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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

The Commons on Kennedy Mall

A Case Study in Green Building

Meredith Swinehart

Whether dedicated to progressive education or outstanding patient care, nonprofit institutions have an unparalleled opportunity to lead by example. Sensitivity to the environment through sustainable building is one way that large nonprofits can do so. By building environmentally sustainable buildings, nonprofits can demonstrate their commitment to their core values, whether those be the advancement of knowledge, innovation in healthcare or reverence for creation. By doing so, these institutions can profoundly affect the future of our society.

So how do large nonprofit institutions set out to build green? Decision-makers must first attend to the ethical, operational and financial considerations of sustainable building. They weigh building options against their institution’s mission statement and core values. Operational factors lead project members to debate the sustainable building approach that will work best for the institution: which approach will maximize usable life, ease of construction, cost efficiency and comfort of the building’s occupants? Financial considerations demand that administrators reconsider the cultural convention to demand the fastest and cheapest in building.

This is the story of the construction of Santa Clara University’s first ‘green’ building, an innovative test center for environmentally sustainable technology called the Commons on Kennedy Mall. The building, a 7,500 square foot, $4.85 million structure was completed in January 2006. It houses two classrooms, a multi-purpose student commons room, three private study rooms, a kitchen, patio, reception desk and two bathrooms. The story of its construction provides a blueprint for administrators at institutions considering doing the same.

SCU’s call to sustainable building

Sometimes, innovative institutional leaps are less the result of a single, radical change than o f the opportunities that arise from long-term policy trends. This was the case with Santa Clara University (SCU) and its decision to build green. In 1999, SCU established its Residential Learning Community (RLC) housing program. The program is meant to foster social and academic learning among student peers who live together in a university residence hall. Members of each of nine learning communities live together, take classes together and sponsor community events to further their social, intellectual and spiritual growth.

But the university was confronted with a problem in introducing RLCs to some of its older residence halls. Swig Hall, an eleven-story dormitory built in 1966, contains few spaces for students to gather. The building’s lounges are small and secluded, inhibiting the community interaction on which the RLC program depends. Swig Hall is near three other residence halls that impose similar spatial and social constraints on the RLC program. In the center of the four residence halls sat the lightly-used John F. Kennedy Mall, a concrete promenade with a small wood pagoda and several picnic tables. The university decided to take down the wooden pagoda and construct a separate common space for student residents of the four dormitories. The new building, to be sited on the Kennedy Mall, would fulfill the RLC program’s need for additional social and academic gathering space.

Once the need for a student commons building had been articulated, the university enlisted the services of the school’s Auxiliary Services office. Director Jane Barrantes represented Auxiliary Services as the ‘customer’ for the building. She listed the use requirements of the proposed structure: two classrooms, a multi-purpose room, private study rooms/office space, a kitchen, reception desk, patio and bathrooms. The decision had not yet been made to make the commons a green building, so the university enlisted the services of its usual building company, Devcon Construction. The university set a $4.1 million budget to be funded through the university’s reserves for campus projects. The budget was later raised to $4.85 million when all costs were taken into consideration – landscaping, design, furniture – but was still allocated according to the costs of a conventional (not ‘green’) building.

Meanwhile, Santa Clara University had become increasingly devoted to improving the environmental sustainability of all aspects of campus life. Early in 2003, the school began developing a university sustainability policy. Approved in spring 2004, the introduction to Santa Clara’s comprehensive policy on sustainability states, “As a Jesuit and Catholic University, we have the responsibility to provide leadership in developing a more sustainable way of living. By embracing sustainability, the University furthers its mission to act as a voice of reason, conscience, and service to society.” Santa Clara University relies on the definition of sustainability put forth by the 1986 United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development: that sustainability “ meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

The university outlined a three-pronged approach to improving the school’s overall sustainability: environmental stewardship, environmental education and environmental service. As part of its environmental stewardship strategy, SCU committed to “seek ways to reduce [its] use of non-renewable resources, minimize pollution, and live more lightly on the land. We are mindful of the need to share equitably the natural resources on which all life depends.” The university’s interest in sustainable building was born out of this commitment.

