Majoring in Green

Majoring in Green

In 1898 architect Bernard Maybeck—in his role as manager of the design competition for the University of California Berkeley masterplan—called for a college campus design for the 20th century. Above all, Maybeck felt the new campus should be beautiful and evoke a strong sense of institutional permanence. “There will be no more necessity of remodeling its broad outlines a thousand years hence,” he continued, “than there would be of remodeling the Parthenon, had it come down to us complete and uninjured.” It had to be beautiful, forever. That was all.

Fast forward to the mid-1990s when, for the eleventh time in its 117-year history, the Regents of the University of California made a priority of designing a college campus from scratch. This new campus, the first since the Regents opened UC campuses in Irvine, San Diego, and Santa Barbara in the mid-1960s, would be built on a greenfield site near the Central Valley town of Merced. The first phase, a core of four academic buildings, would replace a golf course. The full campus, which will include clusters of student housing, academic buildings, and open space organized around a central main street, is expected to take 20 to 25 years. Constructed in four phases, it will cover 910 acres and accommodate 25,000 students by the year 2030. The stakes are high: UC Merced is the first entirely new research university to open its doors in the U.S. in the 21st century.

UC Merced fills a major gap in the distribution of UC campuses across the state. According to UC Merced’s long-range development plan, the San Joaquin Valley—a region marked by a booming agricultural industry and predominantly immigrant workforce—had the state’s highest concentration of residents living more than 50 miles from a UC campus. Locating the new campus in Merced extended the geographic reach of one of the state’s two higher education systems to meet the needs of a generally underserved population.


Yet building on a rural site—situated 130 miles from the nearest metropolis—meant upping the ante when it came to minimizing its carbon footprint. With the first phase of build-out now complete, it’s clear that the architectural vision for UC Merced is not very concerned with Maybeck’s notions of “architectural art” or striving toward a lofty ideal of everlasting beauty. Instead, it has everything to do with sustainability.

The campus architecture and planning reflects an engagement in that tricky balancing act known as “smart growth.” Could the UC Merced campus accommodate new development while also mitigating its impact on the environment? Could it be the first LEED-certified, even carbon neutral, college campus in the U.S.? In light of these performative 21st-century goals, the campus—which opened in August for its third academic year—operates with machine-like efficiency.

“There was a real mandate from the university that this campus would be 20 percent more energy efficient than the rest of the UC campuses,” said Michael Duncan, associate partner in the San Francisco office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill—and the architect of the campus’ masterplan and two other buildings in the campus core. All of the buildings are required to meet a minimum of LEED Silver, or 20 percent below California’s Title 24 requirements and at or below 80 percent of the energy-demand benchmarks for existing UC buildings.

The greenest aspect of the campus might very well be its plan. SOM oriented the underlying grid about 30 degrees off the true north-south axis, which greatly simplifies the task of siting individual buildings in the most energy-efficient way possible—or with respect to the rising and setting sun. It also takes wind into account: The grid runs parallel to the path of cooling breezes coming off the surface of Lake Yosemite.

The grid orientation also outlines perimeter blocks, where buildings are arranged along the edges of streets or major walking paths (like most college campuses, the plan for UC Merced maintains a car-free academic core). In this context, where you can actually see the horizon, it seems barely relevant to call this a good urban design strategy. Yet it’s an important move that anticipates a time, 30 years from now, when 30,000 students will buzz from quadrangle to quadrangle, back and forth along the campus’ main drag. Here, SOM has imported a bit of big-city thinking into a small Central Valley town: a grid of efficient, tightly-knit development to serve as a counterpoint to the more usual pattern of suburban and exurban sprawl.

Yet Duncan is quick to point out the plan’s more innate qualities. “It’s a scheme based on Central Valley towns built around a Main Street—rather than something like a University of Virginia or Stanford that makes a first grand gesture and has to design all the buildings to support it, which can’t really result in a pattern of natural growth.”

And already some buildings within this still-developing scheme have earned kudos. Wedged between two irrigation canals, the school’s 120,000-square-foot, $36 million library and information technology center—the largest building on campus—achieved a LEED Gold rating soon after it welcomed UC Merced’s first crop of 970 students in September 2005. Designed by SOM, in collaboration with Berkeley-based Fernau & Hartman, the UC Merced Library serves as the main hub and all-in-one center for student life. “It’s the campus living room,” said Duncan, where students study, register for classes, buy books, join clubs, and hang out.

The library is V-shaped in plan with three- and four-story wings connected by a taller glassy core at its center. The core contains two double-height spaces—an atrium and a reading room—stacked on top of one another. The reading room connects to the periodicals lounge, another double-height space that cantilevers over the outdoor courtyard and creates a pleasantly shady space that draws students in toward the main entrance. Orienting the building north-south allowed the architects to take a straightforward approach to shading the interiors. Rows of horizontal glass louvers stripe the south-facing facades while strategically placed oak panels let in generous amounts of diffused northern daylight.

If the library makes the campus work on a social level, the central plant complex simply makes the campus work. The superefficient, 41,000-square-foot power plant designed by SOM, in collaboration with Arup and the California Institute for Energy Efficiency, is a three-building, $26 million complex that includes a main mechanical building and a separate telecommunications hub wrapped in a unified system of horizontal stainless steel panels. The main mechanical workhorse, however, is the two-million-gallon thermal energy storage tank—a tall cylinder clad in a vertical pattern of corrugated steel “shingles.” The materials and form are loose references to semi-trucks and grain silos, both common sights in the Central Valley’s agricultural-industrial landscape. “When we first started this job, there was just the clarity of these objects in this vast landscape,” said Duncan, who designed the building’s skin and interiors. “We wanted to make them iconically simple.”

The tank is described as “thermal,” in the sense that it acts like a giant thermos: It stores and chills all of the campus’ water. The water is cooled overnight, when lower temperatures allow the electric chillers to run more efficiently. This also saves money, since using electricity during off-peak hours costs about one-third of what it does during the day. Cold water is then pumped from the bottom of the tank, through 12-foot-high tunnels to each of the campus’ four buildings—while graywater and stormwater are pumped back and stored at the top of the tank. The central plant also earned LEED Gold certification, largely because of its recycled metal shell.

The 93,000-square-foot classroom building and 100,000-square-foot science and engineering building, designed respectively by Portland-based Thomas Hacker Architects and San Francisco–based EHDD Architecture, are also on target to meet LEED Silver standards.

How will it all come together? Ironically, for this hyper-sustainable campus, it may boil down to aesthetics. “The glass sunscreens became more thematic as a unifier than we’d initially intended,” Duncan commented. Glass fins as the next red tile roofs? With all due respect to Maybeck and the principles of his time, we will cross our fingers and see.