"A doctor can bury his mistakes, but an architect can only advise his clients to plant vines."
– Frank Lloyd Wright
Volume 74 | Issue 3
May 2006

Facility puts sustainable design to the test

Joe Sugg and Elizabeth Chaney

Public and private academic institutions, anxious to differentiate themselves and compete for market share in an age of declining funding, must identify how to afford and implement innovative design elements in their facilities. Among the popular design trends that also make sense for the educational and social environment of the college campus is green building. But as the green building movement takes hold, academic institutions ask: “Where is the proof?”

As Santa Clara University, a private university located in Silicon Valley, attempted to answer this question, it became clear that the effort should be aligned with the overall objectives of the university and should consider not just the design and building process, but the learning process as well. SCU has taken a proactive and rather unusual approach to the question of proof. As the university prepares to implement its capital improvements program, the questions it is tackling related to sustainable design and systems include:

  1. What does sustainable design look like in an ideal facility? What does it feel like or evoke among its users?
  2. How does the facility fit within the university’s core mission of education and enrichment, while performing cost-effectively in both initial and long-term operations?
  3. How do we ensure that the sustainable facility is operationally efficient without compromising function, comfort, and our mission?
  4. Will the facility’s innovative systems or design require more initial maintenance or a high staff learning curve to reap its full cost-saving or energy-saving benefits?
  5. How do we select new products and systems that are continuing to evolve, or is it better to wait for more time-tested versions (early adapter versus proven)?
  6. How do we maximize the facility’s value to the university, including incorporating it into the curriculum and daily university life?

To help answer these questions, SCU created a “sustainable demonstration building,” which provides a living laboratory to serve the university’s space needs while it is also monitored and studied for the differences in comfort and energy use it provides. Opened in late February, the Kennedy Commons Sustainable Demonstration Building is a 7,500 square foot residential support environment that houses a multipurpose room, small kitchen, lounge, den, offices, and two classrooms. The building supports the 800 students housed in four adjacent residential units.

Commitment to change

While the university has formally adopted a sustainability policy, it is not just talking the talk. As Assistant Vice Provost for Student Life Matt Cameron said:

I believe there is a strong and intentional commitment, on behalf of the university, to build for renewal and sustainability. There are two other significant projects coming close to breaking ground: (1) Library and (2) School of Business … [and] there is full intention to use sustainability construction in building both buildings. (personal communication, February 8, 2006)

But for now, the Kennedy Commons is the showpiece of green design on the campus, arising out of a need for a gathering space to complement the new on-campus housing structure. Several years ago the university moved to a Residential Learning Community philosophy. A precursor to this philosophy is the traditional “themed” housing. At SCU all on-campus residents live within an RLC. Each RLC has a professional housing staff person, resident minister, and faculty director (primarily live-in). Programming, including academic preparation, is done within the RLC and reflects the RLC topic.

Essentially there is an “east side” cluster of housing buildings and a “west side” cluster of housing buildings on the campus. The college union, known as Benson Memorial Center, is right in the middle of the east and west sides. The Kennedy Commons project is physically located in the middle of the west side and about 100 yards west of Benson Memorial Center.

One of the west side RLCs is Cypress, a community specifically focused on environmental issues. According to its Web site:

Cypress fosters a vision for a sustainable future for all creatures, and provides leadership by supporting the SCU campus-wide Sustainability Initiative. Cypress residents assess and implement programs designed to reduce waste, improve future building designs, and engage in community habitat restoration projects. Cypress creates a home for anyone interested in a safe, clean, and healthy world. (Santa Clara University, 2005, ¶ 3)

So, there is an obvious connection to the new Kennedy Commons project, the RLC Cypress, and the Environmental Studies academic program. The intent is that Kennedy Commons first and foremost will support the west side RLCs but also serve as a living laboratory for future SCU construction.

As with any project that requires fundamental change, project champions are required to keep the vision moving forward. To create synergy around the change in attitudes, communication outreach is critical.

For the Kennedy Commons, the champions emerged after the initial project design—from the university’s Environmental Studies Institute to the College of Arts and Science—and later support included those working in campus programming and operations. With this force, the university president, Father Paul Locatelli endorsed the initiative to reinvent the Kennedy Commons as a sustainable demonstration project.