The need for the commons building happened to coincide with the approval of the university policy on sustainability. Assistant Vice President for University Operations Joe Sugg, who was involved in both the development of the sustainability policy and in plans for the commons building, decided to unite the two projects and explore sustainable design for the Kennedy structure.

Why the ‘demonstration approach’

Because the school had not yet attempted any sustainable building, it was a daunting idea to make its upcoming major projects – including an 84,000 square foot business school complex and 194,000 square foot information commons and library – designed and fitted with the latest in sustainable technology. In the summer of 2005, Santa Clara planned to begin work on two smaller campus buildings: the Kennedy structure and the 41,560 square foot Jesuit residence. The Kennedy Commons, requiring only a few classrooms and a student common space, was the perfect opportunity for the university to make its first foray into sustainable building.

Because many sustainable building technologies are still maturing and can mean greater upfront costs for any project, Sugg decided to make the future Kennedy building a test center for sustainable building technology. It would both serve as a site to evaluate sustainable technologies and to educate the university community about sustainability in building.

A primary measure of a building’s sustainability is the extent to which its systems and materials work together to achieve ‘maximum integration.’ For example, in a building with maximum integration, heating and cooling systems would capitalize on the entire space of the building, integrating windows, air flow, insulation materials, building placement, landscaping, flooring, etc. A building that is less than fully integrated may still feature a number of sustainable technologies that stand alone or achieve limited integration, but do not achieve the synergy made possible by maximum integration. Rather than build for maximum integrated sustainability, SCU decided that the Commons on Kennedy Mall would instead best serve as a site to experiment with different designs and technologies in a high-use university setting. The university would closely monitor their performance, gathering information to inform future decisions about including the same technologies in subsequent projects.

Understanding that Devcon’s conventional building design would no longer fully serve the needs of the university, Santa Clara advertised for an architecture firm capable of creating an environmentally sustainable building. San Francisco-based Kaplan McLaughlin Diaz (KMD) Architects had previously requested an unrelated interview with Sugg, wanting to exhibit their work to the university in hope of spurring interest in their designs. Sugg was impressed with the firm’s international presence and iconic projects like the Oakland Federal Building. At the interview, Sugg spoke about the upcoming demonstration building. He explained that the school would require consulting services and sustainable materials at low cost. The firm understood and offered its services.

The KMD director of the Kennedy Commons project, Liz Chaney, compiled a team of designers and consultants from KMD and beyond. The team, including the project’s design principal, Sean Huang, sat down for a five-hour brainstorming session with Sugg. Basi ng their design off of the original Devcon plan, the team debated the worth and feasibility of a number of sustainable designs and materials. In deciding what to include, the architects worked closely with the university to determine which technologies and materials would be most appropriate for use in future campus projects. Those designs and materials would be the ones worth testing in the demonstration building.

The major limiting factor in this stage was the building’s budget. $4.85 million had been allotted for a conventional-style building, and the budget had not been adjusted after the decision was made to make it a sustainability test center. Most sustainable building technologies are initially more expensive than standard building methods, but quickly make up the difference with dramatically lower operating costs. The fact that the budget had not been adjusted constrained the design process to a degree. Hence, many features were donated and some features suggested by KMD and desired by the university were excluded in order to meet the project’s budget (such as additional windows and a heat sink in the front lawn).

Though the tight budget may have limited the design process, the building still includes a host of innovative green technologies. Among the most important of the building’s features are a radiant floor heating system, a raised floor heating and cooling system, a solar chimney, natural daylighting, straw bale insulation and a living roof.

The radiant floor heating system warms the building’s hallways, entrance and multi-purpose room. Hot water runs through coils situated in the concrete floors, warming the rooms. The water is first pre-heated using solar panels situated on the roof of the nearby Dunne residence hall. It then flows to the Dunne basement, where a high-efficiency gas boiler fully heats the water. It then runs through the coils in the Kennedy space and returns to the roof of Dunne to repeat the cycle.

