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At Prescott College, New Student Housing Allows Residents to Test Drive Green Building

Weddle Gilmore Black Rock Studio
Prescott, Arizona

By David Sokol
April 2014
Photo © Bill Timmerman

Although Prescott College is more than a half-century old, the northern Arizona school’s mission is impressively of this time—equal parts liberal arts, sustainability, and social justice. As young people increasingly look to sustainability and ethical entrepreneurship as mainstream career pursuits, this prescient institution’s student body has changed. Once the several hundred undergraduates mostly comprised transfer students, but today approximately two-thirds of freshmen enter Prescott directly from high school.

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Scottsdale, Arizona–based Weddle Gilmore Black Rock Studio has regularly helped Prescott College navigate its evolution. In 2004 it completed the first ground-up building on campus, the 22,000-square-foot multipurpose Crossroads Center. The following year Weddle Gilmore drafted a master plan that envisioned adapting the downtown campus into a more traditionally collegiate environment, transforming rights of way into pedestrian malls and relegating parking to perimeter zones. The master plan also nurtured the college’s visionary identity by allocating generous area to community uses, native habitation restoration, and urban farming.

“In all the work we’ve tried to do at Prescott College, there is a heavy integration of sustainability and environmental strategies,” says studio cofounder Philip Weddle. “They’re highly legible, so that the college can essentially use buildings and landscape as learning environments.”

The shift in student demographics was not underway when the master plan was first released; at that time, the transfer population preferred living on their own around town. But soon enough the college realized that it would be beneficial to create build-to-suit campus housing for the new freshman cohort. It acquired three-quarters of an acre west of Butte Creek and tapped Weddle Gilmore to apply the principles and design vocabulary of its previous Prescott projects to new residences.

Weddle explains that the commission called for a more nuanced approach to campus living: “Traditional dormitory-type housing really doesn’t fit the social model.” In response to students’ self-reliance and the school’s underlying ethic of community, the design team programmed 32,500 square feet of housing as 13 townhouses. The 8-student residences are each anchored by an open kitchen and polycarbonate-roofed porch, and configured around two rectangular plaza areas whose outdoor fireplace, grape arbors, orchard, and vegetable garden support interaction and sustainability.

The buildings themselves, known collectivly as the Village, were also conceived as learning environments. They embody passive sustainability, for example, by bordering the plazas while still following an east–west primary axis. Since Prescott’s climate is more temperate than the climate of southern Arizona, the project also capitalizes on natural ventilation. The Village does not rely on breezes solely, however, because Prescott does experience the occasional snowfall; also, the townhouses are used in summer sessions. In more extreme temperature conditions, a Mitsubishi variable refrigerant flow system provides heating and cooling to each building via multiple ducted and ductless fan coils.

Besides good solar orientation and open windows, students take note that solar shading fins on buildings’ south elevations and solatubes with solar trackers improve upon passive performance, by emitting and controlling daylight and solar heat gain. East- and west-facing walls constructed of ground-face masonry represent yet another textbook example of passive sustainability, as they block morning and afternoon sun while soaking up the thermal gain. In addition to operating individual thermostat controls, residents can count 96 kilowatts of rooftop photovoltaic arrays and modular LED site lighting among their lessons in active green technology.

The Village at Prescott College also makes tangible contributions to the region. The architecture steps down toward the residential neighborhood located just west of campus limits in order to match its scale. The project also included the restoration of Butte Creek, which had become overrun with invasive species. On-site rainwater capture prevents consecutive storms from overtaxing the seasonal creek, and holds on to 40,000 gallons of water for irrigating the edible landscape.

Just as students are responsible for urban farming, they do more than witness sustainable building in action. An online dashboard tool allows students to monitor their townhouses and compare them to the other units in the Village. The firm and college created a monthly competition to drive traffic to the dashboard and encourage more sustainable behavior. “We tried to engage the students and make them aware of how their day-to-day actions affect the performance of the building,” Weddle explains.

Efforts to facilitate students’ understanding of their personal environmental impact seem to have taken immediate root. In its recently completed first full year of operation, the Village at Prescott College’s PVs generated 7 percent more electricity than estimated (or 149,483 kilowatt-hours) and monitored electricity consumption totaled 147,027 kilowatt-hours.


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