Palo Alto, California


Stanford University’s Central Energy Facility has a lot of serious technology, but much of it is presented in the lively hues more typical of a children’s museum. Doubling as a teaching tool, the low-slung building showcases the university’s innovative new heating and cooling system with ample glazing and equipment painted in vibrant shades, like orange and aqua, so that visitors can clearly see which parts carry hot water and which ones cold. At night, the bright red surface of a hot-water storage tank is lit so it glows like a giant ember at the heart of the complex.

“We worked to make architecture out of something that, at first glance, didn’t have a lot of potential,” says ZGF principal Toby Hasselgren. “Stanford has an obligation to be efficient and sustainable in its operations, but it also has a mission to educate. Why not do both?” adds Joe Collins, partner at ZGF.

In 2009, the school began considering alternatives to its aging gas-fired power plant. An earlier technology for conserving energy, its cogeneration plant generated electricity and used the by-product heat to warm its buildings. However, a careful analysis revealed that yet more efficiencies could be gained. During much of the year, the campus needed nearly as much heating as it did cooling (since incoming air had to be cooled first to remove humidity and then reheated to comfortable temperatures, particularly at night). This meant that excess heat discharged during evaporative cooling could be reused, instead of lost to the atmosphere. So the school designed an extensive heat-recovery loop, which they say is the first such system on this scale. Reducing the campus’s total energy use by a third, the nearly $500 million system includes a 22-mile network of pipes and three giant holding tanks for hot and cold water. (The university also switched to an off-site solar farm as its primary source of energy.)

Of course, the tanks, related machinery, and offices could have been housed in a nondescript facility. But, given the radical switch in energy use that the project represented, campus architect David Lenox saw the benefit in highlighting it rather than hiding it from view. ZGF, which had previously designed a stem-cell research building at Stanford, was hired to create an appropriately outward-facing design.

On the nearly three-acre site, the architects designed a surprisingly grand complex of buildings organized around the water tanks. The Central Energy Facility faces the main campus to the east and is aligned with its grid. Its centerpiece is the hot-water tank, nearly 70 feet in diameter and protected by a 64-foot-tall screen whose stainless steel and aluminum perforated panels shimmer in the sun. Meanwhile, the two larger cold-water tanks have been lowered 25 feet below grade to reduce their visual impact.

The two main volumes that house the heat-recovery equipment are simple steelframed structures with cast-in-place concrete walls, integrally colored as a nod to the university’s historic sandstone buildings. A welcoming canopy of solar panels, supported by steel pipe columns, unifies the front and wraps around the corner. To the northeast is a two-story, 10,000-squarefoot L-shaped building for staff and visitors. On its ground level, a large conference room, which often serves as the starting point for tours of the facility, doubles as an extra classroom. A courtyard offers another prime spot to congregate, with its bleacher seating looking out onto the hot-water tank. At the top of this stair, a spacious breezeway provides a protected outdoor space for small gatherings and leads to the offices for the 16-person staff, in a narrow, 25-footwide bar with daylight flooding through its glass curtain walls.

The architects’ creative material palette lends the complex a visual richness. The “people” building is clad in weathering steel, a nod to the site’s former agrarian life. The use of maple on the soffits, as well as the cross-laminated timber underpinning the solar panels, provides a warmth and subtly suggests that this is a safe place to be, with no threat of combustible gases. Finegrained metal screening adds a sense of lightness. The two larger cold-water tanks are delicately masked by perforated box-ribbed aluminum, while the courtyard is shielded from the sun by a trellis topped with steel grating. “Power plants are typically the worst part of a campus—they’re ugly and smelly,” says Joe Stagner, executive director of Stanford’s department of sustainability and energy management. “When people come here, they are immediately disarmed. As with the rest of campus, the investment in architecture has helped to make a good impression; it helps to open minds and excite the imagination.”



