Energized: Can a University Campus Reach Net Zero by 2025?
Can a university campus reach net zero by 2025? The task may seem too tall, the timetable too tight. But the situation is urgent. That’s why the University of California, San Diego is committed to a sustainable future through the development and adherence of a Climate Action Plan (CAP) that includes specific goals and timelines informed by operational baseline data.
UC San Diego is a longtime leader in climate change research and education, dating from Dr. Charles Keeling’s groundbreaking work linking rising levels of atmospheric carbon to fossil fuel emissions. The university has made significant progress in areas such as academics and research, energy and climate, sustainable operations, environmentally preferable procurement, waste diversion, clean transportation and water conservation and is on track to meet its ambitious sustainability goals. Chief among them, that its buildings and vehicle fleet become climate neutral by 2025.
UC San Diego’s all-inclusive transformational plan also supports many state and regional objectives and directives to tackle carbon emissions. At the building scale, the CAP is integrated within the university’s new project developments, including the HKS-designed North Torrey Pines Living and Learning Neighborhood (NTPLLN), to achieve carbon neutrality.
NTPLLN opened in fall 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The design intent led to significant positive measured outcomes for student well-being and the neighborhood is now certified LEED v3 Platinum – the largest higher education project in California to achieve that distinction.
HKS Wins 2023 COTE Top Ten Award for UC San Diego Living and Learning Neighborhood
A New Living and Learning Home for Sixth College
NTPLLN is a dynamic mixed-use neighborhood that combines academic, residential, commercial and cultural programming. It is designed to reduce the environmental impact for current and future generations. Prominently positioned on UC San Diego’s 1,200-acre campus, NTPLLN is the new home for Sixth College and the university’s social sciences and arts and humanities departments. The vibrant 1.5-million square-foot neighborhood fulfills UC San Diego’s vision of a fully integrated university community by blending residential housing for more than 2,000 students, academic buildings, classrooms and community space to create a truly immersive community-centered learning experience.
Each building houses a combination of living, learning, community and administrative facilities and provide expansive terraces with sweeping ocean views and myriad outdoor spaces, including pedestrian and bike-friendly pathways. Every design move was strategic: to create a place of health, wellness and environmental responsibility that supports student and faculty well-being and academic excellence. Additionally, NTPLLN promotes healthy human and environmental interactions and improves air, water, and soil quality for enhanced biodiversity.
Supported by several performance frameworks including LEED, Parksmart, CALGreen and the AIA 2030 Commitment, the integrated sustainability features target carbon-neutral operations by embracing initiatives that will measurably reduce energy consumption, water use and waste, ensuring the sustainable community will meet the future needs of UC San Diego’s administration, faculty and students.
Meeting and Exceeding Energy and Environmental Goals
The design takes full advantage of the local micro-climate to deliver improved environmental quality and enhanced occupant comfort within indoor and outdoor spaces at multiple levels. Future climate weather files were utilized to stress test the resiliency of the project design based on carbon emission escalation rates and mitigation scenarios, ensuring that the resources utilized for the design and construction of NTPPLN today meets the needs of the campus tomorrow.
The siting and massing of residential buildings are intentional design measures to balance access to daylighting, reduce solar gains and promote natural ventilation. The fixed exterior shading provides reductions in solar heat gains during peak cooling months, improving thermal comfort and reducing energy demand.
Given the favorable and unique climate conditions in San Diego, over 70% of the housing building area is naturally ventilated which is an alternative passive measure to using energy intensive mechanical ventilation and cooling. All residential units include operable windows to naturally cool and ventilate each unit. Studies demonstrate that passively ventilated spaces improve cognitive functions from increased volumes of outside air. And little did we know that naturally ventilated spaces and the open-air campus design would become a critically important safety feature to help protect student and faculty health during the pandemic.
A photovoltaic system powers the 1,200-space parking structure, which was designed with deep light penetrating wells for potential conversion into other uses in a car-free future. The parking structure includes various energy efficiency measures including sensors capable of detecting unsafe levels of emissions that control exhaust fans, daylighting wells to reduce electrical load from lighting and that provide an opportunity to naturally ventilate the space.