Purpose of performance

The prior problem of getting administrative focus on a sustainable building had been wrapped around the initial perceptions of “proof” as to how the building would perform over time. Because the Kennedy Commons was a sufficiently small project, SCU interrupted the original Commons design process, hired KMD Architects and its team of sustainability professionals (sustainable mechanical, electrical, and structural experts), and conducted a fast redesign involving the design/build contractor and the landscape architect. Considering that the investment in Kennedy Commons was relatively small ($4.1 million project cost; $3.2 million construction cost), the argument to experiment with this building was easily supported.

The design outreach involved students, faculty, the design and construction team, and the sustainability experts. The brainstorming that took place created a healthy discussion of why, how, when, where, and what techniques were of interest for this facility. The combinations of systems also were explored to learn about maximum efficiency, such as types of windows mixed with daylighting design or a thermal tower in conjunction with under-floor air systems. Also, the decision to incorporate straw bale walls, while not a likely building material for the campus’s future large-scale buildings, was of interest to the students and faculty. The forum championed the idea that the students and faculty would take the experience of that system with them into the world as they purchased or built their own homes and small buildings.

Sean Huang, KMD’s design principal said:

The goal of the new building is less about performance than creating change through awareness as a hands-on laboratory of sustainable technologies that people can ‘touch and feel.’ … Santa Clara University has the foresight that, to become ‘green,’ there has to be support from all its constituents and the technology has to be something accessible and understandable. (personal communication, February 4, 2006)

SCU took its mission of education seriously and developed an interactive Web site (www.scu.edu/sustainability/commons) about the sustainable building features and included a live webcam to record the construction process. Amy Shachter, senior associate dean of SCU’s College of Arts and Science, said:

The SCU Commons Building’s sustainability features are a tangible demonstration of the university’s commitment to advanced learning, rooted in practical methods of education. With this collaboration of design, education, and the environment, we now have an innovative student commons facility and a working laboratory for the future. (personal communication, February 4, 2006)

In addition, each sustainable design feature is exposed either by the nature of the system’s visibility or through transparent acrylic panels. A signage program helps visitors understand what they are seeing, the goal of the system, and its impact on the environment. “My favorite part [of the facility] is the educational aspect,” Cameron said (personal communication, February 8, 2006). “There is signage that describes the construction and why it is sustainable ... anywhere from water-free urinals to how the building is heated and cooled to the vegetation on the roof to how [straw] bales and shredded denim are used to insulate the walls.”

The purpose of the Kennedy Commons Sustainable Building is three-fold:

  • Educate students, faculty, staff, and visitors about the possibilities of sustainable design and the social responsibility to protect the environment through smart use of resources.
  • Inform SCU administrators and faculty regarding the differences in the sustainable systems by providing a “test bed” for long-term operations, initial cost, and comfort through monitoring of the different systems as a precursor to implementation in larger buildings anticipated for campus growth.
  • Provide a community resource for other building owners and for education regarding sustainable design that can incorporate new technologies and systems over time for testing purposes

The Kennedy Commons was built not only to serve as a gathering and educational space for the nearby residence halls, but also as a test facility for innovative, green technologies not considered mainstream on U.S. campuses. “The key attributes of sustainable architecture are design concepts, construction technologies, and materials that seek to minimize the impact we have on the environment,” said Don Akerland, campus architect and director of planning and projects, Santa Clara University (personal communication, February 4, 2006). By including several sustainable design attributes, the hope is that the Kennedy Commons can be used as a case study for future building projects on the Santa Clara campus and others.

The design elements

Before any blueprints were created, the first issue planners needed to consider was where to place the building. “Both site selection and site planning have a major impact on the relative ‘greenness’ of any facility being planned. … Thoughtful placement of a building on a site promotes energy conservation by taking advantage of natural site features such as topography, sunlight, shade, and breezes” (U.S. Department of Energy, 2004, ¶ 1). The Kennedy Commons design optimizes daylighting, with the ability to captitalize on solar power, mitigate solar heat gain, andutilize winds for natural ventilation.

According to some estimates, up to 40 percent of landfill waste is construction debris (Bainbridge, 2000). Most of the construction and finish materials used in the Kennedy Commons are made of recycled or renewable resources, minimizing its environmental impact now and at the end of its life. Among the materials used was straw bale insulation. This material is not only sustainable, it also is often more economical and offers a better barrier to weather and noise when contrasted with other available insulation materials (Bainbridge, 2000). According to Green Builder (2004), “Straw bale construction uses baled straw from wheat, oats, barley, rye, rice and others in walls covered by stucco” (¶ 1).

