From parking to people

Alta Garage is built for a future with fewer cars

5 minutes

Google’s Alta Garage in Mountain View

Google’s Alta Garage in Mountain View

Typically, parking garages aren’t architecturally groundbreaking — they serve a functional purpose in a society that, for many, still depends on cars to take people to their destination. But as we look to a possible future with fewer cars and more sustainable modes of transportation, which will help reduce carbon emissions and traffic congestion, the need for parking spaces will likely diminish. In turn, single-use parking garages may become irrelevant and be demolished, resulting in increased waste, carbon, and costs. That’s why Google’s new Alta Garage in Mountain View was purposely designed to not be a parking garage someday – and stands ready to be converted into commercial, residential or community use whenever the moment is right.

The idea is called future-proofed parking: As the needs of society change down the road, so, too, can Alta Garage. Need more offices, housing, amenities, or event space? Alta Garage can transition into any of those as the demand for parking decreases. And it can do so in a way that lowers costs, saves time, decreases waste, and increases sustainability.

Alta Garage 1001

Alta Garage is a future proofed parking garage with the ability to adapt based on future needs.

We’ve long been committed to investing in sustainable transportation solutions, including carpool programs, autonomous vehicles, and technology that helps people make more environmentally friendly choices. Alta Garage builds on these goals with its future-proofed design, which also supports the City of Mountain View’s vision for this area to be a car-light neighborhood that promotes sustainable commuting options.

But how do you design a garage to make it functional now, and also adaptable for a wide range of possible future applications? In 2018, google's real estate R&D Lab team started to brainstorm this question back. This was spurred by a desire on the part of Google’s founders to transition away from projects with single-driver cars in mind, and instead emphasize lower-emission modes of transportation, such as buses, bikes, and autonomous vehicles (AVs).

“We want to build for whatever the future might hold,” says Michelle Kaufmann, Director of Google’s R+D Lab for the Built Environment. “We researched various construction techniques, materials, sizes and strategies in the lab to identify the prerequisites to deliver an adaptable structure while minimizing costs.”

Future parking transition

The R&D Lab worked to identify features that would equip Alta Garage to become housing or commercial space in the future.

The key was to construct a flexible and adaptable core and shell building base, so the garage can get a second lease on life someday, if needed. In its current configuration, the garage can accommodate more than 1,700 cars, as well as over 450 electric car charging stations, and provides parking for both Google employees and guests of the Google Visitor Experience. But by turning the parking ramps into terraces and interior stairs, the individual levels could one day potentially become space for amenities, offices, or housing. To ensure ease of conversion, we even performed daylight studies on future conditions to ensure the floor heights and ramp removals would result in maximum daylight. To facilitate this transformation, we worked closely with Clark Pacific, Gensler, Hollins, International Parking Design, Ellis Partners, SPMD Design, and other partners to integrate several design elements that set it apart from the standard parking garage.

“To take one example, the garage has very large floor plates and extremely high ceilings, which are more in line with the dimensions of office or retail space,” says Jeffrey Curry, Director of Construction at Google. “The ramps that cars use to traverse the levels are demountable, and can be removed to make way for atriums, courtyards, or terraces that will allow daylight to flood into future interior spaces.

Alta Garage

Alta Garage was designed with high ceilings and open bays so that it can be converted to another use in the future.

Additionally, the use of flat floors with drainage eliminated slopes on the floors, which would ease any post-garage conversion. The precast concrete has been strengthened to handle a higher structural load, in line with what is typical for a commercial or residential building. This also enables the installation of a curtain wall, so the converted building can be subdivided into different sections. And structural block outs will make it easier to route future plumbing and electrical lines.

Transform Alta Garage

Through renderings, we envisioned how we might transform Alta Garage for future housing or commercial use cases.

The idea is to create enough flexibility that Alta Garage could be half-garage, half-office in the future, or converted entirely to a different use. For the architects, future-proofing meant essentially reverse-engineering the garage as they designed it. Where would staircases and elevator shafts be located in a future office space? Where could you make room for plumbing and heating and cooling systems, which would be needed for an apartment building? “We had to lay out floor plans for housing and offices and work backwards to find the commonalities that could be overlaid with parking on Day One,” Kaufmann says.

Scroll through to see two images: (1) Future proof elements that were built into Alta Garage from the beginning, and (2) Additional features that can be easily integrated into the building based on commercial or residential use cases in the future.

But it’s not just interior details that make Alta Garage unique; from the outside, it also doesn’t look like your typical parking garage. Designed by California artist Kim West with curation and R&D by SPMDesign, the kinetic art facade called Ode to Bohemia No. 5 (Inexhaustible Blooms) was inspired by the local, native plant landscape, and consists of 97,500 colorful metallic pieces that reflect different tones throughout the day. The artwork adds color, vibrancy, and creativity to improve the human experience. It was also designed to be future proofed just like the building — the kinetic pieces can be disassembled and moved to a different location in the future as needed.

Kim West’s Ode to Bohemia No. 5 (Inexhaustible Blooms) not only adds to the beauty and vibrancy of the building, it’s also future proofed and can be relocated in the future if needed.

Even if Alta Garage one day transitions away from being a full-time parking structure, the ground floor could still serve as a charging and pickup station for AVs. The roof has solar photovoltaic panels to help generate the building’s energy, and rooftop parking can be made available in the future for things like delivery drones, flying cars, or AVs.

Regardless of what future function Alta Garage serves, it has been planned today with tomorrow in mind.

Overhead rendering showcasing Alta Garage’s photovoltaic solar panels.