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Exterior shot of the main entrance to CARB
The main/visitor entrance of the California Air Resources Board Southern California Headquarters, Mary D. Nichols Campus, in Riverside, CA.
Credit: Connie Zhou

Sustainable Lab Facility Works to Make Cleaner Cars

CARB headquarters incorporates energy-saving strategies in a semi-arid climate

MaryBeth DiDonna

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) is responsible for protecting the public from the harmful effects of air pollution, as well as developing programs and actions to battle climate change. Founded in 1967, CARB establishes state air quality regulations that address all major sources of smog-forming air pollution and sets requirements for clean cars and fuels. CARB is currently working to help California reach its 2030 target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions an additional 40 percent below 1990 levels; the state’s ultimate goal is to reduce greenhouse gases 80 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2050. CARB’s efforts are not just limited to the state of California—for example, in 2015, CARB technicians were responsible for exposing Volkswagen’s use of defeat devices in their light-duty diesel engines. 

CARB’s new headquarters was a decade in the making—not only to replace its outdated Haagen-Smit Laboratory in El Monte, but to consolidate the organization's five separate facilities under one roof. Additionally, CARB wanted to develop a “remarkably sustainable research facility” that would set a new standard for reductions in energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, improve the performance and efficiency of operations, and offer a healthy workplace for the organization’s nearly 500 employees. The three new types of labs in the Riverside headquarters (fuels analysis laboratory, general chemistry and greenhouse gas laboratory, and aerosol analysis laboratory) were designed with expanded capabilities to support CARB’s transition to zero or near-zero emissions technology. At 402,000 square feet, it is the largest Zero Net Energy facility in the US—an especially remarkable feat in Riverside’s semi-arid climate.

Image of testing control desks in CARB
Testing control desks allow technicians to operate light-duty testing machinery from the atrium.
Credit: Connie Zhou

For designing the largest and most advanced vehicle emissions testing and research facility in the world,  Lab Manager has awarded ZGF with the Excellence in Sustainability prize in the 2022 Design Excellence Awards. ZGF served as the architect for the CARB Southern California Headquarters, Mary D. Nichols Campus, in Riverside, CA.

Visualizing the goals

The CARB headquarters requires enormous energy loads to conduct vehicular and laboratory testing, so the design team utilized both active and passive strategies to reduce energy demands while increasing onsite energy production. CARB is also the largest true net-zero energy facility of its type, producing more energy than it uses. The facility exceeds Title 24 requirements by 30 percent and lowers energy cost savings by 75 percent—a reduction in cost that will lead to 100 percent payback for the solar array system in a little under 10 years. The result is the largest and most advanced vehicle emissions testing and research facility in the world. The project is designed to achieve LEED Platinum and meets all CalGreen Tier 2 building standards. 

The design plan for the facility was driven by three key concepts, says Gary Cabo, principal with ZGF. “The first is to simply accommodate the function of their work. Because this project consolidated CARB’s five previous locations under one roof, ample consideration was given to how to centralize each research department and reorganize them in ways that provide enough space and are conducive to efficient workflows,” he says. “The second design driver, which represents one of CARB’s core values, is to provide a safer work environment. Highly flammable fuels and gasses of all types are used in CARB’s testing and research practices, so layering spaces and designing bench configurations that minimize risk was essential.”

CARB aspired to create a facility that would support their continued production of the innovative, clean air solutions for which they are known—for both today and for years to come.

The third mission-driven concept is providing heightened transparency. “Each lab space features expansive windows that span their lengths, allowing natural light to flow in from the exterior facing windows and clear lines of sight both looking out and in from the interior facing windows,”  says Cabo. “The benefits from this design strategy are three-fold: natural light provides CARB researchers with circadian and biophilic wellness benefits that lend themselves to healthier sleep-wake cycles and enhanced mood and productivity; heightened visibility contributes to safety because hazards or incidents can be spotted without entering the lab space; and this level transparency puts CARB’s research on display for educational touring purposes and to connect employees across campus to the research.”

