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Student housing success: How P3 helped UC Davis meet its goals

November 04, 2021

By Aris Garrison

Balancing ambition, sustainability, and strict building codes to deliver affordability for thousands of university students

The California student-housing market is a microcosm of the housing challenges that are faced in California, nationally, and globally. Increasing student populations and demand for a higher quality of life and user experience drive the discussion. Other factors include increasing resource and material scarcity, higher sustainability and energy use goals, and ever-increasing costs paired with decreasing budgets. All these define the challenges universities, developers, and designers face.

Our goal is to provide the highest quality student life experience to as many students as possible at the lowest possible cost. Or as Charles Eames put it in 1941, “make the best for the most for the least.”

One of the tools universities are using to do as Eames said is public private partnerships (P3). This involves a public institution partnering with a private company to fund and build a project. This delivery method has been in use for a few decades but has grown in popularity in recent years due to its success in delivering large construction projects for public entities.

The Green at West Village provides nearly 3,300 beds for students at the University of California, Davis. The net zero energy project was delivered through a public private partnership.

The P3 relationship is flexible and allows the university as much—or often as little—control over the property as desired. The developers are skilled at building these facilities. This helps the university, which controls the land, to have a trusted and skilled partner. Let’s dig into how Eames’ view impacts P3 projects for universities.

‘The Most:’ Housing goals and how to get there

Maximizing the amount of housing a site can provide is an important and sometimes divisive subject. Truly it’s a balancing act. How can it both meet the community’s housing needs while also understanding how more people will impact the community and its infrastructure and amenities? Density is often thought of as a bad thing, but it has many benefits. Creating communities where people live near their work or school and recreation activities is a key part of creating a sustainable future.

The University of California, Davis provides housing for 10,000 of its 39,000 students and has the goal of housing 50% of its students. When the University looked to expand its existing West Village student housing, it asked developer-lead teams to add 1,250 new beds to the area of campus just west of Route 113.

A bold plan offered by The Michael’s Organization (TMO) recommended adding nearly 3,300 beds to the 34-acre site—more than double what the University first thought. As a design team, we were excited to support TMO and UC Davis to make the vision a reality—and create The Green at West Village. Doubling the bed count brought down the cost-per-bed and helped UC Davis toward its goals. By combining cost savings with thoughtful design, we created a welcoming and sustainable community that meets the high standards set by the State of California, the University of California system, and UC Davis.

By breaking the nearly 3,300-bed student housing project into smaller parts, like neighborhoods in a city, students start to connect with their corner of The Green.

We had to ask and answer several questions to make the student housing development work, including:

  • How big can a student housing building be? This is both a qualitative and quantitative question.
  • How many faces can the students remember?
  • How many people can they walk past before feeling overwhelmed?
  • How do we create a sense of community in a student housing development that will house thousands of undergraduates?

By breaking the largest student housing development in the US into identifiable parts, like neighborhoods in a city, students start to connect with their corner of The Green. Color, signage, and finishes make each building feel different. Buildings are arranged in wings to provide distinct sections on each floor like small streets in a neighborhood. Individual wings are limited in size, so students will see familiar faces.

Many of these students are joining a student population much larger than their hometown. Creating community allows the students to have a “small town” feel while being a part of a much larger academic community.

‘The Best:’ The value of strict building codes

Buildings are a careful balance of needs, cost, and expectations about performance. This is a holistic dialogue covering everything from energy use to wait times for elevators and the time it takes to walk from one area to another. Many aspects are subjective and focused on user and owner preferences. 

The P3 relationship is flexible and allows the university as much—or often as little—control over the property as desired.

In value-driven projects like The Green, we outline the most important goals and use this to measure success. We refer to these priorities as we move through design to make sure all our decisions reinforce these guiding principles. These vary on every project, but there are common themes. This one is critical: efficient layouts that minimize cost-per-bed by optimizing the amount of non-rentable space. Architects and engineers working together can deliver these sometimes-competing functional versus system elements and find harmony.

Buildings are typically given size limitations based on their occupancy and construction type. The Green facilities are R-2, Type II-A construction. Buildings codes limit the size of the building depending on how likely or quickly a building might degrade in the event of a fire. Other factors also come into play, like if the occupants are familiar with their surroundings (i.e., an apartment building or home versus a hotel). Infrastructure limitations are also key, which at UC Davis included the amount of water available for fighting a fire.

California is lucky to have one of the most complete accessibility codes in the country. This is because the state started developing standards before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA 1990) was approved. California’s law is simply stricter. Designing to these codes ensures that all students can enjoy student life at The Green.

The California energy code sets high standards for building performance and energy use. It requires better-than-average performance and requirements like continuous exterior insulation, which helps improve energy performance. While some may find the state’s regulations restricting, we embrace such standards as a means of making projects more inclusive and sustainable. Using an integrated design approach streamlines the design process.

The University of California system and UC Davis have set sustainability goals that exceed those outlined in the state energy code. For West Village, UC Davis wanted net zero energy and a minimum of LEED Silver—no easy task. 

The bicycle culture at UC Davis is an important part of the University’s sustainability and the design of The Green at West Village.

To achieve net zero energy, the facility must produce as much energy as it uses annually. Efficient building systems and a large on-site photovoltaic solar panel system help The Green to meet that goal on the 1.3 million-square-foot project.

At UC Davis, bicycle culture is at the heart of life on and off campus. University leaders embrace that culture, and it is critical to the campus sustainability goals. By supporting that cycling and pedestrian culture, the University enabled the higher housing density. Removing cars from everyday life, students are using less energy, burning fewer fossil fuels, and have exercise built into their daily lives. It also allowed us to design The Green with less parking for cars—and more space for students and amenities, like the large playing fields and community center.

‘The Least:’ Finding the balance for affordability

Spatial efficiency is a key when affordability is the goal. At UC Davis, we focused on that efficiency for the full site and at the scale of the building and the individual apartment. Reducing the area per bed while providing functional and enjoyable spaces is critical to affordable housing.

This efficiency helps mitigate increasing construction costs. It also balances cost-per-square-foot with functional needs and access for all students. The apartments include open living, dining, and linear kitchen spaces. This provides high flexibility for all students in a compact space. Multifunctional spaces are key to provide value and quality living spaces. Units are also more linear (wider than they are deep) to increase daylighting, improving the quality of the space while reducing the need for electric lighting. 

Open space, recreation areas, bicycle parking, and the 10,000-square-foot community center are critical to student life at The Green.

Unlike standard apartment buildings, The Green can combine systems for heating water. Multiple apartments share the same unit. Because students pay a flat rate, utilities are shared, leading to significant energy savings. All the hot water and heating equipment is on the roof, which leaves the area around the buildings as open space, recreation areas, and bicycle parking.

Student housing success

California has one of the highest costs of housing in the country. The cost of construction, housing demand, and increased regulation all contribute.

Student housing design in California requires a balance between creating an engaging student space while following strict building codes. The housing market and California’s code come with a set of tough demands, but an experienced design team can create a rich student residential experience anywhere. And P3 is one way to help universities realize their goals.

  • Aris Garrison

    As a project architect, Aris understands how to leverage technology to deliver comprehensive solutions and leads a production team to solve complex design and technical issues. He also leads and supervises consultant coordination.

    Contact Aris
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