Today, Post-Secondary Institutions recognize housing on campus not only as an opportunity to attract and recruit students but also as a venue for student engagement and community experience. The University of British Columbia is taking this opportunity one-step further.

One of their core strategic initiatives is the creation of several high-density mixed-use Hubs placed within the academic campus core.  The concept integrates student housing with other social infrastructure creating vibrant centres that animate the campus core and create a sense of place with the goal to improve the academic community’s experience on this large campus, and address issues of isolation, lack of collegiality and vitality, and anonymity.

The first of this innovative initiative is the 55,300 m2 Ponderosa Commons.  Located at the intersection of West Mall and University Boulevard, it is comprised of three buildings on three neighbouring sites.  Each one is an ensemble of academic space, community space, and landscape along the podium with a residential tower for students above.

One of the main goals for the project is to understand the Commons’ social sustainability impact on campus. It aims to create a more vibrant, diverse campus thereby transforming UBC from a single, primary-use campus core for study to one with hubs with a full range of uses: study, work, live and play.

Historically the Education Department, student housing, and the Art History and Visual Arts Department would have had separate and single-purpose facilities.  The Hub concept tested this notion and one of the more exciting outcomes during the design process was how the various departmental perceptions on shared space shifted with the needs of a mixed-use and integrated program.  The program mix promoting a ‘hub’ engagement challenged the different stakeholders to re-examine how their departments interfaced within a non-traditional institutional setting.  The early concern was the various departments and stakeholders would become territorial, but in fact, their imaginations became more fuelled as they began to explore the possibilities of further integration.

As a result, students walk through the lobby of the Art History and Visual Arts School (AVHA) to get to their suites.  The Mercante Pizzeria Cafe opens directly to outdoor terrace seating and to an informal learning lounge.  There is a yoga class happening next to a student residential lobby.  There are geological studies on riverbed erosion underway exposing large 40 meter water tanks just down the hall from where residents migrate and mix with other commuter students at the Collegium, a type of VIP lounge space designed to serve everyday student interactions and campus activity planning.  Ponderosa Commons’ delivers 24/7 activity and increases social connections between faculty, students and others.

Ponderosa Commons also supports UBC’s “Campus as a living laboratory” commitment where “there is the freedom to explore—creatively and collaboratively—the technological, environmental, economic and societal aspects of sustainability.”

The project is targeting LEED Gold certification and incorporates several unique green features. An innovative precast sandwich panel cladding system, which works like a ‘sweater’ on the building provides the exterior finish, rain screen, insulation and interior finish and achieves a high performance envelope to meet the stringent target requirements set by the Sustainability Office at UBC.

The student housing is a mixture of studio, two bedroom and four bedroom self-contained suites.  The importance for each student to have natural ventilation and heating control of his or her bedroom’s environment was a critical objective.  UBC’s typical approach dictated the use of hydronic heating which would have meant one heating control for each unit and not for each student or bedroom.  The design team was able to demonstrate it was more cost effective and energy efficient for the residential suites to utilize electric baseboards instead of hydronic heating.  We also introduced metering of individual suites as well as overall floors.  The intent is to eventually have the residents be able to review and compare their energy consumption against one another and to have the potential to compete with one another and adjust their energy-use habits.

Another factor convincing the Sustainability Office to allow electric baseboard heating in the students’ suites was to implement an automatic shut-off of the baseboard heater when the window in that room was open.  This satisfied their concern of students opening windows in the dead of winter with the heating set to “on”. Other features include low flow water fixtures, supplying each unit with a green waste bin and recycle waste bin, and solid waste sorting rooms for residents to improve waste diversion from landfills.

The first phase of Ponderosa Commons’ achieved occupancy in September 2013.  A new level of animation and vibrancy has come to life in this area of campus exceeding everyone’s expectations.  Students report high levels of satisfaction with their accommodations, amenities and proximity to the campus core and classes. AVHA is thrilled with their new modern and naturally daylight studios and with having the department within one facility. The Mercante Café is UBC Food Services’ most successful and popular food outlet on campus.

The completion of the final phase of Ponderosa Commons in 2016 will only serve to enhance further the experience:  study, work, live and play.

Ponderosa Commons was completed in joint-venture with KPMB Architects. This article was originally published in Design Quarterly.