A Science-Based Approach to University Campus Design

HKS takes us behind UC San Diego's new living and learning neighborhood in La Jolla, Calif.

North Torrey Pines Living and Learning Neighborhood is University of California San Diego’s largest project to date. The architects at HKS started from the hypothesis that keeping students’ wellbeing as a main driver for the design process would result in better academic performance. Moreover, the unconventional, science-based project also addressed the rising cost of housing in La Jolla, Calif., offering an affordable living option to students.

Built on a former parking lot, the new 1.6 million-square-foot campus incorporates seven buildings, including an Arts and Humanities Building, a Social Sciences Public Engagement Building, as well as four residential buildings for Sixth College. The housing portion can accommodate roughly 2,000 students at below-market rates.

Aerial View of NTPLLN. Image courtesy of HKS/Tom Harris photography

The community features a craft center and a three-story dining hall with five restaurants, as well as a market and a community kitchen. Outdoor spaces, such as a rooftop community garden boasting fresh vegetables for student use, are also available. Additionally, dedicated bike lanes, a basketball court and 1,200 below-grade parking lots were also incorporated in the project.

While other similar projects have the living and learning parts of the campus segregated, HKS worked toward a truly mixed-use neighborhood that encourages social and academic interaction on multiple scales. 

The campus partially opened with some restrictions in the fall of 2020 and fully opened this July. Thom Greving, principal & design director with HKS, talked to Multi-Housing News about the particularities of the project’s design.

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What was HKS’s vision for NTPLLN?

Thom Greving, Principal & Design Director, HKS. Image courtesy of Daryl Shields/HKS

Greving: UC San Diego is experiencing unprecedented enrollment growth in a city where housing costs are 2.8 times higher than the national average, and housing availability is below the need. UC San Diego is committed to creating new student housing at below-market rates to equitably provide the benefits of living on campus for as many students as possible.

While the pandemic taught us that the learning part of a “living and learning” campus experience can be accommodated online, it also made it very clear—through its absence—how critical the living part is to student personal development.

The design concepts were focused on designing a neighborhood that would fully leverage the benefits of a mixed-use community in ways that would positively affect better student outcomes.

Was designing spaces for Sixth College and its experiential learning system any different from other, more traditional college environments?

Greving: UC San Diego recognizes the role of design in creating successful environments and experiences, and their performance-driven vision aligns with our design methodology. Consequently, the project brief was quite qualitative in additional to quantitative, and a piece of original research was required as a deliverable. It’s the first time in my career where I’ve seen this.

Our hypothesis was that designing with health and wellness in mind could positively affect better student experience and outcomes. Our internal research advisory is currently performing a longitudinal study comparing the previous living environment with their new home.

Highly mixed-use programming to create community. Image courtesy of HKS/Tom Harris photography

Often, campuses are segregated in their planning, with residential areas separated from learning environments. A key concept in this project was to provide a fully mixed-use neighborhood where all aspects of student life were intertwined at every scale. 

Did the specificity of each department influence the design of individual buildings?

Greving: Yes. In working with the two areas, they expressed very different “personalities.” The leadership team in social sciences was very interested in interaction, transparency and openness, and, while also important to the arts and humanities leadership, they recognized the significance of bringing together faculty and staff from their areas into one, singular location on campus to better serve students, and were therefore more inwardly focused and contemplative in character.

The characters were reflected in the interior and exterior design. For example, the Social Sciences division has more glass between rooms and to the exterior. Even though they are seen as two separate buildings, in fact they are joined in the middle by shared conferencing spaces, not only for efficiency but also to encourage interaction and the interdisciplinary nature of the two divisions and UC San Diego, in general. This is also expressed in the shared roof terraces that are outdoor extensions of the interior programming.

Communal spaces have an important role in shaping the campus life and community. How were they organized within NTPLLN, and is COVID-19 changing the way they are used?

Greving: The design of experiences at every scale is important, and yes, the communal spaces provide opportunities for social interaction, which is crucial when dealing with anxiety and loneliness issues, for example.

In the residential buildings, Great Rooms were designed at all elevator lobbies so that students would need to pass through them when coming and going from their rooms. Multistoried, they connect adjacent floors and provide a variety of social spaces such as balconies, kitchens, and study and lounge environments.

Residential Tower Great Room. Image courtesy of HKS/Tom Harris photography

During the design process, every user type was assigned a persona and as concepts developed, each persona was mapped in various daily activity scenarios to understand where desired social or learning encounters might naturally or more conveniently happen. Plans were adjusted to make these happenings more likely. Places to “see and be seen,” such as the dining hall, were located prominently in the center of campus. 