With future increases to construction and energy costs likely, this form of insulation improves the “comfort and health of the built environment while maximizing use of renewable resources and minimizing life-cycle costs” (Bainbridge, 2000).

Several other building features also help conserve energy and reduce utility costs. Windows allow natural daylighting and sensor-controlled lighting minimizes electricity use, as does the Kennedy Commons’ heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) system. A visible feature of the HVAC system is the thermal chimney. The facility’s thermal chimney creates a vacuum that draws heat from the building for natural ventilation. A thermal chimney has nothing to do with a fireplace; it is a tall, narrow structure (sometimes a stairwell, but in this case a tower of windows), that has a vent at the top, high above the roof level. The sun naturally heats the air in the tower, causing it to rise to the top and out the vent. To replace the hot air, cooler air is drawn from inside the facility. That air is then replaced by air flowing inside from vents and windows. This cycle is repeated constantly, allowing for natural ventilation.

Additionally, a ground water cooling system reduces power loads for air conditioning needs. The ground water temperature is typically constant, remaining at 45° to 50° F, no matter what the above-ground temperature is. Circulating water up from the ground and through the facility’s heating and cooling system “provides the means of transferring heat to the earth in summer, and extracting heat from the earth in winter” (French, n.d., ¶ 17). In the Kennedy Commons, chemical coolants were eliminated using this cooling system, which has the additional benefit of being a long-lasting solution; sound installations are expected to function for 50 years or more (French, n.d.).

To maintain the Kennedy Commons’ HVAC, power, and data systems, raised-access floors were installed in the classrooms. In addition to its easy access, one of the greatest benefits with the raised-floor system is its inherent flexibility. With technology continuously changing, the raised-floor system allows minor and major adjustments to be made easily (merely a matter of switching tiles to relocate cables or air vents) and with minimal waste (no ripped carpet or drywall to dispose of).

To ensure the facility’s heating and cooling system is running efficiently, the Kennedy Commons also features a radiant heat system to test for differences in comfort and operations against the under-floor mechanical system. If more people are using the facility, and releasing body heat, the under-floor system is wired to compensate for the room temperature, not necessarily the under-floor temperature.

Outside the facility is an energy management system that maximizes an enormous power source—the sun. Trellises covered with photovoltaic cells shade outdoor seating areas while also serving power and lighting needs of the facility. While there are many types of photovoltaic cells, such as the ones used in many gardens to power battery-free pathway lighting, these panels act as the roofing tiles for the Kennedy Commons’ patio areas and are disguised attractively with landscaping. The power they generate is collected and routed directly to wiring used to power interior lighting and equipment.

Covering the main roof of the Kennedy Commons is drought-resistant plant life, in this case sedum. This “green roof” was installed to reduce heat gain. It is an alternative to black roofing materials typically used on many large facilities and “Because the leaf surface of plants is evaporative, a significant amount of the sun’s radiation on a green roof is put to work evaporating the moisture in the plants. The larger the total leaf area on a green roof, the greater this natural cooling effect” (Lambert, 1999, ¶ 8). A waterproof membrane covers the actual roof structure, on top of which is a lightweight layer of soil in which the plants are secured. According to Lambert (1999), other reasons green roofs are ecologically sound and economically efficient are:

One square meter of leaf surface supplies enough oxygen, through photosynthesis, to supply one person’s requirements for an entire year. Since the foliage in plants binds dust, all green roofing solutions further improve air quality by reducing dust. … [And] plant life actively suppresses noise, presenting a barrier to sound vibration, green roofs reduce the noise-related stress of urban environments. (¶ 16–18)

While the facility already features many sustainable elements, it also was designed with the ability to incorporate more efficient or economical technologies in the future. Items such as window panes, wall types, and mechanical systems can be replaced over time as they evolve in the industry, minimizing the costs of future renovations or updates.

Strategic, sustainable planning

Sustainable designed buildings demonstrate these types of benefits, and universities are uniquely positioned to contribute to the growing body of evidence and research behind those conclusions. At SCU, a proposal under discussion for the Kennedy Commons would study the two classrooms when occupied for one- to two-hour periods and analyze the impact of indoor air temperature on the inhabitants. The premise of the study is to determine if there is an ideal differential between indoor and outdoor air temperature that creates or enhances a learning environment, and what might be the maximum indoor temperature that students and faculty are willing to tolerate and still have a productive learning environment. This stems from the question related to “over-conditioning” of space whereby inhabitants are often too cold given the exterior air temperature in any particular season.

