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Inside Golden 1, the most high-tech arena in America

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The Sacramento King’s solar-powered home, a tech-savvy fan’s dream, envisions stadium 3.0

A glittering new addition to Sacramento’s downtown, the Golden 1 Center opened last night with a decidedly old-school Paul McCartney concert. Don’t let the nostalgic opener fool you; this $557 million, 17,500-seat multi-use arena, which serves as the home of the NBA’s Sacramento Kings as well as a year-round event venue, offers a convincing vision of the future of stadium design.

The future, based on vision of team owner and tech entrepreneur Vivek Ranadivé, is a giant leap forward in technology and sustainability, and a compelling look at how Silicon Valley can reimagine live entertainment. The world’s first LEED-Platinum indoor sports stadium, the indoor-outdoor structure has towering five-story-tall aircraft hangar doors that allow it to function like a futuristic open-air auditorium. It's completely powered by solar energy, and features an array of technological advancements, including a lighting-fast Wi-Fi network and enough bandwidth for a small city.

That also means changing the way the stadium interacts with the city around it. According to the design team at AECOM, the vision started with a decision to deconstruct how venues are built.

"We wanted to take a stadium, which is usually seen as an inward-facing building, and really connect it with the city," says Rob Rothblatt, a design principal at AECOM.

"Arenas haven’t changed since the days of the Colosseum," Ranadivé says. "Before you would just check in and take your seat. Now, we’ve used technology in an unparalleled way; the stadium basically checks in with you."

Stadium 3.0 and the "Communal Fireplace"

Ranadivé explains his concept for Golden 1, and stadium design in general, with a philosophical treatise that could be summarized as Stadium 3.0. Advances in technology have given designers the opportunity to create a communal fireplace, the cathedral of the 21st century that can become an entertainment and community center for Sacramento.

Vivek’s vision, therefore, is for a literal and figurative beacon of technology. The Kings claim the in-house Wi-Fi network, built for image- and video-heavy social media networks, is 17,000-times faster than a home system, and the entrance includes a "smart turnstiles" security system with facial recognition.

Ranadivé's vision for a new, better arena carries over to every aspect of the fan experience, one he wants to be more connected, sustainable, engaged, and welcoming (it's the first arena with gender-neutral bathrooms). He says 90 percent of food and beverage concessions are sourced from a network of hundreds of farms within 150 miles; nachos aren’t topped with artificial yellow glop, they’re covered in Petaluma Farms cheese. The high-end suites even pipe in the squeaky sounds of sneakers skidding on hardwood, to enhance the experience of big-money fans watching from expensive perches above the court.

The stadium is your living room, and your phone is the remote

One of the observations Ranadivé took to heart, provided by his friend David Kelley, a founder of IDEO, is that stadiums now compete with the home experience. To make the live gameday experience—which includes a commute, finding seating, and dealing with crowds—competitive with the couch and bigscreen in the basement, you need to reduce points of friction and step up the tech game.

The Kings's efforts to win this war of attention hinge in part on an app that gives fans a new degree of interactivity, from placing orders and monitoring bathroom lines to watching replays, checking stats and viewing different camera angles. The open layout of the concourses also encourage fans to walk around and explore throughout the game or concert.

"People look at their phones hundreds of times a day, we can’t change that," says Ranadivé. "But we can give them the entertainment options that you’d have at home. It’s whatever you want to consume."

It’s all part of the communal fireplace concept. Fans can even bet via the app—they wager in fan experience points, not real currency—but it helps drive engagement and gives fans yet another entertainment option. Golden 1 even has an open API, and invites fans to use stadium data to create their own apps.

"We light the fire for everyone, and they tell us their stories," says Ranadivé.

More than better tech, the stadium promises a better view

The Kings's huge investment in technology, including an expansive 84-foot-wide billboard and video screen at center court, may initially distract attention from the detailed physical architecture that makes this a better experience for all fans. The steep seating bowl design gives more spectators a better view of action on court, and a multifunctional design allows the entire building to be easily converted for use as a concert venue or events space. Going more vertical with the seating bowl design also makes Golden 1 louder, offering an additional home-field advantage to the Kings.

A green design "slam dunk"

The building’s substantial green credentials go well beyond recognition as the first LEED Platinum-certified stadium. According to AECOM vice-president and high performance buildings leader Alastair MacGregor, Golden 1 represents a significant, first-of-its-kind feat that shows just how far sustainable building technology can be pushed. Ranadivé feels they have a big platform, and should set a high bar for others.

"If you took Barclays Center in Brooklyn and tried to build it in California right now, it wouldn’t meet California's strict building codes," he says. "We didn’t just do a slam dunk in terms of green design, we shattered the backboard."

The open doors and indoor-outdoor design achieve an excellent balance of both energy-efficiency and comfort, according to MacGregor. The huge hangar doors aren’t just fancy windows or a eye-catching design feature; by opening and taking advantage of the Delta breezes to cool the building, the doors help create natural ventilation. That ventilation, along with the cooling effects of the living walls planted on the exterior, helps the Golden 1 Center to use 20 percent less energy than mandated by California’s already impressive environmental standards.

The building draws its power from a sea of solar panels on the roof (1.2 megawatts), as well as an offsite field of solar panel roughly 45 miles away (11 more megawatts), which lets the building take advantage of sustainable power without needing to increase its footprint in the middle of downtown. To heighten awareness and engagement, the app and stadium video screens will showcase energy savings, and let fans know how much material they’re recycling.

"We’ve been able to create a building, a first-of-its-kind building, that allows the Kings to develop a partnership with their fans, and show sustainability is at the core of who they are, and give fans the power to feel part of that," says MacGregor.

The building also cut down on energy by means of a more sustainable construction process. More than 36 percent of the materials used were sourced locally, and more than 30 percent were recycled (cushioning under the main court was actually made from recycled sneakers).

Weave the stadium into the neighborhood, city, and transportation network

Golden 1 may stand out for many reasons, but it was also built to blend in with its surroundings. Sunk into the site, so much of the seating and center court are located below street level, the structure doesn't have a traditional front or back door setup, connecting it to the entire surrounding area. A series of underground tunnels that hug the sunken stadium allow maintenance and deliveries to occur out of sight, without disturbing activity and pedestrians on the street. The plaza, accented with a Jeff Koons statue, becomes a central gathering place.

The building’s funky, curved shape was designed to draw spectators in and encourage movement in and around the public plaza, which is connected to the site of a soon-to-be-finished light rail. According to Rothblatt, the stadium’s connections to transit, which include a massive bike valet system and a nearby Amtrak station, will help make this area a better draw for locals, as well as a center for residential development, what he calls "good old-fashioned urbanism," as opposed to the nightlife districts that often crop up around new stadium developments.

Shaping the future of arenas to come

It’s not about the competition with others, says MacGregor (though that always seems to be part of the bragging rights that come with a new stadium). It’s trying to set an example for what can be accomplished with stadium design going forward.

"This is a pebble that dropped in the center of Sacramento," says MacGregor. "How far can this ripple? How can these green example help inspire others to push and accomplish other inspiring designs?"