Energy-saving strategies

The CARB facility incorporates many specific energy reduction strategies to achieve net zero. Hybrid coolers are used in conjunction with an elevated 57°F chilled water temperature to reduce the estimated energy consumption of the facility by approximately eight percent. Continuous indoor air monitoring maximizes ventilation efficiency and energy reduction. The air is humidified without using steam or an additional heat source, reducing energy consumption, and the hydronic air-cooling system uses less air to reduce energy requirements and overall operating costs. Occupancy-based sensors integrated into the chemistry lab fume hoods reduce energy demands.

Daylighting initiatives include skylights to increase interior daylighting and motorized interior shades to reduce glare. The interiors of the building incorporate all LED lighting, task-ambient lighting, daylight harvesting control, and dual lighting/HVAC occupancy sensors. The parking site uses high-efficiency LEDs and provides 118 EV charging stalls with the ability to expand to a total of 149 EV parking stalls. Exterior louvers integrated into the southeast and west facades reduce solar heating and glare.

Image of scientists sitting at benches in the chemistry and greenhouse gas lab
The general chemistry and greenhouse gas laboratory.
Credit: Connie Zhou

“The dry and often hot climate of Riverside presented a unique opportunity for us to rethink our cooling strategy and in turn save a significant amount of energy,” says Paul Erickson, principal with Affiliated Engineers, Inc., which was the MEP engineer for the project. “The chilled beams planned for the office areas use a warmer chilled water, so the project was always planning for a 57°F secondary chilled water loop. However, when considering how little dehumidification was needed throughout the year for the office, lab, and test air handling units, which is usually accomplished using 42°F chilled water, we determined that we could expand the capacity of the secondary loop to serve a much larger portion of the building cooling needs.”

“The preheat coils were upsized a bit and valved in a way to allow for using the 57°F chilled water during cooling mode,” says Erickson. “The main chilled water coils (DX coils in the office DOAS units) are then used when any dehumidification of the outside air is required. In taking this approach, the majority of the chillers were selected for producing 57°F, which is more efficient than for 42°F chilled water. Additionally, in producing the warmer chilled water, the number of hours per year when this was possible directly at the cooling tower (fluid cooler) rather than needing to operate the chillers went up from 18 percent of the year to 61 percent.”

Overcoming challenges and looking to the future

Staying on budget was especially crucial for this project since it was paid for by the state of California using taxpayer dollars. “Beyond designing an energy intensive building to operate with net zero energy, which was a monumental challenge in and of itself, the team was also challenged to reach client goals and deliver a beautiful, cutting-edge vehicular testing facility and workplace while staying within a strict budget,” says Shara Castillo, principal with ZGF. “The design team strived to design a campus that would meet employees’ differing needs, desires, and ways of working and one that was respectful to their existing cultures while delivering a new, connected, productive workplace conducive to cross-departmental collaboration and innovation.”

Heavy-duty testing cell with a semi truck parked at the entrance
A heavy-duty testing cell in the CARB facility.
Credit: Connie Zhou

Designing the largest onsite net zero energy building in the country while staying within the Department of General Services and CARB’s schedule and budget requirements is a special accomplishment for Castillo. “I’m most proud of this because we were tasked with designing a net zero energy building for which there was no existing benchmark and for a client who wanted to ensure that even with the evolved equipment and testing practices in the future, the facility would still operate as net zero energy. Designing this project with layers of ambiguity challenged us to design backwards to reach net zero,” she says. 

CARB’s testing programs and research capabilities are constantly evolving, so the Riverside headquarters was designed to offer the most up-to-date features while still being flexible enough to change in the future, if needed. 

“CARB’s goals prioritized a design that would not only upgrade and consolidate their testing facilities to meet evolving research needs, but one that is built to accommodate future vehicle technologies,” says Castillo. “In prioritizing these elements, CARB aspired to create a facility that would support their continued production of the innovative clean air solutions for which they are known—for both today and for years to come.”