The University of California, Davis, had an ambitious energy efficiency goal for its new Student Community Center: to beat California’s stringent Title 24 energy standards by 30 percent. To meet this challenge, BAR Architects planned an eco-charrette early in the design process to bring all the affected parties together to collaboratively brainstorm green design strategies. In the process, we also discovered that eco-charrettes can have a valuable side effect--acting as a tool for team building--which in this case turned out to be crucial to the project’s success.

Eco-charrettes are intensive sessions, ranging from a few hours to an entire day, in which client representatives, architects, engineers, other consultants, and often users gather to define the sustainable principles that will guide the design and identify potential synergies between different disciplines. Ideally, this integrated design process also includes contractors, cost estimators, and facilities staff to ensure that high-performance building systems and components are practical, durable, and cost effective. The process of giving everyone a chance to speak and share ideas changes the team dynamic in positive ways. 

The Student Community Center (SCC), a student services center designed to celebrate the diversity of the UC Davis student body and enhance the educational and social experience of groups who were often marginalized in the past, realizes a long-held dream. UC Davis students supported this vision by voting to increase their fees to construct the facility. The student senate further broadened the SCC mission to include sustainable design by passing a resolution that the building obtain a LEED Platinum rating.

The groups and programs housed in the SCC include three primary student organizations--the Cross Cultural Center, the LGBT Resource Center, and the Student Recruitment and Retention Center--along with an IT center, study and tutoring programs, café, and meeting rooms. These groups were finally going to have a prominent location on campus. They supported the concept of green design, but were concerned that the university’s desire to incorporate sustainable measures might reduce their program area or the quality of their spaces. At the same time, student sustainability groups feared that budget constraints might undercut sustainable measures and LEED Platinum certification.

At the eco-charrette we brought administrators, facilities managers, student representatives, and the design team together in the same room, where they could get to know each other and develop an agreed common ground. The people who would be using the building became part of the budgetary decision-making and understood the constraints and opportunities for multiple options. We talked about the value of green design and were able to reassure the student groups that green design measures could be incorporated within the budget without forcing tradeoffs that would leave them with inferior spaces. 

Eco-charrettes also provide a venue to navigate potential pitfalls and better understand conflicting priorities. As an example, in this case, the mechanical engineer’s explanation of different HVAC systems led to a discussion about adaptive comfort. Would building users accept slightly cooler temperatures in winter or warmer in summer to conserve energy? The university has a standard acceptable temperature range for its buildings, but with some discussion about air movement, humidity levels, natural ventilation, window shades, and sun-control devices, the users and facilities staff understood that the temperature standards could be pushed a bit without sacrificing comfort. As a byproduct, this dialogue also generated keen insights about the qualities and locations for natural lighting in the building.

The duration of an eco-charrette and the level of technical detail will vary significantly depending on the participants’ familiarity with sustainable measures. Client representatives at campuses, for example, may well know sustainability backwards and forwards, so it’s possible to jump right into technical strategies, perhaps using the LEED checklist as an agenda. With multiple users attending our charrette, we first discussed the value of sustainable design for the organizations and then considered the potential for green measures at this project. Rather than discuss sustainable site measures first and then work from the outside in, we discussed the interior spaces first, emphasizing the importance of the users’ environment and their comfort.

By the end, everybody was on board. The goals articulated in the eco-charrette became the touchstones that guided the design as it moved ahead. The project’s sustainable strategies include permeable paving, a photovoltaic-ready infrastructure, recycled-content building materials, and low-flow plumbing fixtures. Skylights bring natural light deep into the building’s central community space. The building, which opened in 2012, is on target to achieve LEED Platinum, a distinction that owes much to our one-day session. More importantly, the SCC eco-charrette not only helped students and the university meet their sustainability goals, it built trust among the participants and sowed the seeds for a deeper understanding of sustainable design and its value in a diverse culture. 

Susan McComb, AIA, is a principal at San Francisco-based BAR Architects.