Inside the ‘most sustainable sports venue in the world’

AECOM’s Alastair Macgregor tells SSJ using sustainability as a driver for fan experience helped the Golden 1 Center become the first LEED Platinum sports venue

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In October 2016, Sacramento Kings lost their opening game of the NBA season to San Antonio Spurs 102-94. Not that the fans cared much. For that night, the feeling of euphoria could not be ruined by a one-off defeat. The match was the first for the team in its brand new $557m Golden 1 Center. The fans had the chance to glimpse into the future, and they liked what they saw.

And no wonder. NBA commissioner Adam Silver called the venue the “gold standard” and the blueprint NBA franchises should follow when it came to venue design. Technically, Silver’s statement was understated (the Golden 1 Center is in fact the first LEED Platinum certified indoor sports venue in the world). But his sentiment was shared by many.

“This venue,” AECOM’s Alastair Macgregor tells SSJ, “has been more than just getting a LEED Platinum plaque. It’s about making a case for sustainability and showing how it can be a driving force in creating a new baseline for performance within venue design.”

It’s not uncommon for new sports venues to go through the LEED process, but according to Macgregor – AECOM’s vice-president of high-performance buildings – making the venue as environmentally and economically sustainable as possible was the “first thing on Vivek Ranadive’s (the owner) list”.

“Sometimes you end up with projects where sustainability is an afterthought,” Macgregor explains. “Or they’re doing it simply for compliance. But the owner wanted to create the most sustainable sporting venue in the world. When you have a client like that you’re not pushing uphill to challenge business as usual. We had to leverage some outside-the-box thinking to achieve his goal.”

That outside the box thinking led AECOM to some significant innovations, including:

  • Making the Golden 1 Center the first 100% solar-powered professional sports venue
  • An energy-saving displacement ventilation system
  • A large aircraft hangar door that can be opened during games and events

“We asked ourselves ‘how could sustainability be a driver for enhanced fan experience?’ That was probably the key. It became less of a bolt-on and more of an integrated core value of the project,” Macgregor adds.

A breath of fresh air

In October, the opening month of the regular NBA season, temperatures can reach upto 30°C (86°F) and in April, the final month of the regular season, 25°C (77°F) is not uncommon – although the climate can be a lot warmer.

To accommodate this, AECOM installed a displaced ventilation system – “probably the first in a building in the US” – to push air from the bottom of the venue so it rises up. This air leaves via the 40ft high, 30ft wide doors “having done its job” keeping the crowd cool. The traditional method of airflow, says Macgregor, was to “push air from the top”, which is less energy efficient and doesn’t service the audience as well.

The aircraft hangar doors are huge and imposing, and are probably the stand-out feature of the Golden 1 Center’s facade. But apart from the cool aesthetics, the doors are actually allowed to be open during NBA matches (the first time this has been ratified by the governing body), creating an “indoor/outdoor” environment.

“Where it gets really cool is that this is the first venue in the world that we deployed our Fan First Connected Comfort,” explains Macgregor. “The Kings have a smartphone app which shows the score, all the usual stuff, but at the Golden 1 Center it gives the fans the ability to adjust the temperature if they’re too hot or too cold. We can adjust temperatures so it’s a different climate in the lower and upper parts of the arena.”

Since the venue opened its doors 18 months ago, 1.6 million people have attended games and other events. According to Macgregor, “less than 1%” raised concerns about comfort and climate. “That was mostly in the first couple of months when the venue was trying to calibrate itself,” he adds.

Alastair Macgregor

Macgregor continues: “In many other arenas they pre-cool the building the day before a game and get it as cold as they can so it doesn’t get too hot. Because of the approach we’ve taken we don’t have that issue. We can have two events in a day and then an event the following day without having pre-cooling issues because we’re able to have the doors open.”

And that approach to environmental sustainability has become a precursor to more economic sustainability for Sacramento Kings as well. Because of the doors and the innovative airflow system, the number of events held in the Golden 1 Center has increased, adding dollars to the till.

