Mills College Graduate
School of Business
A Place of Business: A graduate school marries energy-saving modern technologies with classic modern design.
Mills College’s aspirations for its new Lorey I. Lokey Graduate School of Business are demonstrated in the site the college chose. It located the new school, named after the business information mogul and philanthropist who funded much of its construction, on the last prime site available, where the scenic Richards Road meets the Mills Common.
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The 158-year-old Mills College is a women’s undergraduate and co-ed graduate school in Oakland, California that predates both Stanford and the University of California. The new Graduate School of Business is the first MBA program designed for women in the West, and only the second—following Simmons College in Boston—in the country.
The architects’ first sketches mimicked the stucco walls and red tile roofs of the surrounding historic campus buildings. “That was the vibe we got initially from the client,” says Greg Mottola, AIA, principal-in-charge at Bohlin Cywinski Jackson (BCJ). The college then asked the architects to provide something more modern and forward-looking which led, happily, to the realized design.
The L-shaped building bounds a front yard, in deference to a popular open space that previously existed on that site. A concrete plaza defines the transition between the lawn and the building. This plaza continues under a deep roof, creating an entry portico that echoes the porches on many of the older buildings.
The portico is mirrored inside the building by a large lobby with seating areas and an open circulation space, lending an accessible feel to the entry sequence. Overhead is a view through the glass interior wall into a small meeting room in a suspended red box, which serves as a “reminder that anything is possible,” suggests Rosa Sheng, AIA, project manager for BCJ. Seating areas and brightly colored walls enhance the welcoming effect. Opposite the glass wall separating the lobby from the portico is a row of lecture halls.
The end of the lobby leads into the dramatic two-story Gathering Hall, subtly illuminated by a ribbon of windows just under the high roof, and by vertical strips of glazing between overlapping zinc-shingled fins on the southeast wall. Proving that not all aesthetic choices were subject to sustainability concerns, the southwest-facing end wall of this room is clad, inside and out, with specially cleft quartzite stone from Vals, Switzerland. Glazed double doors connect the Gathering Hall directly with the outdoor patio, allowing events to spill outside in good weather.
Acoustics are often a challenge in green buildings with their penchant for hard, reflective surfaces and open volumes to circulate light and air. At the graduate school acoustical consultants, Charles Salter Associates, helped manage those challenges to good effect.
Extensive glazing with low-e, double-pane glass and strategically located skylights contribute to the abundant daylight throughout the space. The vertical glass is mostly shaded, on the first floor by the portico roof and above with a system of horizontal louvers, roof overhangs, and metal grates extending from the eaves.
Low-flow fixtures and captured rainwater combine to reduce the building’s indoor potable water needs by 80 percent. Early users of the facility were surprised to discover a brownish tint to the water in the toilet bowls—before they were used. After some investigation, that tint was traced to tannins in the soil on the vegetated roof of the portico, which has drought-tolerant sedums in a special growing medium. These tannins are expected to filter out over time, reducing the unexpected tint.
In addition to helping mitigate rainwater runoff, the vegetation on the portico roof makes the view from the upstairs landing and offices much more attractive than if they looked out onto typical roofing. It also helps reduce the urban heat-island effect without causing a glare problem in the rooms above, which may have been a concern had they chosen to address this issue with a reflective roof.
Putting the green roof over the outdoor space greatly simplified the construction, notes Matt Crandall, project manager for DPR Construction. Not only is there less concern about possible leaks, but “a green roof is extremely heavy. Over the porch we can distribute the load more easily,” says Crandall. The complicated building geometry required that a lot of details be worked out on site, according to Crandall, making for long weekly coordination meetings with the architects and engineers during the construction process.
Mills College was not new to the LEED process—its Natural Sciences Building earned LEED Platinum in 2007. That project, like the new Graduate School of Business, shunned air-conditioning, following the example of the many older buildings on the 130-acre campus.
Most indoor spaces are supplied with dedicated outdoor air, and conditioned with either radiant heating in the slabs, displacement ventilation, or both. Operable windows are controlled manually in the offices and classrooms, and automatically in the hallways, providing natural ventilation whenever conditions allow.
Taking advantage of the Bay Area’s temperate climate, Rumsey Engineers (now Integral Group) designed a passive cooling tower system to supply the radiant slab with cool water when necessary. Lacking a chiller, this system can’t deliver water cold enough for a typical air-conditioning system, but it’s ideal for cooling a slab, according to Tyler Bradshaw, PE, who managed the project for Integral. This cooling system was sacrificed to last minute value engineering, but it can still be added later if necessary. After one year of occupancy, however, there is no indication that it will be needed.
Committed to the principle of user-control, Integral Group worked with the manufacturer of the wall-mounted diffusers in the offices to add a knob giving occupants control over the damper behind the diffuser. “Even though it is sort of a dumb control, it allows regulation for every room,” says Bradshaw, noting that such a feature would have been cost-prohibitive using thermostats. At least one company has since introduced a product with such a handle, according to Bradshaw, and with the added convenience of a label telling the user whether the damper is open or closed.
Surrounded by lush, green lawns elsewhere on the 135-acre campus, the dormant, tall grasses in front of the building look rather unkempt, going against conventional sensibilities about what a lawn should look like. Ironically, the carefully planted and mulched vegetated swales tucked behind the building as a stormwater management measure have a more conventionally attractive look, and might have been welcome out front instead of the grasses. There are a few such plantings arrayed along the back of a low-profile amphitheater, which punctuates the tall-grass meadow with a series of curved concrete benches. As on the rest of the campus, the plantings are irrigated with surface water from Lake Aliso, a water body on the property. The lake also supplies water, when necessary, to top off the rainwater collection pool that wraps around the gathering hall.
The architects credit Mills College with providing the support they needed to make this building work. “In other projects, you mostly hear about the challenges,” says Sheng. “ ‘It can’t be done. It’s too costly.’ With Mills the whole college was engaged, and with a can-do attitude.” While the green features of the projects speak for themselves, “for us it’s more than the sum of all these systems,” notes Mottola. “The building is a social engine for the school, providing collaborative spaces in places where they get a lot of visibility. That’s where it’s really a success.”