Green Per Square Foot

IREM Sustainability Brief – Transamerica Pyramid August 27th, 2014


The Transamerica Pyramid is the most iconic building in San Francisco. In 2009, the 48-story skyscraper invested in a Co-Generation (Co-Gen) plant; a heat and electricity generation system as futuristic as the building’s architecture. Although the project was a bit pricey, $4 million up front, the project has already paid for itself. We spoke to the Pyramid’s General Manager, Cushman & Wakefield’s Philip Rapoport, about the Co-Generation project. 

What prompted the Co-Generation project?

First and foremost, we are fortunate that our building owner, Aegon, is committed to sustainability and efficiency. The main driver was the desire to produce electricity. After evaluating the financials and completing a significant design/engineering period, it was finally implemented and fully operational in 2009. The system is a 1 Megawatt (MW) plant with two 500kW Waukesha B-12 engines, meeting up to 70% of the building’s electric needs and saving us $700k-$800k, annually in utility costs.  Since we were previously on a steam system to heat the building we’re able to save $400K-$500K in heating costs out of the total $700k-$800k annual savings.

Why Co-Gen vs. an alternate technology such as a fuel cell or solar?

The decision was primarily climate and cost driven.  Solar didn’t make sense for our downtown building, and both solar and fuel cells were more costly and required a larger footprint for the equipment.  With our Co-Gen system, we can also produce both hot and chilled water, in addition to generating electricity.    The Co-Gen system powers our absorption chillers to provide chilled water, and heat exchangers to heat the building and provide domestic hot water.

What are the daily operations for maintaining a Co-Gen system?

Think of a Co-Gen system, like a car – it needs regular preventative maintenance to keep the equipment running efficiently.  While our building engineers handle minor repairs day-to-day, we have an annual maintenance contract and service agreement for the engines and rebuild them on a regular schedule. Our building engineers are very knowledgeable about the building and monitor the equipment daily. Indoor and outdoor temperatures can drive the inputs for the equipment set-points.   We’re constantly tuning, evaluating and maintaining the system so that it runs at peak efficiency. We installed a Siemens Building Automation System (BAS), specifically to help us maximize efficiency.   We adjust inputs and the BAS automatically makes adjustments – although we don’t discount the value of human input, as we are constantly improving our operations based on what we learn about changes in building operation, temperature, policy, etc. In addition totransamerica-co our BAS, we have a Fanwall system of smaller fans on variable frequency drives (VFDs) instead of one large fan.  The Fanwall system operates at 25% less horsepower versus the old system while still maintaining the same amount of air supply.  The VFDs allow us to ramp up or down as needed and only adjust or run necessary fans via our BAS system. We can start fans earlier in the day, later in the day and or pre-cool the building, as necessary based on what we know about our temperature inputs or even temperatures of previous days or predictions for upcoming days. Maintaining our Co-Gen system and our building energy efficiency program is holistically driven through the effective use of our equipment, people, processes, systems and tools.

Were there any difficulties working with the City or the local Utility?

Since we’re in California, public opinion for sustainability initiatives are typically favorable.  We did need to get the necessary approvals from our utility, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), for interconnection/safety.   Since we needed to pipe a 4” diameter gas line, we also ran into a hiccup when PG&E could not connect to the line to provide the gas.   Therefore we needed additional approvals to secure a third party natural gas provider to fuel our Co-Gen system. While we still pay PG&E for transmission/distribution services, we currently purchase our natural gas through an approved third party contract, and renew and renegotiate rates every 2-3 years. Our building was completed in 1972 and the property sits next to our Redwood Park, so we also needed to make sure the installed gas lines were aesthetically pleasing to the community.  We painted the gas lines green, and installed foliage to incorporate them into the park as best as possible.

If such a high-profile building can complete this project, does it prove that anyone can?

We’re not sure that it proves anyone can, as much as it proves that it takes a high level of commitment to complete these projects. We are a high-profile building, but we’re also an older building, which meant we needed to significantly retrofit our building systems. We were on an old steam system and needed to make sure we had the space for the Co-Gen equipment.  We also needed to update our building controls to make sure we could effectively control the equipment, and train our staff to handle all of the sophisticated systems.  A retrofit like this is not to be taken lightly, as it can quickly become overwhelming and result in systems that are both ineffective and underutilized, if you’re not prepared. The success of our Co-Gen project and the continued success of the equipment operations are definitely due to our chief engineer, Doug Peterson, and his savvy and skilled building transamerica-2engineering team. We’ve attended a number of BOMA events on net zero buildings and have learned projects like this may be more appropriate for new buildings and new construction versus a building retrofit – but we’re proof that it can be done.  Based on our lessons learned, we would definitely advise that property owners hire a consultant who is well-versed in Co-Gen technology, and make sure that they have a skilled project manager, chief engineer and operations team on site and properly trained to ensure success.

What were some of the major challenges with the project?

As the project was nearing completion, our solutions provider went into bankruptcy and tried to walk away from the project. With significant effort, we were able to negotiate the project’s completion, yet not without challenges.  We discovered some of the installed pieces of equipment were inferior to our quality standards and also discovered a leaking heat exchanger that needed to be replaced.  This added additional out-of-pocket costs we hadn’t anticipated. We were fortunate to have our current chief engineer, Doug Peterson, come on board at this time. His previous experience and expertise with Co-Gen has helped us both correct these issues and continuously improve upon the efficiency of our system.  In hindsight, there are always lots of lessons, especially when it comes to the continuous improvement of our system controls, daily operations and monitoring processes. We would have greatly benefited from hiring an engineering consultant well versed in Co-Generation technology who could have helped maximize the system’s efficiency from the start. Ultimately, we think our challenges just speak to our point on the importance of having the right consultants and team in place and making sure all building stakeholders are fully committed to the project.

What other green initiatives have you completed?

Before the Co-Gen project was fully operational, the Transamerica Pyramid achieved LEED Gold.  Today we’re LEED Platinum and the Co-Gen system was a significant contributor in helping us achieve this prestigious level of certification.   Additionally, we have a number of ongoing initiatives within the building, including:

  • Implementing comprehensive green purchasing and green cleaning policies (we use primarily Green Seal products).
  • Diverting 70% our materials/waste from landfills through a successful waste management (1)
  • Hosting e-waste recycling days, three times a year, in which our recyclers go directly to all our tenants for pick-ups.
  • Scheduling ongoing sustainability education forums and events with our tenants.

We’re fortunate that our building owners, property management team, building operations and tenants are engaged and work collaboratively on our sustainability efforts.

For more information on the Transamerica Pyramid Green LEEDership program, click here.

The IREM Sustainability Program is designed to help property managers pursue efficient buildings –from insight to action and consists of three integrated parts:

  • The IREM Green Per Square Foot database
  • The IREM Sustainable Property Challenge
  • The IREM Certified Sustainable Property Certification

For more information or to request a demo, please contact:   Todd Feist, IREM Sustainability Program Manager, or Nathalie Osborn, IREM Sustainability Program Manager GreenPSF

Posted by in Sustainability Education