Shared infrastructure

Mar 12, 2018

To save scarce resources, provide enhanced services, and reduce costs, the trend is to look at multiples of buildings as a district with common utilities.

The emphasis on water and energy conservation and enhanced security is changing how developers, investors, municipalities, and tenants are looking at new development. Shared infrastructure is the prudent way to go for all, including the planet.

For many years, unless those in our industries controlled a large, multi-building parcel (and even sometimes then), each building was designed with stand-alone utilities. Today, to save scarce resources, provide enhanced services, and reduce costs, the trend is to look at multiples of buildings as a district, where shared infrastructure supports the entire area.

This approach is not new. Typically, shared infrastructure is part of college, medical, and large industrial campuses and, occasionally, for multiple-building office parks.

I started down this path of shared infrastructure in Orange County, California, in the mid-‘80s on a handful of multi-building office complexes. The execution then was simple, but the objectives are the same as today. On one project, we put the chillers, boilers, and cooling towers along the parking structure to achieve efficiency in operation and allow better access for servicing the equipment. More than one building could utilize the ground-level heating and cooling equipment rather than depending on individual rooftop equipment and the attendant servicing costs.

On a more advanced project, we installed sun shades around four buildings to reduce heat gain and had one set of chillers and boilers in a central plant. Those shared resources could be staged into operation to accommodate demand, without having to run all of them all of the time. This was done at the time the local utility company had dramatically increased peak hour rates. We installed large tanks under the central plant filled with slurry that allowed us to chill the medium in the tanks at night when rates were low, and then use that in the chillers during the day when rates were high.

In addition, we used a raised floor in the office spaces which allowed air to be delivered from under the floor at a higher temperature and at lower fan speeds than if the air was delivered through ceiling diffusers, which often caused drafts on office workers. If you’ve ever been in an office and noticed a piece of cardboard taped over a diffuser, or a space heater under a desk to keep someone’s feet warm, you’ll appreciate the advantage of this approach.

Additional benefits included no discoloration around the diffusers, since air was delivered from under the floor without recirculating with room air that had dust particles and germs mixed in. It also gave us the opportunity to reconfigure wiring without drilling holes in the slab. With most of the ductwork eliminated, the floor-to-floor height was the same as a normal office where space for duct work, sprinkler pipes, and light fixtures have to be planned above the acoustic tile ceiling. Finally, since this client reconfigured their offices frequently, and the floor and ceiling were laser-level, we were able to use demountable partitions.

When offices had to be reconfigured, sheet-rockers, taping, and sanding were not necessary, providing a much cleaner and more pleasant work environment. Since it was such an unusual approach at the time, we monitored the project over the next 10 years. During that time, there were no air quality complaints and absenteeism due to colds and flu was reduced. The approach proved to yield a much healthier environment, and the project was awarded the energy company’s Sustainable Building of the Year award.

Today, we’ve designed the shared infrastructure approach into plans for the West 2nd District in Reno, Nevada. We’ll have a central plant for 30 buildings. There will be no equipment on the rooftops, so there will be a dramatic decrease in maintenance cost and a projected savings of 36 percent in energy use. Plus, we can use the rooftops for something much more attractive than mechanical equipment.

In addition, a waste water treatment plant for the entire district will reduce the district’s water use by approximately 50 percent. That’s critical in Reno because of its high-desert climate. We’ll be able to recycle our water for irrigation, cooling towers, and toilet flushing. As global warming continues and water becomes increasingly scarce, this approach will become increasingly important. We will produce more recycled water than we’ll use, so, as autonomous vehicles begin to decrease parking demand, we’ll be able to grow our own fruits and vegetables in hydroponic gardens in what had formerly been parking floors.

Many more centralized functions are planned, including security systems for the entire project connected directly to first responders – fire, police, emergency, and medical services. This will make our district much more secure. I’ll continue to elaborate on these systems, and the results we obtain, as the project moves forward.

Ed Friedrichs, FAIA, FIIDA, is the former CEO and president of Gensler. Contact him at

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