Eco-sensitive Building for Extracurriculars Flourishes at Vanderbilt

Aug. 8, 2008

According to Bruner/Cott & Associates Inc., the new Commons Center for Vanderbilt University has been awarded LEED Gold certification. This is the first higher education LEED Gold certified building in Tennessee and the second LEED Gold building for the state. The Commons Center has been awarded the 2008 Facility Design Award of Excellence from the Association of College Unions International (ACUI).

Recently opened, the new 115,000-square-foot Commons Center is located on Vanderbilt's historic Peabody Campus. It is part of the university's larger undergraduate student living-learning initiative and was designed to support a community of 10 college houses as well as achieve LEED certification.

The Commons Center is a vital component of Vanderbilt's ambitious building program to greatly expand student housing and campus services and transform the undergraduate student experience to that of a residential college. The building serves as the primary dining hall and student center of this campus-within-a-campus. It is sited as the extracurricular heart of a new quadrangle and the program includes a main dining hall, its supporting servery and production facility, a 24-hour Commons Café, multiple lounge spaces for both intimate and larger get-togethers, fitness facility, academic support center, post office, meeting rooms, and administrative offices.

The context of the commons being an adjacency to a National Register collection of Classical Revival 1920s buildings arranged along a formal UVA-type lawn drove a definite style of the building. After a healthy collaboration among the design architects the university reached consensus that materials of the exterior of the building needed to match the existing brick and stone of the surrounding structures, but that the building forms and composition of the Commons Center could take liberties to convey a more contemporary feel. The results successfully balance the blend of classical and modern through the use of softening details (inset brick work, molded trim pieces) integrated into a boldly simple blocking of basic forms.

The ultimate goal for the building was to create a sustainably designed hub for the entire freshman class while also attracting the full range of campus and university staff, plus visitors to the dining/meeting space component. However, the university did not want freshmen to find it so self-sufficient that they wouldn't venture out to embrace the rest of the campus offerings.

The main dining hall of the Commons Center, the Eatery, is a 550-seat, two-story space. The first floor of the dining room is the larger space—with two working EcoSmart flueless fireplaces and floor-to-ceiling windows offering views out onto the exterior dining patio and the campus beyond.

Sustainable design features of the building include:

  • The site itself is reclaimed land—it was previously an impervious asphalt parking lot.
  • The main dining room has translucent electric sun-tracking shades to eliminate glare and reduce solar gain while maintaining views to outside.
  • Custom-designed pendant lights have daylight harvesting switches to reduce energy usage on sunny days.
  • The west side of the building has an extra-deep curtainwall profile with added horizontals to maximize passive shading at the south and west façade.The design provides a break from the building's neo-classic vocabulary and features act as light shelves.
  • The water efficiency practices implemented will save an estimated 900,000 gallons of potable per year. Some of these include proximity sensor faucets, waterless urinals, and dual-flush toilets in the bathrooms and dishwater conservation equipment in the kitchen.
  • The building has several eco-sensitive fireplaces. They are flueless alcohol-burning fireplaces that produce no CO2. The fuel used is created from bioproducts instead of fossil fuels or wood.
  • The kitchen uses a low-velocity, high-efficiency, induced flow exhaust hood system that reduces make-up air and HVAC system tonnage.
  • Additional natural light is present through the roof monitor and skylights in both the dining room and the lounge spaces. The skylights also reduce lighting demand and increase outdoor views.
  • There are operable windows in the upper floor of the building in offices and conference rooms.
  • Materials and resources used include low-VOC adhesives and paints, ozone-friendly refrigerants, reused sandstone pavers for the exterior patios, and reused library chairs.

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