A raised floor air distribution system works to heat and cool the Kennedy Commons classrooms. The two-square-foot carpeted floor tiles stand on 14-inch legs, creating open-air space beneath the classroom floors. To heat the rooms, hot water flows through coils located in the building’s mechanical room. A fan blows across the coils and pushes hot air into the space beneath the classroom floors. The warm air is then pushed up through the floor to blow on the room’s occupants. For cooling, colder outdoor air is pushed into the floor space. One benefit of the raised floor system is that as air is ‘used’ by the occupants, it rises to the ceiling and fresher air is supplied from below.

To further reduce the need for air conditioning, the designers included a solar chimney – an attractive glass tower situated toward the middle of the building. As air near the chimney is warmed by occupants, it rises into the solar chimney and is further warmed by sunlight. The warm air rises and is released at the top of the chimney tower, drawing cool air into the building through open windows and vents. The chimney thus provides natural, energy-free ventilation with fresh air, keeping the hallway and classrooms cool without relying on air conditioning or the presence of wind. To ensure that windows are open when ventilation is needed, the highest windows in the commons are mechanized to open and shut as needed for cooling.
The Kennedy Commons is not equipped with air conditioning. The university will test the effectiveness of the sustainable cooling systems during the summer of 2006 (summer temperatures in Santa Clara are often dry and very hot). In case their performance is disappointing, the Kennedy building does have the capacity for a small cooling system.

The Kennedy Commons relies on natural daylighting to reduce the need for energy-consuming artificial light. The building’s clerestory windows let in only as much light as necessary. Their vertical placement allows in only low-angle light, thus avoiding glare and overheating. The building is also equipped with sensors that detect levels of natural light. When sufficient natural light is present indoors, the sensors adjust the level of artificial light in the building. The presence of natural light has also been shown to dramatically increase productivity among a building’s occupants.

The Kennedy Commons is also equipped with a green, or living, roof. The roof was fitted with two-foot by four-foot shallow trays planted with a “living roof” mixture of seeds. The SCU Facilities Department tended to the trays before installation, making sure they were watered and growing. During installation, the trays were simply set on the roof, which was then equipped with a drip-irrigation system and a walking path for tending the rooftop garden. The living roof essentially places the entire building in shade, providing an additional source of insulation for the building. The roof also adds natural beauty to the commons as a visible link between sustainable building and the natural environment.

The university also included straw bale as insulation in the walls of the building. The straw is an agricultural waste product that would otherwise be burned, polluting the air with carbon monoxide. Straw bale is an exceptionally effective thermal insulator; it is two to three times more insulating than conventional beam walls with fiberglass insulation. It is estimated that straw bale insulation alone will reduce the lifetime energy needs of the building by 15 to 25 percent. Because it is a waste product, the straw is non-nutritive and will not attract insects or rodents. One drawback to using straw bale is that the bale adds bulk to the building, requiring two walls to be framed – one interior and one exterior, with the bale in between. But only several months after the building’s opening, the university has already found that the bales provide very effective thermal and sound insulation and is considering using straw bales again in future construction projects.

In addition to the major technologies described above, the Kennedy Commons building utilizes numerous smaller environmentally sound materials and technologies. The men’s bathroom is fitted with waterless urinals that are expected to save 40,000 gallons of water each year. The waterless urinals are less expensive than conventional systems and utilize touch-free operation.

The carpet in the Kennedy Commons is made of post-production waste yarn and is dyed using a highly efficient process. The carpet is free of volatile organic compounds and is entirely recyclable, permitting further use of a former waste product. Cleaning the carpet requires only hot water, eliminating the need for harsh chemicals. The university is impressed with the carpet so far and plans to install it in the new information commons and library.

Where straw bale is not used in the Kennedy building, the university installed pads made from 100 percent post-industrial waste blue-jean denim to insulate the building for both sound and temperature. The pads require minimal energy to manufacture and are entirely recyclable. They do not contain the formaldehyde, fiberglass, airborne particulates or chemical irritants found in conventional insulation pads, eliminating any human health concerns. They are treated with a boron-based fire retardant and resist both fungi and pests.

