University of California
Enlightening Sustainability: University research facility is a teaching tool for eco-minded students.
A lantern and a thermos signify the principles that guided the design of the new campus for the University of California at Merced. The lantern, the tallest structure on campus, bridges the wings of the library and the student union, and the thermos, a 2-million-gallon tank, stores chilled water for cooling campus buildings. “One is the symbolic academic heart, and the other is the symbolic energy-performance heart of the campus,” says Michael Duncan, AIA, associate partner at the San Francisco office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), which designed the campus master plan, as well as the library and central plant. Located in California’s agricultural Central Valley, Merced is the University of California’s first new campus in four decades and the nation’s first new research university of the century. It opened in 2005 with just 1,000 students on 100 acres, but it’s slated to grow to 25,000 students and 900 acres by 2035. Those involved in Merced’s early design, a collaboration between SOM and Arup’s San Francisco office, describe a pioneering atmosphere. Arup was the lead designer of both the central plant and campus infrastructure plan, and also provided consulting engineering services for the library. SOM provided structural engineering for the library, in addition to architectural services. “We got to start fresh and design a university the way it should be,” says Duncan. The university has committed to achieving Silver certification in LEED for New Construction for every new building and maintaining those certifications through LEED for Existing Buildings—putting environmental responsibility at the forefront of the school’s identity.
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This environmental commitment was strengthened in some ways by an early controversy. After discovering vernal pools served as a habitat for more than a dozen endangered species on the original site, the university relocated to a nearby site. It purchased almost 6,000 acres, including the vernal pools, and protected them from future development, but some critics expressed concerns about the school’s effect on open space and wildlife habitat. “Whether it was right or wrong to build out there, I don’t know,” says Cynthia Hughes-Doyle, who served as Merced’s director of environmental stewardship through 2005, “but once we were building there, the burden was on us to get it right.”
A second shakeup came after design development, when the board of regents expressed frustration over the lack of cohesion among the buildings. “You’ve got to design buildings that look like they belong here,” says Thomas Lollini, FAIA, Merced’s campus architect. “That’s part of behaving like a good citizen within the campus aesthetic.” During a six-month reformulating process, the board worked with the architects to define several aesthetic themes. Among these was the use of materials—including steel, aluminum, concrete, glass, and stucco, says Lollini—that reference the Central Valley’s agricultural and industrial identity.
The team designed the campus to promote pedestrian and bicycle travel. As summer temperatures in Merced routinely exceed 100°F, the designers took advantage of natural cooling strategies. Winds from nearby Yosemite Lake offered free cooling lowering temperatures by 8 degrees, and most buildings are fringed by arcades that shade the first floor and provide comfortable outdoor spaces for walking and sitting. For each building, the Merced team established an energy-use benchmark based on data, adjusted for building type and climate, from eight other California campuses. Merced committed to using 20 percent less energy than these benchmarks for its first buildings and set a goal of 50 percent savings for the next phase of construction.
Merced’s budget was set more than five years before construction began, and during that time building costs soared. “There was a gaping hole in the budget by the time we got around to building,” says Carol Tomlinson-Keasey, who served as chancellor from 1999 through 2006. As a result, value engineering loomed over the project goals. “The first things people wanted to take out were the energy-saving things,” remembers Tomlinson-Keasey. But the environmental advocates held strong.
At one point, the budget threatened the library’s sunshades. But Arup, lead designer of the central plant and engineering consultant for the master plan and the library, had sized the mechanical systems with little margin of error; removing the sunshades was not an option without enlarging the central plant. In the end, the buildings lost some finishes. Some areas meant to be clad in metal were instead covered in plaster, for example, and the team used polished concrete floors in some areas it had intended for tile.
Both the budget and the phased nature of the project kept some desired features out of the first phase. Alisdair McGregor, PE, a principal at Arup’s San Francisco office, imagines photovoltaic arrays over the parking areas, fuel cells in the central plant, and the use of an existing 900-kW hydropower plant. The buildings are plumbed for graywater separation, and the university plans to eventually treat and reuse both graywater and blackwater.
The central plant is at the heart of the campus’s energy efficiency. The 2-million-gallon tank, or thermos, stores water that is chilled at night and distributed in a closed-loop system for daytime cooling. “It’s a lot more efficient to run chillers in the middle of the night than in the heat of the day,” says John Elliott, the campus energy manager. It’s also cheaper, as the utility charges about one-third as much for off-peak electricity as it does for peak electricity. The central plant distributes the chilled water—as well as hot water, electricity, process steam for laboratories, and telecommunications services—via a 12-foot-tall tunnel that runs along 700 feet of the campus.
The 41,000-square-foot, $26 million central plant—including the main mechanical building, a telecommunications building, and the water-storage tank—was the first Merced project to earn LEED certification. Since most of the plant’s energy use applies to other campus buildings, the Gold certification applies largely to the site and office space. The plant earned credits for alternative transportation, thermal comfort, daylight and views, recycled-content materials, sustainably harvested wood, and low-emitting finishes, among other green strategies.
Merced has secured 10 prototype credits—for stormwater runoff and site lighting, for example—that apply to all buildings on campus, through the LEED application guide for multiple buildings and on-campus building projects. “We got those approved when we turned in the central plant designs,” says Hughes-Doyle. As a result, other buildings on campus will be able to achieve those credits with minimal documentation.
At 120,000 square feet, the Library and Information Technology Center is the largest and most prominent building on campus. The building is organized with two wings and the lantern at the hinge. With LEED Gold rating, the $36 million building features natural ventilation and daylighting. To limit glare and solar gain, the building employs vertical and horizontal shading as well as low-emissivity and fritted glazing in a different configuration on each face. A central skylit stairwell allows daylight into the building’s core while venting hot air passively through louvers. The project team selected materials for their recycled content, low chemical emissions, and sustainable harvesting in addition to durability, cost, and aesthetics.
As the library was the only academic space operational at Merced’s opening, the school held classes in the still-unfinished building. “Access was through the emergency stairwell in the loading dock,” remembers Miller, who does not recommend occupying a building before it’s been commissioned. The building currently houses the student union and administrative space as well as the library, but much of this will eventually be relocated, allowing the library to grow as the student body expands.
A campuswide energy management system allows for full scheduling of the mechanical and lighting systems, and a measurement and verification system monitors “all the temperatures, all the flows, all the damper positions in everything,” according to Elliott. Together, these systems help the facilities’ managers understand and minimize energy use. Elliott considers the system essential: “If we didn’t have this, we’d lose our efficiency over time.”
The mechanical systems have frustrated Elliott—rust has been a problem in the boilers and the chillers have been suffering electrical instability on start-up. Despite these problems, efficiency has surpassed expectations. After the first year of occupancy, peak demand in the library and central plant is less than 50 percent of the benchmark, at about 1.7 watts per gross square foot. According to Elliott, Merced is spending about one-third less for energy than if the buildings were designed in minimal compliance with California’s Title 24, saving about a million dollars a year. “I’d go out on a limb and say we have the most energy-efficient campus in the world,” says Elliott.
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