Energized: Can a University Campus Reach Net Zero by 2025?

By Tommy Zakrzewski, PhD

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, a leader and innovator, 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.

UCSD 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. UCSD is also on schedule to reach its 2020 objective to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 20% below 1990 levels.

A New Living and Learning Home for Sixth College

UCSD’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.

Modeled after mixed-use urban forms, NTPLLN is a dynamic interdisciplinary environment that combines academic, residential, commercial and cultural programming designed to reduce the impact of the built environment for current and future generations. Prominently positioned at the center of UCSD’s 1,200-acre campus, NTPLLN is the new home for Sixth College, as well as the university’s social sciences and arts and humanities departments. The vibrant 1.5-million square-foot neighborhood fulfills UCSD’s vision of a fully integrated university community by blending residential housing for 2,000 students, academic buildings, research laboratories, classrooms and community space to create a truly immersive learning experience.

NTPLLN opened this fall and is currently housing approximately 1,100 students due to COVID-19.

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 tries to promote healthy human and environmental interactions, as well as improve air, water, and soil quality for enhanced biodiversity and habitat.

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 UCSD’s administration, faculty and students.

Designed for LEED v3 Platinum certification, the design takes full advantage of the Southern California 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.

Nine percent of NTPLLN’s energy costs are offset by on-site renewable energy. To ensure that the building construction and system design and installation achieve higher energy efficiency and environmental quality, NTPLLN will meet a 30% energy improvement when compared to the 2016 California Energy Commission Title 24 Building Energy Efficiency Standards. NTPLLN is also participating in San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) Savings By Design commercial new construction program to enhance the project’s energy performance potential.

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.

Setting Goals for LEED – and Leading through Teaching

Referencing the Chancellor’s vision for the university and goals identified in the 2008 UC San Diego CAP, in collaboration with UCSD 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 UCSD. I participated as a guest lecturer in spring 2020 and will be doing so again this fall. 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 UCSD and the broader community. The North Torrey Pines Living & Learning Neighborhood (NTPLLN) project presents a transformational opportunity for the campus to nurture a collaborative and interdisciplinary living and learning community that will provide students with an educational experience that encourages collaboration, leadership, and innovation in a diverse and interconnected world, supporting the UC San Diego Strategic Plan.

More broadly, The University of California has more than 40 LEED buildings, with most new construction targeting Gold certification or higher, including another HKS-designed project on UCSD’s campus – 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.

Tommy Zakrzewski, PhD

Dr. Tommy Zakrzewski is Director of Integrative Energy Engineering at HKS. He leads the integration of sustainable development goals with building engineering physics and analytics as a primary practice focus. Tommy is known for leading energy-focused projects and believes that a low carbon future is forged by integrative architecture and engineering.