The Kennedy building features cork flooring in one of the student study spaces. Cork is an ideal sustainable flooring material; it is harvested from living trees that will continue to produce more cork. It is comfortably buoyant to walk on and dramatically reduces the noise of walking traffic. For that reason, it is being considered for use in Santa Clara’s new library. Cork is also difficult to scratch and dent; its durability outperforms wood, linoleum and vinyl.

The building’s reception desk features a countertop made from crushed colored-glass bottles, discarded traffic lights and stemware. It is made of 80% post-consumer and post-industrial waste, and is a colorful and attractive addition to the building. The university also reused the wood from the former Kennedy Mall pagoda to frame the walls of the Kennedy building. All interior design materials like fabric and paint were selected with sustainability in mind.

To accomplish one half of the Kennedy Commons’ purpose – to educate members of the university about sustainable building – the structure’s sustainable features are highlighted wherever possible. In one of the two classrooms, a clear floor tile reveals the raised flooring of the displacement ventilation system. In the hallway, a glass panel reveals the straw bale insulation packed tightly in the walls. Signs posted throughout the building describe its sustainable details and make a walk through the space an educational experience. One portion of the hallway boasts a wall-mounted montage of materials used in the building, including cork flooring, sunflower-seed board and bamboo cabinet materials.

Why forego LEED certification

One final choice loomed for SCU: whether to seek LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification. The LEED certification system was developed by the United States Green Building Council, which describes itself as “the nation’s foremost coalition of leaders from across the building industry working to promote buildings that are environmentally responsible, profitable and healthy places to live and work.” In that spirit, LEED was designed as a voluntary rating system for assessing the efficiency and performance of sustainable buildings. A LEED-certified building “deals with aspects of design, construction and operations in relation to site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selections, and indoor air quality.” Santa Clara University is a member of the U.S. Green Building Council and retains a number of LEED-certified designers. As part of its comprehensive policy on sustainability, SCU pledged to construct future buildings in accordance with LEED standards.

However, the university decided not to pursue LEED certification for the Kennedy building both because the LEED process is very expensive and because the building is a test center that is not maximally integrated. Faced with $250,000 worth of LEED registration, certification and documentation paperwork, the university could not find a way to cut costs from the commons without affecting the design program or the building’s sustainability. LEED requirements also mandated that an additional $200,000 worth of instrumentation to monitor the technologies be installed in the commons. Unable to raise the building’s budget and confident that the additional instrumentation was unnecessary, Sugg decided to forego LEED certification.

The school also considered the compounding factor that because the commons is meant to test individual technologies, it was not designed as the kind of wholly-sustainable building that LEED certification typically requires. For example, the building contains a number of different heating and cooling systems in order to test their effectiveness individually. A more sustainable building would instead minimize the number of different systems in the building in the interest of maximizing their synergy. In addition, if any one technology does not perform to the university’s expectations, it will be removed and replaced with an alternative sustainable technology for testing. This means that a greater overall number of systems and materials may be used in the Kennedy building than in a more sustainable building. So had it been submitted for LEED certification, the Kennedy building may not have passed the test.

The university’s decision not to seek LEED certification reflects a growing trend in sustainable building: to relinquish LEED certification so that an institution’s limited resources may best serve the community by funding a better building. In any case, the university will still seek LEED certification for its larger building projects.


Certainly, large nonprofit institutions must consider a number of factors when undertaking green building. Here we have isolated three key decision points that any institution must consider: what our organization is committed to that calls us to build green in the first place; the degree to which we should maximize the building’s sustainability; and whether or not to pursue LEED certification. For the health of the earth and the survival of its inhabitants, sustainability is, literally, the key to our future. By outlining one institution’s first steps into sustainable building, we hope to have shed light on one crucial way that we can achieve a more sustainable future.

Meredith Swinehart wrote this article as the 2005-06 Fellow in Environmental Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

Aug 1, 2007