Outdoor spaces were each programmed to provide a variety of settings for eating, studying, playing and connecting socially. Because the project is dense, rooftop areas increase the amount of accessible outdoor area with barbecue grills and community gardens as well as places to enjoy the incredible views of the ocean.

Because of COVID-19, most of the retail, community spaces and learning environments have not yet opened, but outdoor areas programmed for various activities are being enjoyed.

Did the global health crisis impact the outcome of the overall project and if so, in what ways?

Greving: NTPLLN opened well into the pandemic at 50 percent capacity for the residences, with the dining hall and the market the only operating amenities. The community, workplace and learning environments are expected to open with 100 percent residential occupancy in the fall of 2021.

The pandemic has provided an important reminder that designing with flexibility in mind as well as a focus on health and wellness can provide needed resiliency in unforeseen conditions.

In the pandemic, access to fresh outdoor air became the difference between spaces that were considered safe and those that were not. For this project, the natural ventilation strategies and access to outdoor environments on all levels were certainly beneficial. Having a community market and access to kitchens made it easy for the students to stay at home. Being able to see and hear activity in the neighborhood from a distance provided a sense of belonging, and outdoor environments were key places to socialize, study and exercise more safely.

What were the main challenges you encountered during the design process?

Greving: Designing such a dense, complex and large project in a way that aligned with our design objectives of maximizing open space and creating a welcoming, human-scaled community was our biggest challenge.

Pedestrians were made the priority and parking was placed underground. In addition to addressing climate conditions, building massing was designed to reduce the apparent scale. Articulated podium buildings don’t extend over five stories and are modulated to provide the walls of outdoor rooms with setbacks and canopies at the sidewalk. Narrow towers step back from the facades of the podiums below and are bent to break up long surfaces. 

Multipurpose rooftop area overlooking the ocean. Image courtesy of HKS/Tom Harris photography

NTPLLN is targeting the prestigious LEED Platinum certification. What are the main features of its energy-efficient strategy?

Greving: UC San Diego is committed to design and construct all new buildings and major renovations to a minimum LEED-Silver rating. NTPLLN is expected to become the fifth LEED Platinum project on campus and the project received a 10th Annual Sustainable Innovation Award from the USGBC LA Chapter.

Building massing and arrangement was guided by computational analysis to reduce heat gain, maximize natural breezes and take advantage of daylight and ocean views. Seventy percent of the residential program is naturally ventilated and all offices have operable windows.

A photovoltaic array provides the electricity for the net-zero underground parking structure and a carbon negative anaerobic digester processes 1,000 tons of food waste per week into biogas and fertilizer that is used for a carbon-negative outdoor fireplace, a community garden and landscaping.

Working with the university, the design team wrote the curriculum and taught Introduction to Green Building, the first LEED-specific course to integrate NTPLLN as a case study. The course is now a permanent part of the curriculum.

How did the student community embrace the new buildings?

Greving: Because the partial opening happened during the pandemic, we were unable to be on site to conduct our post-occupancy research. This situation led to a delightful solution: We were able to establish a research fellowship position and bring on a UC San Diego Real Estate and Development student who lives in the project to do the behavior mapping, conduct focus group conversations and data gathering. Her observations, as a user, have turned out to be even more rich than what we would have been able to see as visitors.

Being largely confined to their rooms, student ingenuity wasn’t squelched, as students found new ways to interact, make new friends and socialize. Students used their windows as galleries for personal expression, creating post-it window displays of political messages, pop culture figures and internet memes and showcasing decorations affiliated with identities. Students also relaxed and enjoyed performances in the central outdoor green space.

What are the current trends in student housing design and how did the global health crisis impact the field?

Greving: With the recognition that the lessons needed to become a well-functioning adult in society don’t just happen in the classroom, the living and learning neighborhood is a growing trend.

With 2,000 undergraduate beds and 915,500 gross square feet, NTPLLN is an impressive addition to the campus and a key milestone in a long-term campus transformation. Universities also recognize that meaningful interactions with the surrounding community provide students with a critical component of their education and these residential neighborhoods are being designed to be the catalyst for these experiences as well.

Dining area with various food outlets. Image courtesy of HKS/Tom Harris photography

Student economic disparity continues to make equitable access to education, especially a residential campus experience, more and more difficult to provide, and paying attention to student mental and physical health as contributors to student success continues to grow as a design driver. The pandemic was quite a financial blow to educational institutions who will continue to look to design thinkers to find ways to innovate and maximize value in their capital expenditures.

An example is the large fixed-seat, tiered-seating auditoriums—although often seen as not aligning with contemporary teaching and learning methods—are still needed to accommodate large mandatory curriculum requirement classes. Interestingly, during the COVID-19 pandemic, universities found that these classes could be successfully accommodated online and are considering whether more flexible learning environments could be a priority in future construction that would provide more value. 

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