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Building Brings State-of-Art Touches to Sustainability Efforts

It’s one thing to incorporate sustainable elements into a building to conserve energy. It’s quite another when a new office produces at least as much energy as it uses, creating “net-zero” energy usage.

That’s the case with Tower Two at the La Jolla Commons in University Town Center that was completed in November for sole tenant, LPL Financial, and occupied in March.

Both developer Hines and LPL hailed the 13-story glass structure at the dedication as the largest carbon-neutral commercial office building in the nation.

“As far as we can tell, it’s the largest one of its kind,” said Paul Twardowski, Hines senior managing director of the tower that encompasses 415,000 square feet.

For LPL, the project was already a winner before including all the energy saving components. Prior to the move, its 1,600 employees were spread out at seven nearby locations so consolidating operations was a huge plus for the financial services firm. But LPL saw the chance to create a truly employee-centric work environment while making a statement about the company’s green credentials.

“We saw designing this state of the art building as core to enhancing the productivity, capabilities and well-being of our employees, which in turn allows us to better serve our clients,” said Mark Casady, LPL’s chairman and CEO.

LPL Financial, headquartered in Boston, is the nation’s largest independent broker dealer, and its clients are stock brokers who use LPL’s back-office services.

As do many offices these days, Tower Two includes a few amenities that many workers have come to expect such as a cafeteria and fitness center. This building has wellness rooms on each of its floors.

More commercial buildings in recent years are using LED lighting to cut down on energy use. Tower Two has LEDs throughout, and feature automatic dimming capability when sufficient natural light is available, as well as sensors that turn off lights in unoccupied rooms.

There’s low-flow toilets of course, but 88 percent of the water in the building is recycled, and used to irrigate its drought-resistant landscaping, and for its heating and cooling systems.

A crowning green feature is the building’s three fuel cells that convert natural and methane gas into electricity. Besides using regular natural gas, the system uses biogas created from nearby landfills and sewage treatment plants.

The biogas produced during biological decomposition is captured, condensed and cleaned before it’s delivered into the same pipes carrying natural gas, and converted to electricity by the fuel cells.

According to LPL, the three fuel cells, designed and manufactured by Bloom Energy, have an annual capacity of 500 kilowatts, and generate 4.3 million kilowatt hours a year — enough to power 750 homes. But the building is projected to use 2.9 million kilowatts annually, meaning there’s a surplus of 1.4 million kilowatts that LPL is kicking back to the power grid operated by San Diego Gas & Electric Co.

While LPL obtained federal and state subsidies on its electric bills, the company further cut its costs by returning the excess energy it produces to the utility company, Twardowski said.

Yet it cannot earn a profit on those excess kilowatts, he said. “We can only take the meter back to zero, under the current rules.”

Still, the improvements to the building are such that LPL will save an estimated $300,000 annually in electricity expenses.

The building designed by AECOM, and constructed by Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. cost at least $187 million, based on a low range of replacement costs of $450 per square foot, Twardowski said.

Among the improvements that have resonated most with LPL employees is the below-floor air distribution system that allows workers to adjust work space temperatures to their liking. Instead of a HVAC system located above the ceiling, the air flow was designed to come from beneath the floor, another electrical cost-saving feature.

Other features are the employees’ desks that can be adjusted to any height, and plenty of break spaces with comfy furniture, all aimed at creating the optimal environment for productivity.

Lauren Hohenstein, an LPL analyst, said the building supports a healthy work/ life balance and an active lifestyle. A regular bicycle commuter, Hohenstein said she uses the building’s bike lockers, shower facilities and the fitness center.

“Also, it’s great having a cafeteria that allows for healthy food choices instead of resorting to vending machine visits when I don’t have time to pack a lunch.”

A few other green features of the building are the heavy use of recycled content materials used in construction; use of biodegradable utensils and supplies in the cafeteria; and electrical recharging stations for electric or hybrid cars. LPL also advocates sustainable programs such as carpooling and recycling.

Twardowski said Houston-based Hines is looking at incorporating even more advanced energy-saving features into its plans for its third tower office at La Jolla Commons, including glass panes that can adjust to the intensity of outside light, and inserting photo-voltaic cells within the glass that can collect the sun’s energy and be stored.

The LPL building is seeking LEED Platinum certification; the first tower, completed in 2008, was certified as Gold level by LEED.

All the cutting-edge improvements in Tower Two are geared to making employees feel better about the time they’re spending at their jobs, good for both the workers and employers, Twardowski said.

“Everybody is spending more time at the office and there’s recognition that people who are happier at their offices are more productive at their jobs,” he said.

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