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The Greening of Academe

The University of California's new Merced campus will be the first in the country to reach LEED Silver status. But it wasn't easy trying to build green.

September 01, 2005 |

The University of California's 10th campus is nestled deep in the San Joaquin Valley, 40 miles south of Modesto, just outside the city of Merced (population 63,893 in 2000). Amid arid farmlands wedged between the peaks of the surrounding Sierra Mountains, the first new UC campus in 40 years—and the first campus in the entire country to aspire to LEED Silver certification from the U.S. Green Building Council—is taking shape.

Nearly 20 years ago, UC's Board of Regents chose Merced as the site of the system's next major campus. They were concerned that college attendance in the Central Valley had historically trailed the rest of the state, even though at the time the area had the highest projected growth rate of college-age students in the state.

Not until 1999, however, was the project given the go-ahead. It took another three years to acquire the land—7,000 acres from the Virginia Smith Trust, only 910 of which will be used for the campus, the rest of which will be held as a preserve.

In 2002, as LEED for New Construction was beginning to catch fire and design for the new campus was about to begin, the chancellor of UC Merced, Carol Tomlinson-Keasey, issued a policy requiring LEED Silver for all construction on the campus and hired Cynthia Hughes-Doyle as director of environmental stewardship to oversee it. The UC Board of Regents did not adopt a sustainability policy until 2004.

"All our architects, engineers, and contractors had a contractual commitment to meet LEED Silver," said James Smith, AIA, campus architect for UC Merced. "It wasn't something that was done casually."

Deliberate or not, the decision to shoot for LEED Silver would have far-reaching impact, as the Building Team for UC Merced found itself trying to achieve the university's noble goal while suffering numerous setbacks: shortages of materials, erratic prices for steel and concrete, labor problems, bad weather, and the difficulty of completing a large-scale construction project in the harsh climate of the Central Valley.

The $31 million, 150,000-sf student housing complex (left) at the

, opened to students Sept. 6.
Photo: Jeff Yoders

"It's been tough because the construction market has been a real bear to deal with and we've had all sorts of problems," said Lindsay Desrochers, UC Merced's vice chancellor for administration.

An unforgiving climate

For a century and a half, the San Joaquin Valley has been irrigated by a complex system of rivers and man-made canals (some of which date back to the 1850s) that flow south from the Cascade-Sierra mountains. Although the San Joaquin River watershed occupies two-thirds to three-quarters of northern California's land, it collects only one-quarter of its rain. Further north, the Sacramento River watershed has only one-third to one-quarter of the region's land, yet it receives two-thirds to three-quarters of northern California's rainfall.

Merced itself has the most severe climate of any site in the UC system, regularly reaching temperatures above 100 degrees F. in the summer and just below the freezing point in winter.

Building to LEED Silver requirements would have been a sufficiently daunting task in and of itself for the design firms and contractors hired in 2002. As the pace of the project began to step up, however, the Merced area recorded its worst winter rainfall—32 consecutive days of rain in 2004—and the state recorded the greatest number of consecutive days above 100 degrees in a century.

The project's eight contractors—among them Swinerton and Flintco of San Francisco, Mauldin-Dorfmeier and Harris Construction of Fresno, and Howard S. Wright of Seattle—somehow overcame the weather problems. But the boom in residential construction dried up the available supply of skilled laborers, which slowed the job down, according to Desrochers.

UC Merced’s  20,000-sf, 2-million-gallon thermal storage tank (above), designed by Arup, stores all of the campus’s water and saves energy costs by cooling the water at night when electricity rates are lower.
Photo: Jeffrey Yoders

Then, in 2003, steel prices spiked, followed by the cement shortage of 2004. "The most significant issue we had was price fluctuation," said David Parkes, SVP of Flintco, the general contractor on the sciences and engineering building. "In late 2003 and early '04 we had to take a hard look at what could go to make it under budget. There were a number of ideas that would have sacrificed LEED, but those were never seriously considered by the university."

Faced with shortages of materials and labor and severe fluctuations in materials prices, the contractors were forced to simply wait until conditions improved before proceeding with certain phases of the project. Moreover, the Building Team had to live with the fact that any design elements integral to achieving LEED Silver simply were taboo. The usual value-engineering targets, such as mechanical systems, were considered vital to certification and couldn't be touched. As a result, many projects had to be delayed until prices came down.

Adding to the setbacks was a dispute over wetlands on the building site. This required a major revision to the master plan that had been developed by the San Francisco office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. "What we were left with (to build phase one) after environmental pushback on land use was a very twisted and contorted 102 acres adjacent to Lake Yosemite," said campus architect Smith. "SOM overlaid the master plan, which is an urban grid, and fit the phase one buildings within those 102 acres but also within the urban grid of the master plan."

