Not bad for a 12-year old university once dismissed as the school of last resort in the University of California’s 10-campus system, which boasts UCLA, Cal-Berkeley, and three national laboratories.
This year, U.S. News & World Report ranked tiny, research-oriented UC-Merced, the UC system’s newest and smallest member, as one of the nation’s top 100 public universities, the youngest ever to be so designated. Composed entirely of LEED-certified buildings, the 6,700-student campus also been cited by the Sierra Club as one of its “Cool Schools” for its commitment to sustainable design and operation. Now, UC-Merced is set to make an even bigger splash.
As part of an ambitious public-private partnership (P3), UC-Merced is leveraging the high-powered leadership of statewide UC President Janet Napolitano — both former Arizona governor, and former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security — into a new, $1.3-billion, sustainable expansion that will include more than 2 million sq ft of new classrooms, research facilities, dorms and recreational buildings. The project, located in the San Joaquin Valley, some 60 miles northwest of Fresno, broke ground in mid-October.
“UC Merced is poised to become a model for other campuses as we look for more efficient ways to construct, operate and maintain facilities,” said Napolitano at the groundbreaking.
Significantly, the estimated four-year project also marks the first time the UC system has contracted with a single private development team (P3) for a multi-year, multi-building undertaking of this scope. The P3 team includes developer Plenary Group, San Francisco-based Webcor Builders, architect-engineer-planner SOM, and operations & management lead Johnson Controls. In addition to financing, designing and constructing new facilities as a single, fast-track project, the development team, named Plenary Properties Merced (PPM), will also assume responsibility for ensuring major building systems operate as designed throughout a 39-year contract term.
At SOM’s website, it describes its work on the program’s existing cornerstone structure:
Designed as the gateway to the University of California Merced campus, this LEED® Gold-certified building houses the main library, student union, administrative offices, and technology services. The structure is V-shaped, with two wings connected by a taller “core” building that contains an atrium and a reading room. With the (site) in the hot Central Valley, SOM employed several sun-mitigation strategies that reduce solar heat while maintaining views to the campus and landscape beyond. The building is oriented north-south, with deep-set, shaded facades. Operable garage doors, loggias, and arcades provide an extended “campus living room” and invite students to work and congregate outdoors. In the evening, the building’s louvers reflect light and turn (it) into a glowing lantern.
Added UC-Merced Chancellor Dorothy Leland last week, “PPM has produced a compact, environmentally sensitive design that blends beautifully with our existing campus, facilitates our multi-disciplinary teaching and research methods, and provides flexibility for future changes in building usage. Most important, it’s a cost-effective way of building out our campus.”
Public Hesitation, Reassurance & Needs
Nevertheless, some faculty members were skeptical about the P3 contract and the unusual relationship with private developers and contractors on a state education capital project. But speaking recently to the Los Angeles Times, Daniel Feitelberg, UC-Merced’s vice chancellor for planning and budget, said the P3 arrangement gives the team incentive to deliver quality buildings on time, or face reduced payments.
Sited on a 219-acre parcel, plans call for aligning state-of-the art research labs along new quads and adding a multi-functional dining facility. Nearly doubling the size of the existing campus, the expansion also will accommodate 1,700 beds, allowing UC-Merced to boost its enrollment from 6,700 students to 10,000. All told, the project will create 10,000 construction jobs, the school estimates. “We have an acute need to grow,” added Feitelberg. Last year, UC-Merced received 22,000 applications for only 2,100 spots.
Among other factors, growth can be attributed to research accolades and a respected, rising faculty, which includes Roland Winston, director of UC Solar, an enterprise currently involved in making solar energy more efficient and affordable across all of the UC campuses.
As Winston’s presence suggests, UC-Merced’s is particularly dedicated to sustainable design and practices, an attribute that has proven a powerful calling card to prospective students. Among other achievements UC-Merced is the only U.S. university built entirely of LEED-certified buildings, school officials say. To date, the university has earned seven LEED platinum certifications, eight gold certifications, one silver certification, with certification of three additional facilities pending.
“Deep in my heart, I wanted to go to UC Merced because everything you heard about it was that it was going green,” said student Gabriel Picazo, an aspiring engineer, speaking to reporters.
Upon completion, the ongoing expansion will extend that tradition.
The design includes passive solar and district-level strategies to harness appropriate levels of daylight and take advantage of exposure to northern light while controlling heat gain and reducing glare. LED lighting will be located throughout the expansion.
Additionally, buildings will connect to an existing central plant’s 30,000-ton/hour thermal energy storage tank that provides campus cooling. The system reduces operational carbon emissions by shifting cooling electricity demand to off-peak times when the cleanest grid electricity supplies are available, according to Johnson Controls.
And here’s a particularly tall order: The new facilities will adhere to a campus-wide pledge to achieve Triple Net Zero energy usage, zero landfill waste, and zero net greenhouse gas emissions, all by 2020.
If that goal is achieved, rest assured, it will not just be prospective high school students who take notice.