During its first year of operation, the Golden 1 Center hosted more than 100 events (33 more than had been hosted the previous year in Kings’ Sleep Train Arena). The franchise has also experienced a 22% uplift in average attendances.

“Some events historically are uneconomical for venues to run because they’re too small and they can only turn the air conditioning on full power. The Golden 1 Center can take in some of those smaller events and just leave the door open,” says Macgregor.

“In Sacramento we have the Delta Breeze, which brings in cooler wind from the north in the summer and clears out the stuffy air. The wind changes direction in winter, but we’ve orientated the building to mitigate the draft and take advantage of that cool air in the summer.”

The improving economic picture for the Kings has filtered its way through the surrounding areas. Around $2bn of development work has commenced in downtown Sacramento since the arena was built. It has become the catalyst for alternative transport, with 250,000 people using alternative transport to get to the venue. Approximately 90% of the food and beverages served within are sourced within 150 mile radius, and 13,000 meals have been donated to the homeless in 18 months.

Sustainability ‘part of every conversation’

Sustainability has been etched in the project from the very beginning, from venue construction to maintenance, with:

  • 36% of construction materials from recycled sources (including material repurposed from the department store that was demolished to make way for the Golden 1 Center)
  • 30% of construction materials from regional sources
  • 99% of demolition materials recycled and 95% of construction waste diverted

“We made all suppliers and vendors provide a sustainability worksheet,” says Macgregor. “It detailed what the recycled content was and where it came from so we could make a decision about whether or not to buy. Sustainability criteria was part of every conversation.”

That has continued through to a robust waste management process that the operational venue observes to this day. It has even turned recycled oil from its food fryer into enough biodiesel to fuel 70 cars for a year.

But the most “daunting task”, says Macgregor, was creating a building 100% powered by solar energy. AECOM used a “smart solar concept”, which allowed the building to generate 700 watts – around 15% of its energy – from the roof, with the rest coming from an off-site generator 20 miles from the venue.

Developing the solar farm and going through a substantial LEED process (see below) was a significant endeavor. Does Macgregor believe getting to Platinum was worth it?

“I believe the answer is an absolute ‘yes’,” he says with no hesitation.

So much so, he is using the Golden 1 Center as a case study for new and potential clients to show what can be done when sustainability is a fundamental part of the design, planning, construction and maintenance processes.

“There are now KPIs (key performance indicators) and metrics behind it,” he says. “More people are buying tickets, they are hosting more events, there is a benefit for the local community, they are saving money and energy.

“What we’re trying to move away from, with Kings as an example, is the idea of sustainability alone. It’s core to venue performance. If done properly, and if you embrace a design strategy that has fan experience at its heart, as well as the welfare of the city and planet, what you end up with is a smart business.”

Golden 1 goes platinum

“It was like Fight Club: we didn’t mention it, but it was something in the back of our minds that we were always looking at,” says Macgregor about going for LEED Platinum – an accolade no other sporting venue had achieved before the Golden 1 Center.

The plan was always to meet a minimum of LEED Gold, but as Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive made it his goal to create the most sustainable sports venue in the world, there was little other option but to go for Platinum.

The difference between going for LEED Gold and LEED Platinum, says Macgregor, is a matter of credits. Normally, the higher the number of credits, the more costly the project is in terms of original outlay, but Macgregor explains that because “sustainability was part of the conversation from day one”, achieving some of those credits was not as prohibitive as it would be if sustainability was “bolted on” at the end of the process.

“Credits that were usually cost prohibitive ceased to be, other credits that aren’t normally possible, or ones that usually cause operational headaches, were achievable because we’d gone back to basics,” says Macgregor, adding that obtaining Platinum status for the Golden 1 Center cost about as much as getting “low Gold” for a venue that hadn’t factored sustainability in at the beginning of the process.

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