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Skanska Breaks Ground On California’s First Zero Net Energy Mental Health Campus

After bidding for the job three years ago, general contractor Skanska USA officially broke ground this week on the Cordilleras Health System Replacement project that will significantly upgrade an existing mental health center located at 200 Edmonds Road in an unincorporated area of San Mateo County bordering Redwood City.

In addition to providing clients with modern standards of care, the new facility will also be the state’s first zero net energy mental health campus, according to a statement. Completion is scheduled for December 2023.

“This is a project that we managed to win, and we were very excited about,” Skanska Vice President/Account Manager Lindsay Corotis said. “This is one that a lot of us actually had our sights upon. The location is beautiful. The mission of the project and what they are doing means a lot to me and several other members of the team as well.”

San Mateo County’s requirement that all new county projects target ZNE fell in line with Skanska’s goal of having its entire portfolio be ZNE by 2045, Corotis said, with the company having just completed a net positive energy project in Norway. The project’s architect, CannonDesign, had presented on exploring zero net energy strategies for hospitals during a Building Performance Analysis Conference in 2018. The project targets LEED Silver certification and will have solar panels on every roof, including parking. 

Rendering of the Cordilleras Health System Replacement project in San Mateo County.

The project is indicative of broader applications of ZNE that relatively few projects have achieved, and those that have have mainly been residential and office. More energy-intensive buildings such as medical, life sciences, data centers and industrial pose more significant challenges to achieving ZNE. The more energy a building consumes, the more measures need to be put in place to offset it, Corotis said, citing innovative technologies such as solar panels built into windows pushing the envelope in terms of what levels of sustainability buildings can achieve.

The existing 117-bed Cordilleras Mental Health Center is a county-owned mental health facility currently operated by Telecare, although a selection process is underway for a future operator, Corotis said. Originally built in 1952 as a tuberculosis hospital, it was adapted for mental health treatment in 1978. However, the facility is deemed out of date.

The $105M project will yield four buildings with 16 long-term care beds plus a three-story co-housing building with 57 beds for transitional clients, including offices, a commercial kitchen, single bedrooms and a shared living space. This setup differs from the existing single large building. Research resulting from a federal mandate revealed that smaller spaces yield better mental health client outcomes, Corotis said.

A common area within the Cordilleras Health System Replacement project.

Additionally, the new design will give clients more control over their comfort needs, and common areas will be equipped with natural ventilation and an air-to-water heat recovery system. There will also be a central open space area with outdoor seating, community gardens and recreation areas. The facility is situated within an open space area off Highway 280 with hiking trails, wooded hills and wildlife such as deer, turkeys and foxes, Corotis said.

“The Cordilleras Health System Replacement project builds on Skanska’s history of constructing impactful, community-oriented projects in the Bay Area that improve healthcare services across the region,” Skanska Executive Vice President Gordon Childress said in a statement. “By using leading-edge technology as part of our commitment to green building practices, our team is bringing the best sustainably designed healthcare facility to San Mateo County and providing an important resource for the community and its residents living with mental illness.”

In addition to being county-owned, the project is overseen by the San Mateo County Health Department and under CAL FIRE jurisdiction. Being in a wooded area requires added wildfire safety precautions, such as replacing an existing water tank with another double in size to ensure adequate fire suppression resources. Temporary fire hydrant connections will also be established during construction to protect campus residents who will remain on-site during the process.

“To me, this has been a journey for the last three years of really changing the language around mental health,” Corotis said. “It has been an education to a lot of our employees and the folks on-site. As part of orientation, we really talk about what is mental health — there are clients that are living in the transitional facility, so they are free to come and go, and they ask questions about what we're doing. Interacting with them just brought a really personalized approach to this [project] and really is driving all of us out there and motivating us to build the best quality building that we can.”