Art & Desgin

Inside California’s stunning new testing facility for auto pollution

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) burns a lot of fuel. As the air pollution rule maker and regulator for the state, with the most stringent emissions standards in the U.S., the agency is charged with making sure vehicles comply. It also researches how those standards can be brought even lower. To do so, the agency runs the engines of lots of vehicles.

[Photo: Connie Zhou/courtesy ZGF]

So it’s both on-brand and a bit surprising that CARB’s new gas-guzzling test facility and headquarters in Riverside is also aiming to be one of the greenest buildings in the country. Designed by ZGF Architects, the building is expected to be certified a net-zero energy user and a net-zero carbon emitter—meaning it produces more energy than it uses and offsets all the CO2 it emits. Now open, the facility also exceeds the state’s green building standards and has achieved the highest LEED green building certification.

[Photo: Connie Zhou/courtesy ZGF]

“A lot of people are going to want to come just to see how we did that,” says Annette Hebert, CARB’s deputy executive officer.

The Riverside headquarters, a 400,000-square-foot cluster of labs and offices on 18 acres, uses a variety of systems to offset the energy required to handle its testing and compliance enforcement on vehicles ranging from jet skis and lawn mowers to cars and big rigs. Shara Castillo, one of the lead designers at ZGF, says the facility’s green goals were challenging to achieve, but that the project proves they’re possible, even in such an energy-intensive building.

[Photo: Connie Zhou/courtesy ZGF]

“Getting to net zero energy isn’t like all the architects and engineers get together, and there’s this brilliant idea, and ta-da we’re net zero energy! It’s a lot of little things, just ticking away at the energy performance of the building to make sure use is going down, down, and down,” she says. The building uses super-efficient LED lighting and systems to only turn them on when natural daylight dips below a certain threshold. The structures themselves help reduce energy use, with taller buildings placed to shade smaller ones, and spaces not needing windows, like storage areas, placed on the sunniest side of the campus.

[Photo: Connie Zhou/courtesy ZGF]

By centralizing 450 employees who had been dispersed in buildings around southern California, the new headquarters is also an attempt to redefine how the agency functions. “Being in different buildings, there wasn’t a lot of convening space where engineers and scientists and technicians could come together and have a chat. We had conference rooms, but they were always booked,” Hebert says. Now, testing technicians and chemists and enforcement officers can all overlap in their day-to-day operations.

[Photo: Connie Zhou/courtesy ZGF]

Part of the building has been specifically designed to enable this interaction, with a large atrium where offices look out on test bays, and desk workers can peer through large windows alongside engineers to see big rigs and passenger vehicles being put to the test. “People who are typically in the heavy-duty vehicle testing facility have the ability to causally collide with somebody that focuses on light-duty [vehicles] or analytical chemistry or alternate fuel. That campus idea was a significant part of the culture that CARB wanted to build,” Castillo says. “There’s a piece of this facility that’s incredibly industrial, and then there’s a piece that’s normal office work environments. And that blurred line is one of the most challenging and interesting parts of this project.”

[Photo: Connie Zhou/courtesy ZGF]

The facility is also a huge upgrade from CARB’s previous test facility in El Monte, which Hebert says was jam-packed with equipment and unable to keep up with demand from manufacturers hoping to get their vehicles tested and approved for sale in the immense California market. “There was one little garage where we would outfit trucks with monitoring devices,” she says. “We had to turn away clients because of the limitations at our old facility.” Workers often had to stand outside in the sun when installing testing devices because there wasn’t space inside the building.

That’s not to say CARB was unable to do its work. Famously, in 2015 the agency found that the automaker Volkswagen had deliberately installed devices in diesel vehicles to cheat during emissions testing—a scandal that led to multi-billion dollar fines, settlements, and class action lawsuits.

[Photo: Connie Zhou/courtesy ZGF]

Hebert says the agency can’t let up. With the industry changing, the new facility had to be designed not only for traditional internal combustion engines but also a growing variety of new and emerging technologies, from zero-emissions vehicles to battery-fuel cells. New tests will have to be able to track the durability of electric motors and ensure battery life ratings are accurate.

“The facility had to be designed in such a way to accommodate the data they’re gathering today but flexible enough to be able to accommodate unexpected turns in this industry,” Castillo says.

[Photo: Connie Zhou/courtesy ZGF]

The facility will also continue its traditional testing and research, with new capacity to analyze heavy duty vehicles like big rigs and off-road vehicles. “In the heavy-duty realm, obviously pure zero-emission vehicles are quite a ways off,” Hebert says. “We’re going to have internal combustion engines for many years to come. And then once they get on the roads, they stay on the roads for 20 or 30 years.”

CARB is also looking ahead to when those vehicles will age out. Along the walkway leading up to the main entrance of the headquarters is a large sculpture, which makes that clear to vehicle makers and the public alike. It’s a series of gas station pumps that appear to be petrified—fossils of an infrastructure CARB hopes will soon become a thing of the past.

For now, though, CARB will continue to keep an eye on the gas-guzzlers and climate change culprits. Hebert says the new facility will enable its scientists and engineers to keep an even closer watch on an industry that’s proven to have some bad actors.

[Photo: Connie Zhou/courtesy ZGF]

“I’m sad to say even after VW, we’ve had two other big light-duty cases. We’re working on some other ones now that I can’t mention. I’m a little surprised. I think maybe companies think we’re not going to look deep enough,” Hebert says.

The new facility, she says, will enable CARB’s researchers and scientists to continue to push emissions standards to stricter levels, and help ensure that any manufacturer breaking the rules—either unintentionally or on purpose—will be found out. “They should all be aware that after VW, we’re not messing around,” she says. “We have the capability to do it, we have the smart engineers to do it, and we’re going to uncover it.”

Fast Company – co-design

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