To advance campus efforts toward carbon neutrality, the NTPLLN Design Build Team integrated an on-site modular micro-anaerobic digester thereby creating a local environmental impact asset and catalyst. The anaerobic digester provides on-site generation of electrical energy from organic food waste and materials while producing valuable enrichened liquid fertilizer for community gardens. This diverts waste from the landfill and eliminates the emissions generated from offsite trucking. The anaerobic digester acts as a closed loop system where the conversion of organic waste into fuel and nutrients promotes the concept of community based, farm-to table- and back to farm, life cycle.
Since NTPLLN opened, on-site building performance metrics have been consistently tracked. The measured performance of NTPLLN resulted in an 81% reduction in measured energy use intensity (EUI) inclusive of renewables – exceeding initial targets and helping UC San Diego get even closer to reaching ambitious climate action goals.
NTPLLN also achieves a 30% energy improvement over CEC 2016 Title 24 and a 70% predicted energy reduction through the AIA 2030 Commitment. On-site renewable energy amounts to 4% of total energy while 60.5% of the electricity consumption at NTPLLN is offset through renewable energy credit purchases, procured through the University of California Wholesale Power Program. Continuous benchmarking with Energy Star Portfolio Manager, and on-going measurement and verification, aid in further decarbonizing energy and water operations at UC San Diego.
Because energy efficiency measures exceed California’s Title 24 requirements, the school was able to participate in San Diego Gas & Electric’s Savings By Design program, which awarded more than $200,000 in funding that can be applied to other needs.
Setting Goals for LEED – and Leading through Teaching
Referencing the Chancellor’s vision for the university and goals identified in the CAP, in collaboration with UC San Diego staff, Clark Construction and HKS facilitated a multidisciplinary immersion course that utilized NTPLLN as a living example of how LEED’s comprehensive approach to the built environment can substantially improve environmental outcomes at various scales.
Modeled after one of USGBC’s educational resources, the pilot course adopted the framework of LEED® Lab™, designed specifically for LEED for Building Operations and Maintenance (LEED O+M), but in the context of LEED Building Design and Construction (LEED BD+C) both in theory and application. Students gained a unique opportunity to connect and engage with professionals who designed and delivered NTPLLN by reviewing prerequisites and credits related to site considerations, energy use, water consumption, waste management and occupant comfort. They also learned how to evaluate a project’s impact on the surrounding land and ecosystem.
The LEED Living Lab pilot course is now offered for-credit — a first of its kind at UC San Diego. The desired outcome of the course is to use the built environment to broaden the students’ view so that they can mature into sustainability-focused citizens and become leaders in their fields of studies. While the focus of the CAP is foremost campus operations, it embraces the vision of a student-centric university using experiential learning techniques to provide opportunities for students to gain real-world experience. The LEED Living Lab pilot course became a cornerstone of both supporting the CAP process and delivery of NTPLLN.
Enforcing climate action plans are particularly important for the state of California where aggressive greenhouse gas reductions are demanded and are setting the pace for the nation. The desired outcome is to improve public health and air quality, conserve water, efficiently use existing resources, and increase clean energy production, thereby improving the quality of life for UC San Diego and the broader community. The NTPLLN project has been a transformational opportunity to nurture a collaborative and interdisciplinary living and learning community that provides an educational experience focused on collaboration, leadership, and innovation in a diverse and interconnected world, supporting the UC San Diego Strategic Plan.
The University of California has more than 40 LEED buildings, with most new construction targeting Gold certification or higher, including another HKS-designed project at UC San Diego — the Theatre District Living and Learning Neighborhood. With more than 4 million square feet of green building projects in its pipeline, the University of California is a leader in enhancing human and environmental health and well-being at the neighborhood, campus and community scales.
NTPLLN demonstrates — with its significant measured outcomes for environmental and human health — how climate action plans, design-build collaborations, and outcome-driven designs can positively impact the future of architecture and education.