ZGF Architects LLP

1223 SW Washington Street, Suite 200

Portland, Oregon 97205


Personnel in architect’s firm who should receive special credit:

Joseph Collins, partner in charge, FAIA, LEED AP BD+C

Toby Hasselgren, senior designer, AIA

Renee Kajimoto, project architect, AIA, LEED AP

Design Team: Bradley Iest, Glen Justice, Curtis Williams, Sienna Hill, Christopher Flint Chatto, Kelvin Ono, Michael McGale, Nicholas Robertson


Interior designer: ZGF Architects LLP


Prime Contractor/ Lead MEP Engineer: Affiliated Engineers, Inc.


Structural Engineer: Rutherford & Chekene


Civil Engineer: BKF Engineers



Landscape: Tom Leader Studio

Lighting: Affiliated Engineers, Inc.

Acoustical:  Colin Gordon Associates, Inc.


General contractor: The Whiting-Turner Contracting Company



Robert Canfield

Courtesy of ZGF Architects, LLP; © Robert Canfield

(415) 897-7636


Tim Griffith

Courtesy of ZGF Architects, LLP; © Tim Griffith

(415) 642-5740


Matthew Anderson

Courtesy of ZGF Architects, LLP; © Matthew Anderson

(818) 252-9525


Steve Proehl

Courtesy of ZGF Architects, LLP; © Steve Proehl, Proehl Studios



Size: 125,600 square feet (gross)


Project cost: $485 million


Construction cost: $120 million


Completion date: March 2015



Structural system

Concrete, steel frame, cross-laminated timber

Manufacturer of any structural components unique to this project: Structurlam Products Ltd. (cross-laminated timber)


Exterior cladding

Metal Panels: Morin Corp., Metal Sales

Metal/glass curtain wall: Walters & Wolf

Rainscreen (terra cotta, composite, etc.): Morin Corp., Metal Sales

Precast concrete: N/A

Wood: Geometrix, TerraMai, Stucturlam Products Ltd (cross-laminated timber)

Moisture barrier: Henry Manufacturing, Inc.

Curtain wall: Walters & Wolf



Built-up roofing: N/A

Elastomeric: Firestone (Thermoplastic polyolefin roofing)



Metal frame: Walters & Wolf (Curtain wall)



Glass: Viracon

Skylights: Metcoe



Entrances: Walters & Wolf

Metal doors: Walters & Wolf

Sliding doors: Raumplus North America

Special doors (sound control, X-ray, etc.): Olsen Steel, Crown Industrial Supply Inc.



Locksets: Schlage, Accurate

Closers: LCN

Exit devices: Von Duprin

Pulls: Ives

Security devices: Von Duprin, Schlage, LCN


Interior finishes

Acoustical ceilings: Armstrong

Suspension grid: Armstrong

Demountable partitions: Modernfold, Inc.

Cabinetwork and custom woodwork: Imperial Woodworking

Paints and stains: Sherwin Williams, Benjamin-Moore, TNEMEC

Wall coverings: Forbo (Tackboard panels)

Paneling: Terramai, Imperial Woodworking

Plastic laminate: Formica

Solid surfacing: Corian

Floor and wall tile (cite where used): Royal Mosa (restrooms and work areas)

Carpet: Bentley Mills

Special interior finishes unique to this project: Reclaimed wood (Terramai)



Office furniture: Knoll

Reception furniture: Knoll

Chairs: Source, Office Master, Hightower Group, Knoll, Keilhauer

Tables: KI, WCI, Inc.

Upholstery: Source, Knoll

Other furniture: Humanscale, Workrite Ergonomics



Interior ambient lighting: Lumenpulse, OCL Architectural Lighting

Downlights: Essentia

Exterior: Gardco Lighting, Luxrail, Selux, Ecosense Lighting

Dimming System or other lighting controls: nLight



Elevators/Escalators: KONE



Sloan, Zurn Products, Kohler



Energy management or building automation system: Johnson Controls


Other unique products that contribute to sustainability:

Radiant flooring, operable windows, fans, phase change material in ceiling


Additional building components or special equipment that made a significant contribution to this project:

Thermal Storage Tanks (Pacific Tank)