In northern San Diego County, Calif., ocean breezes work their way up through the valley to Palomar College in San Marcos. Panoramic views to the coastal mountain range, ample sunshine, and moderate weather conditions justifiably beckon students outdoors. When Irvine, Calif.–based design firm LPA set out to create Palomar’s new Multi-Disciplinary Building (MD Building), principal Glenn Carels, AIA, was determined to have nature play a prominent role.

“I was drawn to create something compelling using the gifts of the site,” Carels recalls. “Sustainable design begins the moment pen touches paper, and I wanted to bring nature right into the middle of the project. The design invites students in and inspires them to explore the building.”

Situated adjacent to two major pedestrian crossroads, the 110,000-square-foot MD Building is at the epicenter of campus activity. Previously, the site contained three long single-story buildings from the 1970s that were not feasible for retrofit to current standards. The existing buildings were demolished, and their concrete slabs and foundations were repurposed as fill for a new, $35 million structure that consolidates a range of educational departments that had spread across the campus over time. “We were interested in accommodating density by building up instead of out to provide more of a college and university experience for students,” explains Kelley Hudson MacIsaac, interim director of facilities at Palomar.

Classrooms, laboratories, a lecture auditorium, faculty offices, multiple study areas, and support spaces fill the three-story facility, and a central interior courtyard opens the MD Building to the environment.

Carels lined the building perimeter with classroom spaces in a single loaded corridor, and created visual and physical connections to nature. Bound by windows on two sides, many of the classrooms have the potential for distraction, but state-of-the-art audiovisual technology and strong accent wall colors help instructors keep students’ focus at the front of the class. To prevent glare, windows were equipped with high-performance low-E glass and each classroom is outfitted with operable interior shades.

Laminated glass guardrails line the open-air circulation spaces adjoining the courtyard on all three floors. These translucent guardrails become almost illuminated from daylight, and blend against the walls from one angle and into the backdrop of sky from another.

“Introducing nature into the building also provided a performance enhancement,” Carels says. “The windows provide better daylighting, and a mixed-mode system allows occupants to control comfort, ventilation, and air quality in the space.”

The mixed-mode system is a hybrid approach that combines natural ventilation with active HVAC systems. A magnetic contact on each window identifies when a window is open and the HVAC systems either set back or shut off in response to existing conditions.

The MD Building is designed to be 32 percent more efficient than California’s Title 24, thanks to the attributes such as daylight infiltration, lighting controls, interior solar shades, and high-performance glazing; deep exterior shade-bearing overhangs; and Energy Star–rated equipment. The state of California doesn’t allow for any natural ventilation use in its Title 24 calculations, but energy models show that the facility’s operable windows and mixed-mode system will increase performance another 5 to 7 percent.

The sustainable attributes also had an unexpected benefit on the interior plan. In order to maintain natural ventilation and daylight in the classrooms, designers staggered and overlapped faculty offices on the interior perimeter. This created pockets between offices, which now serve as small social settings.

Outside, the triangular building is unmistakable. LPA pulled the two main exterior stairs into two points of the triangle and enclosed them in glass. One seems to float in the main interior pedestrian thoroughfare. The other is a beacon that faces the campus’s loop road and parking areas. “It’s a big building, and this design helps people intuitively understand how to access and move vertically through the building,” Carels explains.

In Southern California, water is a precious resource. Low-flow fixtures reduce potable water consumption by 35 percent from similar code-compliant fixtures, and water-efficient landscaping and the use of rock gardens offer a 65 percent water reduction compared to conventional landscaping design.

Although not LEED certified, the MD building was designed to LEED Silver standards. The roof design and structural systems have the infrastructure in place for 600 kilowatts of plug-and-play photovoltaic (PV) panels, but funding efforts did not come through. “We have a couple of other buildings designed to accommodate PVs,” says Hudson MacIsaac. “So we plan to combine them for a special round of funding for all three buildings, hopefully next year.”

KJ Fields writes about sustainability and architecture from Portland, Ore.