Designing for the future

UC Davis has been considered environmentally conscious for a long time, a reputation that seems to be deserved.

The school and city’s shared enthusiasm for the environment can be seen in many aspects of local life, from the numerous bike paths found throughout the city to the well-cultivated patches of greenery present almost everywhere. The message of sustainability is even seen in the design of many buildings found around campus. UC Davis enjoys ownership in three buildings that are certified as LEED Platinum by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC).

LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, and represents a scoring system used by the USGBC to evaluate the environmental impact of a building. Points are awarded for features that promote sustainable energy usage like solar panels and utilization of hydrogen fuel cells as sources of power. Builders are also encouraged to utilize recycled materials such as metals, ceramics and lumber in construction. Furthermore, the program rewards construction projects that promote non-motorized transportation with the inclusion of ample bike parking and pedestrian walkways.

The LEED Platinum properties managed by UC Davis include a joint ownership with Sierra Nevada College in the Tahoe Environmental Research Center, the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science (RMI), and Gallagher Hall, home of the UC Davis Graduate School of Management.

However, Davis’ pledge to sustainability extends far beyond designing for an external point system. The design philosophy taken when approaching the construction of the RMI wasn’t to simply produce a LEED Platinum building. The objective was to make a model for sustainability. Roger Boulton, a professor of viticulture and enology, explained that the RMI and the forthcoming Jackson building are intended to be buildings that are not only carbon-neutral, but water- and electricity-neutral as well.

They accomplish this with innovative solutions like reducing thermal intake during the warmer seasons by orienting buildings to lie east-west to reduce power consumption from air conditioning systems. The buildings utilize rainwater capture tanks to decrease dependence on local reservoirs. The buildings also have roofs angled to optimize exposure of solar panels, which subsequently charge hydrogen fuel cells to power nighttime operations.

Though the RMI has achieved an exemplary LEED Platinum certification, Boulton acknowledged that the building was envisioned a little differently.

“If the university is going to stay ahead of the pack on sustainability, it will have to strive to achieve and outperform the others,” Boulton said. “The RMI was designed to be a template for a sustainable winery that could be self-sufficient and reconstructed anywhere on earth.”

The UC campus has not only met the minimum requirements for points in certain categories, but has far surpassed some. According to LEED criteria, a perfect rating of three points for a building’s usage of renewable energy is awarded when 30 percent of a building’s energy depends on renewable sources. With the RMI, close to 50 percent of the energy comes from renewable sources.

One key factor in the building’s energy conservation lies literally in the walls of the buildings. The facilities at the RMI and Jackson building are incredibly well-insulated. While standard homes have a thermal resistance rating, or R-value, of 15 in the walls, the RMI has walls with an R-value of 65, and a roof with an R-value of 85. The increased resistance to heat transfer allows for inside temperatures to remain stable and less affected by the unforgiving winters or sweltering summers found in the Davis area.

Moreover, the RMI saves on lighting costs (both fiscal and environmental) by forgoing electric lighting completely in some cases. Light tubes on the roofs take natural sunlight and distribute it throughout some rooms. The benefits of these tubes are two-fold. Obviously, the absence of artificial lighting helps cut energy usage, but additionally, the broader spectrum of light waves found in natural sunlight has been found to bolster the human mood and alleviate the infamous seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

The sustainability doesn’t stop at simply saving on a power bill. The importance of the innovations at a university campus goes far beyond the desire to have a building that doesn’t leave a big footprint on the earth. A great deal of the importance comes from the very people who enter and interact with the buildings regularly — the students. In Professor Boulton’s classes on winery design, he doesn’t formally include sustainability in his lectures. Instead, he lets the campus facilities speak for themselves. Day in and day out, students are immersed in these environmentally conscious surroundings and they unconsciously become familiar with techniques used to build a better winery. The idea is that when they get out and start actually participating in industry, they will already see the value in systems such as rainwater capture systems and structural orientation.

Julie Nola is a director with the campus department of Design and Construction Management, and understands the importance of introducing students to sustainability through innovative building design.

“We show [students] how these buildings are helping them save water, avoid automobile [overuse] and use energy efficiently,” Nola said.

Dongha Luong, a UC Davis alumnus and practicing enologist, appreciates UC Davis’ environmentally-friendly mindset.

“I think I’ve always been eco-conscious, but it was nice being at a school that shares those values,” Luong said.

Ultimately, the university has achieved an exemplary milestone with the LEED Platinum buildings, but like any true leader of thought, UC Davis isn’t content to simply rest on laurels and accolades. With these buildings, UC Davis hopes to better the world through education and lead by example in sustainability.

ALAN LIN can be reached at

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