'Ziggurat' Finally Becoming a Power Structure : Conservation: Laguna Niguel's longtime laughingstock gains new respect as centerpiece of national energy-saving pilot program. The ancient-looking building soon will boast ultra-modern efficiencies.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was a laughingstock, a notorious 1.2-million-square-foot white elephant that people derisively called "the Ziggurat."

That's because the lonely pyramid-shaped building looked like it belonged somewhere in ancient Mesopotamia, not the flatlands of Laguna Niguel.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, life was so scarce amid the virtually empty seven stories that federal workers had to routinely troop through all 48 bathrooms, flushing the toilets just to keep the plumbing limbered up.

But the Chet Holifield Federal Building's day in the sun has finally come.

Today, the butt of so many jokes has become the poster child of a unique energy-saving program designed to save money and please the conservation gurus, particularly Vice President Al Gore.

The massive 26-year-old building--now chock-full of federal tenants from the Internal Revenue Service to the National Archives--has been chosen for a national pilot program. A statement from federal energy officials promises the undertaking will ultimately "save taxpayers millions of dollars in energy costs, eliminate thousands of tons of air pollutants and pump millions of dollars into the Southern California economy over the next several years."

Like everything at "the Ziggurat," it will be done on a grand scale.

Two giants of the private sector--Southern California Edison and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California--have teamed with the federal government to retrofit the building and save an estimated $550,000 a year in utility costs.

"This is the first project like this, of this magnitude, that's ever been done," said Peter Gaddy, a spokesman for the government's General Services Agency, which oversees the building. "Our utility bills for the building were $2 million a year. This seemed like a likely candidate for saving taxpayer dollars."

Gone will be the 1968-era plumbing, lighting, heating and air conditioning, and in their place will come state-of-the-1990s low-flush toilets, reclaimed water and a thermal cooling system.

The largest part of the savings, an estimated 71%, will come via a new ventilation system for the huge building, the GSA's third largest of 7,000 facilities nationwide, Gaddy said.

And, officials say, the $3-million retrofitting won't cost taxpayers anything initially.

SoCal Edison, which will put up the money for the retrofit, will recoup its investment via an extra charge in the government's monthly utility bills after the retrofit yields a cost savings.

Government officials will also be spared the hassle of going through a lengthy procurement process, according to Edgar Gray, the GSA official who runs the building and, in exemplary energy-saving fashion, walks to work from his Laguna Niguel home.

"This way," Gray said, "I'm not asking for additional money or additional taxes. That's the unique twist to this."

Such optimism is a relatively new feeling to emanate from the building nestled on 96 acres in what used to be a remote corner of south Orange County. Almost from the day construction was completed in the late 1960s, the building has been caught in a time warp.

Designed by Los Angeles architect William L. Pereira, who also designed UC Irvine and Los Angeles International Airport, it was conceived as the corporate offices and a light-manufacturing center for North American Rockwell.

But when the aerospace industry declined and Rockwell shelved plans to expand into South County, the building sat empty and ghostlike, surrounded by the weeds and sagebrush of then-undeveloped Laguna Niguel.

The federal government came along in 1974 and rescued Rockwell, obtaining "the Ziggurat" in a deal that involved $22 million and an exchange of property. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter named it the Chet Holifield Federal Building after the 32-year Democratic congressman from Montebello.

For more than a decade, however, the government had little use for it and offered the building for sale, without any serious takers. But today it is bustling with federal employees, and has a day-care center for 100 children.

"We bit our lip and said we'll persevere and we're now glad we did," Gray said. "It's now one of the most valuable federal properties in our area."

Under the National Energy Policy Act of 1992 and an executive order signed last March by Vice President Gore and Secretary of Energy Hazel O'Leary mandating a 30% energy savings in all federal buildings by the year 2005, "the Ziggurat" will get its new infrastructure.

"We are trying to champion change and reinvent government, if you will," Edison sales and marketing director Richard Phelps said. "This is one way to do it."

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