Operator.

The ISO manages California’s grid for high-voltage power, and its control room features a dazzling 80-foot-wide wall of flat-panel monitors displaying all sorts of data. Operators can track weather, fires and dozens of other factors that affect electricity demand and production throughout the state.

“It is probably the most modernized control center in North America,” said Cal ISO spokeswoman Stephanie McCorkle.

At any one time, the board displays — with a dizzying array of numbers and graphics — current electricity demand throughout the state, the day’s peak demand thus far, forecasted peak demand, up-to-the-minute wind and solar generation and much more. ISO provides a link between power generators and utilities that serve more than 30 million customers.

The nonprofit Cal ISO joined with Google and Space-Time Insight in Fremont to develop the system. One day soon after moving into the new building, Cal ISO was able to track cloud formations and anticipate a drop of 200 megawatts of solar power in the coming hour. It then went to the open market for electricity and lined up the cheapest replacement available without missing a beat.

“What we’ve done is build a series of applications called situational intelligence,” said Steve Erlich, vice president of marketing for Space-Time Insight. In Cal ISO’s old headquarters, operators could look at only one piece of information at a time. With the new bank of screens, data from multiple sources can be fed to the viewing screens nearly in real time.

“Cal ISO was really one of the pioneers in situational intelligence like this,” Erlich said. “The control room and applications are certainly a model for the rest of the industry.

But the control room is not the only aspect of the headquarters to impress the Real Estate Projects judges. It fills only one of the building’s three wings. The other two contain administrative offices and public meeting space.

The administration wing, with room for more than 600 employees, features a long, narrow design with lots of glass.

“They wanted to have every one of their employees no farther than 40 feet from a window,” said judge Tom Bacci. “In a lot of buildings, you get so deep you are 80 or 90 feet from a window and you’ll never see it.”

Managers and directors have moved from corner offices in the old building to cubicles out on the main floor of the new one, eliminating interior walls that might block light.

“We’re making use of natural lighting. We’re kind of bringing the outdoors in, which makes for a healthier environment,” McCorkle said. “And, of course, having access to your colleagues creates a more collaborative structure.”

One of the main reasons for the new building was security. The Office of Homeland Security had criticized Cal ISO’s old leased space as vulnerable. There wasn’t even enough room for the required 150 foot buffer between the control room and the nearest road.

“The site was all about protection, yet it doesn’t feel like a bunker. It feels very approachable,” said judge Naaz Alikhan.

As one might expect from an agency whose entire reason for existence is managing electricity, the Cal ISO headquarters is highly energy efficient. It has 750 kilowatts of solar panels on-site, some of which provide shade in the parking lot. Ducts are under the floors, so heating and cooling can be controlled at individual workstations.

Overall electricity use is down by about 72 percent per square foot from the old leased space. Water use was cut by 30 percent, and all the landscape irrigation comes from gray water on-site. There’s even a garden where employees can grow their own vegetables and an inviting cafeteria to keep workers out of their cars.

The building is aiming for LEED Platinum certification.

“Any time I hear of a project striving for that, it’s pretty impressive,” said judge Dan Fenocchio. He noted that the office portion includes a lot of pre-cast concrete. That extra mass is good for keeping temperatures stable.

The new site was not the most accommodating, said Gus Fischer, partner and project manager at Dreyfuss + Blackford Architecture. It was once used to process aggregate. That meant lots of bumps on a site that already had a deep slope. There were large, old oak trees to preserve as well.

“Fitting the buildings onto the site and preserving the oak trees was a challenge,” he said.

Nonetheless, the project was completed on time — in just 17 months — and $11 million under its total budget of $148 million, which included moving expenses, furniture and equipment.

The architecture is meant to reflect the technology inside: clean and modern. But workers never lose sight of the world outside, thanks to the windows. Even operators in the control room have a view.

“They hit pretty much every point that they could for creating a friendly working environment for the employees,” said judge Heath Smalley.

And because of the size of the organization and what it does for California, keeping the Cal ISO in Folsom has had a huge impact on the community.

Fast Facts

What: Cal ISO literally keeps the lights on for California, regulating the flow of electricity throughout the state. The new headquarters replaces leased space elsewhere in Folsom.

Cal ISO, Clark Design-Build of California, Dreyfuss + Blackford Architecture, Buehler & Buehler Structural Engineers Inc.

Opened January 2011 Where: Folsom, California Why: Cal ISO had been operating from leased space in Folsom since 1997. The space was considered inadequate even 10 years ago. Cal ISO bought the new 30-acre site in 2000 but in the interim had to deal with rolling blackouts and a chaotic power market. How: The project began with a design/build competition in October 2008. It was completed under the original budget and three months ahead of schedule.Cost: Total cost $148 million; construction cost only, $115 million

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