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UC Merced Uses P3 to Transform Campus

By Kevin Wilcox

A public-private partnership will dramatically transform the young campus by blending student life, housing, and academics into a cohesive whole. 

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The University of California at Merced has ambitious plans to double its student body by 2020, so it is expanding its campus with multifunctional buildings. Courtesy of UC Merced

April 18, 2017—California's fertile San Joaquin Valley is home to nearly 4 million residents, who live among rich agricultural farmland that produces raisins, grapes, nuts, citrus fruit, and an array of vegetables that together constitute about 13 percent of total U.S. agricultural production.

In 2005 the University of California established a campus in the valley outside of Merced and north of Fresno that occupies an incredible landscape of grasslands near the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. In the past dozen years the Merced campus has grown to serve about 6,000 students, most of whom are the first members of their families ever to attend college. 

Now the university has released ambitious plans to double its student body by 2020, a goal that will require a significant expansion of the young campus and the rapid addition of 12 buildings. This provided a unique opportunity for the San Francisco office of the design and engineering firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), which prepared the original campus master plan and designed two of the first four buildings on campus, namely, the library and the central plant. The firm has been hired to provide a master plan for the expansion

The university has a "pioneering mission and a dedicated faculty and staff that see themselves as almost entrepreneurial in their delivery of education," says Michael Duncan, FAIA, a design director in SOM's San Francisco office. "It's very rare that you get the opportunity to revisit something that you were part of to start with, see how it's been living, and then adjust it.

Also rare is the design/build/develop/maintain project delivery method that the university is using and that Duncan believes could become a model for other higher education projects in the United States. The project is being financed, in part, through a public-private partnership (P3) led by Plenary Properties Merced. Of the overall $1.3-billion budget for the project, $600 million will come from revenue bonds issued by the university; $590.35 million from Plenary Properties; and $148.13 million from Merced campus funds. The team led by Plenary Properties will then have a long-term operations and maintenance contract with the university that will include performance incentives. 

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Most of the 12 new buildings slated for the campus expansion, top left, will be located south of the existing campus. SOM

This type of financing arrangement, Duncan explains, can create a design environment in which a developer places increased importance on the overall life-cycle costs of the building. This can then tip the balance toward components that are higher in quality but cost more initially. Such components would offer a greater return on investment over the long term.

"That's an interesting aspect of this process," Duncan says. "The challenge, of course, is this is all being done very quickly." Added to the risk is the fact that, he says, "these buildings are being designed for programs that don't even exist [yet].

SOM, which is also serving as the principal architect for the new research laboratory, assembled a team of architects that includes WRNS Studio, HOK, Page Southerland Page, Inc., and Mahlum Architects, Inc. The San Francisco office of Arup is providing engineering and infrastructure development, and the San Francisco office of Webcor Builders is the main contractor. 

"We put together a team of like-minded designers," Duncan says, "people we admire, people we like working with—other architects whom we [think are] exceptionally talented [and] engineers as well. Most of these engineers are people we worked with before." The team members were also selected to bring variety to the project. 

"We didn't want the sense that this whole half of campus was coming from a single hand," Duncan explains. "In order to give a richness of variety [to] this master plan framework, we intentionally mixed up who worked where.

Because such a significant portion of the funding comes from the P3 team, a major portion of SOM's new master plan will be realized in just a few years, rather than over decades, as is more typical. This will enable the team to embrace the university's ambitious sustainability goals on a systemic, rather than building-by-building, basis. For instance, the team was able to employ an innovative thermal energy storage tank at the central plant, add a second holding tank, and extend heating and cooling lines down the planned Main Street to service the new buildings.

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The ground floors of the new dormitory buildings will feature classrooms, retail spaces, and gathering spots to create a lively, small-town atmosphere. Courtesy of UC Merced

"There are very few chances you get to do that on a campuswide scale," Duncan says. "Usually you are stuck with adding on. [Here], not only does each building perform independently, but they … plug into more efficient systems that serve larger segments of the campus. That has been important.

The university wants the campus to produce as much energy as it consumes, generate no net waste, and produce no net greenhouse gas emissions, goals that, if attained, would make the project "triple net zero." In addition to these ambitious goals, the new buildings will be designed to achieve gold certification in the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program.

The design team won the project in a competition with an entry that envisioned as many as 22 buildings, which have been winnowed down to the current 12. Many of the buildings grew to offer floor space from the eliminated structures. The new speak the architectural language of the original structures, which embody a style that is open and straightforward and features exposed structures-a style common in the region's agricultural industry. 

When SOM's designers revisited the campus design, they discovered that a canal that separates the academic spaces on the original campus from student housing and parking facilities was serving as something of a barrier. Most student activity during the day was centered on the quad to the north, while activity at night revolved around student housing. One of the university's goals for this project is to unify the campus and increase its overall vitality. 

To do this, SOM's design adds a second bridge across the canal, creating a loop through campus that will be used primarily by pedestrians and bicyclists. The plan pushes cars and parking facilities to the edges of the campus and threads retail, classroom, and meeting spaces along a new, lively main street that will be evocative of a small town. 

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A centerpiece of the campus addition is the Ramble, a picturesque pond remaining from a golf course that previously occupied the site. SOM

"They were looking for dynamic vitality and place making—this focus on the whole student growth has been a key feature," Duncan says. "One of the goals was to blur the distinction between living and learning." The plan calls for classrooms to be placed on the ground floor of buildings that are primarily dormitories. "We were able to … borrow classrooms from other pieces in our master program [and] redistribute them into the ground floors of these live/learn communities," he says.

In addition to classrooms, the ground floors of many of the new buildings and dormitories will feature such campus amenities as retail outlets, coffee shops, workout rooms, and even laundry facilities.

One of the key features of the new campus space is the Ramble, an informal gathering space on the shores of a pond that remains from a golf course that previously occupied the site. The surrounding buildings will be close to the pond, engaging the water's edge, and the new dining hall will feature a glass wall that will offer views of the pond. "It is an interesting outdoor space. It is really almost the heart of campus," Duncan says. 

The pond also plays a role in the campus water management plan, an issue that came into sharp focus during the state's recent prolonged drought. A stormwater collection system will direct water to the pond as well as to a lowland riparian corridor known as Cottonwood Creek. Heavy flows will be diverted to a meadow to replenish critical valley aquifers. And in another water-saving move, the project is being designed with special piping for an eventual gray-water system.

The project has been designed to be constructed in three phases, each with accompanying parking facilities. The first phase is scheduled to be complete next year. Two significant laboratory buildings are scheduled for completion in 2019, and the remaining buildings, including a conference center and a wellness center, are set to open in 2020.

"This is an amazing opportunity for SOM and for me personally to return to the campus and set out the goals for the next 30 or 40 years," Duncan says. 


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