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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Construction workers on the new Salt Lake City Public Safety Building Thursday, June 7, 2012.

SALT LAKE CITY — The skeleton of Salt Lake City's new Public Safety Building has reached its full height and now, as builders put flesh on its bones, the structure could become a national model for how to use and generate energy.

"The goal is for the building to produce as much energy as it uses," said lead designer David Brems of GSBS Architects. If that goal is achieved, it would be Utah's first "net zero" building, a designation claimed by only a handful of structures across the country.

The building will be headquarters for Salt Lake City's police and fire departments. It will also house the city's Emergency Operations Center and 911 dispatch center.

City voters in 2009 approved a $125 million bond to pay for the project. Construction began about a year ago and is expected to finish in the summer of 2013.

Today, only a four-story steel skeleton rises from the site, at the corner of 500 South and 300 East, adjacent to Library Square.

Architectural drawings and computer graphics display a modernistic design with an exterior that is largely glass, allowing natural light to flood the building's work areas. In general appearance, it seems to be an inviting destination for the public rather than a forbidding fortress where criminal suspects might be grilled by police.

"There is public art and a fountain," Brems said. "This will be a great place just to hang out."

A primary design feature is a large public plaza in front of the building. "On the ground level are public meeting spaces," Brems said. "On the plaza are tables and chairs and a place for the public to gather, even though the building is very secure and bombproof and earthquake-proof."

Brems set up an ongoing exhibit at the Alta Club displaying the recent history of energy-efficient design in Utah. "We've become one of the leaders in the country of high-performance buildings," Brems said.

His exhibit highlights several innovative buildings, beginning with the speedskating oval for the 2002 Olympics, that were built with a sharp focus on energy conservation.

The new Public Safety Building is intended to be the most impressive energy saver yet. Every part of the design has been tweaked to squeeze out any foreseeable waste of energy. The plaza canopy as well as the entire roof will be covered with solar panels.

"This will become a case study for other buildings in the future," Brems predicted.

As the building was being designed, the goal of energy self-sufficiency ran head-on into one of the greatest challenges faced by proponents of solar power, the space requirements for photovoltaic solar panels. There isn't enough room on site to generate sufficient electricity to serve a four-story building, unless the public plaza is covered with solar panels.

"The plaza wants to have sunlight and trees and plantings," Brems said. "And in order to do that, we put some of the photovoltaic array in another place."

About half of the necessary solar panels will be placed three miles away, at a location that has not yet been announced. The remote energy source still allows the building to qualify for "net zero" status in the design industry.

"The definition of net zero is that we, as part of the budget of the building, are providing enough energy to power the building," Brems said. "That is all built into the cost of the building."

The solar panels on the roof will be sufficient to keep the Public Safety Building humming during emergencies.

"There's enough solar power on the building to run that emergency operations center if everything else is disrupted," Brems said.

The building's steel skeleton also is equipped with numerous large-scale shock absorbers. Builders believe it will be the safest building in Utah following a severe earthquake.

E-mail: hollenhorst@desnews.com