Movement by phases

The first phase of UC Merced construction comprises 700,000 sf of new buildings, totaling $280 million. SOM completed the master plan and had a hand in designing the campus's central plant (along with London-based engineering firm Arup) and the Leo Kolligian Library (designed by SOM and Fernau and Hartman of Berkeley, Calif.). San Francisco's EHDD and the San Francisco office of Leo A Daly designed the $78 million, 174,000-sf engineering and sciences building.

The university's main classroom and office building was designed by the Thomas Hacker firm of Portland, Ore., with Swinerton managing its construction. BAR of San Francisco and The Taylor Group of Fresno designed the student housing complex and dining commons.

Almost 1,000 students, most of whom will study agriculture and conservation, started classes this month at phase one of the university. By 2030 the UC administration expects to expand the Merced enrollment to 25,000 students.

Along with UC Irvine, an existing campus undergoing expansion, UC Merced is part of a USGBC accreditation experiment that will study the feasibility of bulk certification for institutional buildings (see accompanying story). With its higher-than-required building standards, its construction has also tested the abilities of the Building Team to conform to rigorous sustainable principles while still delivering a large, campus-size project on deadline.

To conform to the demands of the local climate, all the architectural firms that worked on the campus buildings used common elements such as sunshades with spectrally selective glazing. They covered arcades to make the sidewalks hospitable in summer and protect students from wind and rain in winter.

The campus's energy-use targets were developed by the California Institute of Energy and Environment (CIEE), a UC branch. Its buildings are expected to perform at least 30% better than Title 24, California's already stringent state energy code. (The University of California system is only required to beat Title 24 by 20%.) Space has been left in the central plant for expansion; the installed equipment is sized only for projected campus loads through 2008.

Each building has various sustainability features that allow it to achieve the minimal 33 points needed to gain LEED Silver. The physical plant's processes operate at peak capacity during off-peak hours to save energy costs and balance demand. Water for the whole campus is stored in a two-million-gallon thermal storage tank next to the central plant; the water is chilled at night when energy costs are lower. Natural light illuminates labs, the library, and study areas.

A hydroelectric plant scheduled to come online in the next phase of construction will provide 90 kW of renewable energy, 30% of the campus's need. Many of the sustainable features of the campus buildings were built into their design. The engineering and sciences building is a cast-in-place concrete frame with the exterior shear walls and enclosure being made of shot-crete. This creates a highly efficient structural system that also serves as the exterior skin, which was then covered in a dash coat of colored stucco for appearance.

Opening the doors, at least part way

UC Merced officially held its grand opening September 5, but the science and engineering building won't be completed until late 2005. The library will be partially open, and only portions of the classroom building will be accessible for student use. Student housing, the physical plant, and the dining halls are all up and running. Desrochers points to the robust California labor market (which led to shortages of skilled labor) and rampant escalation in steel and cement as the biggest factors delaying some of the university building openings.

"Designing a campus from scratch is a huge undertaking under any circumstance," said Michael Duncan, senior designer in SOM's San Francisco office, who worked on the master plan. "There is an advantage. You get to think about the campus design holistically, plan for future expansion, and integrate sustainability into campus design."

Flintco's Parkes said building finishes were the only sacrifices made to bring the various pieces of the project in under budget. Acoustical ceiling tile for the concrete-framed engineering and sciences building was eliminated; the ceiling was simply painted. Some of the exterior cladding of the library project was also sacrificed. "We lost some pieces of the original façade," said SOM's Duncan. "We were satisfied with showing the structure of the building."

Phase one of UC Merced’s construction comprises 700,000 sf of new buildings on 103 acres surrounded by a nature preserve the university set aside when it bought the land. The campus's central plant (near the cooling tower) is complete. The engineering and sciences building, classroom and office building and Leo Kolligian Library are all scheduled to be complete in late 2005. Photo: Hans Marsen

Since the goal of LEED Silver was clear from the beginning, the designs were already relatively economical, which made it even tougher to find things to cut. "The intention for a LEED Silver rating was present from the beginning, and became just another part of the design process," said David Hurley of EHDD, the project manager of the engineering and sciences building. "The exterior of the building was designed with cost effectiveness in mind to begin with, the design was very lean, and finding value-engineering items was not easy."

He said most of the LEED implications for the project were simply good design decisions. "Choosing proper LEED materials, recycling, and eliminating waste are just smart decisions that contribute to the quality and health of the building and the environment we inhabit," said Hurley.

He also said building an entirely new campus would have tested any Building Team. "When you have weather, budgetary problems with materials like steel and bored-steel metal studs and the bureaucratic pace of a large state university system, you'll see that there would be delays and cuts even without designing the campus for LEED. You just hope (UC Merced) can apply those lessons to the next phase of campus construction."

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