Robert Canfield

The San Francisco Bay is a special place. It’s an estuary where freshwater and saltwater merge. The channel is geographically sheltered from the Pacific Ocean but nourished by its tides, which give rise to abundant life. It is a place where plant and animal species grow and transition. And in the eyes of Karen Cribbins-Kuklin, associate principal at Perkins+Will’s San Francisco office, the estuary also is a metaphor for learning.

Fremont, Calif.–based Ohlone College chose an 81-acre (33-hectare) site in Newark, Calif., immediately adjacent to a San Francisco Bay inlet and federally protected wetlands, for its campus extension. The former president of the community college, Douglas Treadway, envisioned facilities that would live lightly on the land. He also foresaw a partnership between the school and the natural environment that would enrich the educational curriculum.

A 450-kilowatt rooftop solar collection system generated 710 megawatt-hours of clean power in its first year of operation.
Robert Canfield A 450-kilowatt rooftop solar collection system generated 710 megawatt-hours of clean power in its first year of operation.

The new campus master plan and its first building—the Newark Center for Health Sciences and Technology—were funded by part of a $150 million district bond measure. According to Cribbins-Kuklin, lead architect of the Newark Center project, the 130,000-square-foot (12,077-m2) building is the first of three college buildings that are planned for the site.

Symbiotic Relationship

Eschewing teaching methods that instruct students about isolated subject matter, course work at the Newark Center supports collaborative, team-based learning and draws on theme-specific interdisciplinary models. With a curriculum that includes biotechnology, environmental studies, emerging technologies, and health sciences, leader­ship saw opportunities to bring education out of the classroom by assuming shared responsibility for protecting the wetlands and estuary. The total building area of Ohlone’s campus, including the planned future expansion, will occupy approximately 30 acres (12 hectares) of the college’s land. The remaining 50 acres (20 hectares) of the campus will be preserved as natural landscape.

An enthalpy wheel transfers heat between the supply and return air streams.
Robert Canfield An enthalpy wheel transfers heat between the supply and return air streams.

The former brownfield site once was farmland. Analyses detected herbicide contamination in the soil to be at a level deemed safe for commercial use, which meant the college was not required to provide environmental mitigation. But because one of the college’s goals was to get students actively involved in the site, the college elected to clean up the contamination and bring the land to a residential standard.

The wetlands were in a severely deteriorated state, so there was an opportunity to create a synergy between restoration and educational curriculum. Jeff Watanabe, associate professor of biology and environmental studies at Ohlone, takes his students to mature wetlands across town. Students install native wetlands plant material on campus and learn about the potential for re-creating that environment.

“I tell them that 50 years from now, when there’s animal and plant life thriving here, they will be able to say, ‘I was a part of making that happen,’” Watanabe explains.

A series of earthen berms and ditches direct building- and site-water run-off through stormwater gardens to a vegetated filtration pond. These offer Watanabe another natural classroom and more learning opportunities for students: “I have living examples of how plants filter out pollutants before they get to the bay.”

A geothermal ground-loop system is part of the Newark Center’s heating and cooling strategy.
Robert Canfield A geothermal ground-loop system is part of the Newark Center’s heating and cooling strategy.

Looking Skyward

The building itself, which recently received LEED Platinum certification from the U.S. Green Building Council, provides ample lessons as well. A combination of carefully chosen renewable energy strategies and energy conservation techniques places students in a living laboratory. A photovoltaic system provides nearly 45 percent of the Newark Center’s required electrical power. Placed across 38,000 square feet (3,530 m2) of the building’s roof, the 450-kilowatt solar collection system generated 710 megawatt-hours of clean power in its first year of operation.

The system monitors PV energy production and posts real-time results on the college’s website ( To give students context, the system’s webpage continually tallies how many homes could be powered throughout the course of a year with the energy generated by the PV system. It also offers data about the carbon-emissions reductions achieved since system installation. Over the course of the first year of operation alone, the offset was equivalent to more than one million vehicle miles not driven.

Earth Exploration

According to the project’s mechanical engineer—Michael Lucas of Alfa Tech Consulting Enterprise, San Francisco—the design team made use of stable underground temperatures where the Earth remains between 58 F and 62 F (14.4 C and 16.7 C) to tackle heating and cooling, which are the building’s two largest energy drains. The team embedded a geothermal ground-loop system that consists of 26 miles (42 km) of water-filled pipe 12 feet (3.7 m) below ground to heat or cool the water, depending on the building’s needs. Heated or cooled water from the underground coils passes through the building’s HVAC system, providing a more efficient energy exchange than conventional HVAC systems.