How can other existing campuses learn from SCU and reap benefits from focusing on sustainability? For example, with billions of square feet just on U.S. campuses, the overall impact of decreasing energy and resource use by 10 percent could be significant. New campuses such as the University of California–Merced have preplanned their sustainable infrastructure, but most institutions exist within the confines of their present campuses. University and college administrators can best incorporate sustainability into existing campuses, whether through incremental maintenance decisions or significant upgrades, if they develop an overall infrastructure master plan.

However, such planning still is not incorporated into most institutions’ approaches. Some progress is being made, but energy conservation is not yet viewed as a critical need. One major issue for college administrators is that funding appropriations are often developed on a building-by-building basis, and there may be no mechanism for looking at the entire campus infrastructure nor the impact of renovation or new construction on the overall return on investment to the institution. This includes the performance criteria of each building addition or renovation to the campus, and how it embeds itself into the overall capacity of the campus infrastructure, often taking more capacity and limiting further development. Clearly, as we face declining resource issues, it behooves academic institutions to understand the value of their infrastructure in their capital improvement programs.

In a time of fluctuating and rising construction costs, affordability is a constant concern for academic institutions. Despite the link between initial construction cost funding and long-term operational costs, academic institutions often favor initial investments related to program space expansion without factoring the tangible benefits of the long-term investment.

Exemplifying the long-term view, SCU calculated that the inclusion of a raised-access floor system for an 84,000-square-foot building adds a premium of $5 per square foot, but reduces the energy budget by $50,000 per year. Therefore, the yield of a simple payback over eight years equates to a “no brainer” decision for a building designed with a life of 30 to 50 years.

To justify this cost-benefit approach, academic institutions that typically hold their buildings for longer than the designed life spans need to manage a process of cross-analysis among the fund allocations to create incentives for departments of capital planning, design/construction, and maintenance to make integrated, strategic decisions. Without doing so, institutions can find themselves in the typical scenario of “great idea, but we can’t afford it, and we won’t give up programs to afford it.”

Such long-term cost-benefit analyses may help institutions in everything from proper planning for capital campaigns to the Catch 22’s of meeting tougher building standards. For example, the entire University of California system is attempting to implement buildings meeting the LEED Silver standard or better. However, in this time of tight financial resources, each of the campuses struggles with the need to provide program space versus the cost implications of securing the certification. More often than not, the campus is forced to settle for a “LEED certifiable” category, not the formal endorsement itself, so as to avoid the premium cost of paperwork required by the U.S. Green Building Council and the premium reinforced in the construction industry.

Sustainability is becoming an imperative for planning efficient, competitive university environments, not just a desirable attribute. As pressures continue to build for smart use of our financial and environmental resources, administrators will find that strategic, sustainable master planning can pay off now and in the long term. As Santa Clara sophomore Katie Ryan said about the Kennedy Commons “I have to admit, I was skeptical at first, but now that I have walked through it I am really excited about using it” (Leaverton, 2006, p. 4).


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French, R.L. (n.d.). GeoExchange systems: The new heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) technology. Retrieved April 10, 2006, from: http://www.greenbuilder.com/sourcebook/groundsource/index.html.
Green Builder. (2004). A sourcebook for green and sustainable building: Straw bale construction. Retrieved April 10, 2006, from: http://www.greenbuilder.com/sourcebook/strawbale.html.
Lambert, B. (1999, Fall). The dollar and sense of green roofing. The Royal Architectural Institute of Canada. Retrieved April 10, 2006, from: http://www.garlandco.com/green-roofs-economy.html.
Leaverton, M. (2006, January 12). New ‘green’ classrooms open winter quarter. The Santa Clara, p. 4.
Santa Clara University. (2005). Residential learning communities: Cypress RLC. Retrieved April 10, 2006, from: http://www.scu.edu/rlc/sustainable.cfm.
U.S. Department of Energy. (2004, December 13). Building toolbox: building siting. Retrieved April 10, 2006, from: http://www.eere.energy.gov/buildings/info/design/buildingsiting.