To protect a subterranean aquifer, an unusual horizontal geothermal (slinky) coil system was used. In addition to the fact that conventional air-to-air systems consume significantly more energy than geothermal systems, geothermal heating and cooling can increase the life of the HVAC equipment because it takes some of the workload off the mechanical systems. The system also requires less maintenance and, since the geothermal system is underground, water for cooling does not evaporate as it would with conventional chilled-water systems. This saves Ohlone more than 780,000 gallons (2.9 million L) of water each year.

Daylight and views connect the interior with the surrounding natural environment.
Robert Canfield Daylight and views connect the interior with the surrounding natural environment.

Circular Motion

The Newark Center has areas with concentrated groups of people and laboratory spaces, both of which require high levels of fresh air. In the building’s lobby, two visible 16-foot-diameter (4.8-m-diameter) enthalpy wheel energy-recovery devices provide 300 percent more fresh air than required by California’s Title 24 energy code. Although this much outside ventilation could place a significant load on the HVAC system, the enthalpy wheels capture up to 95 percent of the energy that would have been lost without the system when interior air is exhausted from the building. By transferring heat between the supply and return air streams, the spinning wheels greatly reduce the energy needed to heat and cool the building.

The enthalpy wheels themselves are highly visible and serve as a learning tool. Animated graphic readouts adjacent to each wheel show the temperatures of the incoming and exiting air. “The way these wheels transfer energy through the air is just like the countercurrent exchange that takes place in a dolphin’s circulatory system,” Watanabe says. “As a biology teacher, it’s great to be able to show students these connections.”

Well Grounded

In addition to providing engaging learning opportunities and substantial environmental benefits, the environmental systems provide Ohlone with substantial financial benefits.

The Newark Center opened in January 2008. In its first year of operation, the facility achieved an 88 percent annual reduction in purchased electricity and a 72 percent annual reduction in natural gas consumption over the baseline established by Title 24.

A state solar energy grant provided 36 percent of the funds needed for the PV array, but the initial cost of the solar collector system was still beyond the college’s budget. Treadway led a community fundraising campaign that secured the remaining 64 percent of the funding, and the PV system was installed.

While the solar array required extra funding, other sustainable features, such as the enthalpy wheels and geothermal system, were included at no cost premium over conventional heating and cooling systems.

Cribbins-Kuklin believes these figures offer a prime model for other campuses. “It’s important for community colleges to look at building and renovation projects with net-zero energy and maintenance in mind. The Newark Center shows that you can achieve a high level of sustainability with economy,” she says.

The Newark Center features a host of other sustainable features, such as water-conserving plumbing fixtures, low-VOC materials, and insulation made from recycled blue jeans. “It’s really exciting because students can witness sustainability and see that being environmentally friendly doesn’t mean doing without; it’s just a smarter and more thoughtful application of innovation and design,” Watanabe says.

The college campus also is a place for weekend public events, which brings the community to the site. “We have to start embracing technologies that allow us to interact with our environment in a different way, and this project communicates to that to the public,” Cribbins-Kuklin says. “It shows that it’s possible to sustain ourselves, our businesses, and our community.”

Green Team

Owner: Ohlone Community College, Fremont, Calif.,

Architect: Perkins+Will, San Francisco,

Structural engineer: SOHA Engineers, San Francisco,

Mechanical engineer: Alfa Tech Consulting Enterprise, San Francisco,

Landscape architect: CMG Landscape Architecture, San Francisco,

Civil engineer: Sandis, Mountain View, Calif.,

General contractor: Turner Construction Co., San Jose, Calif.,

Materials and Sources

Solar Panels: Sunpower, Athens, Ohio,

HVAC system: ClimateMaster, Oklahoma City,

Energy management controls: Invensys Controls, Carol Stream, Ill.,

Flooring: GreenVinyl from Lonseal, Carson, Calif.,

Insulation: Ultratouch from Bonded Logic, Chandler, Ariz.,

Furniture: Steelcase, Grand Rapids, Mich.,