The dry campus: fabric shades help battle the heat

In the arid climate of Arizona, a university battles the heat with fabric shades and a phalanx of sustainable design solutions.

Given the record-breaking temperatures blanketing the United States over the past year, dismissing global warming as simply a cyclical climatological event is difficult. Even in Arizona. Thus, when Arizona State University decided to embark on its new ASU Polytechnic Academic Complex in Mesa, AZ, all design thinking was focused on creating a sustainable, environmentally healthy campus, even though unforgiving heat, strong winds and arid conditions are old news to residents of the arid southwest.

Under the design leadership of Beau Dromiack of RSP Architects, Ltd., design consultants Lake|Flato Architects and Ten Eyck Landscape Architects, ASU launched a fast-track project that was completed in June 2008 after only 22 months. ASU’s goal was three-fold: to create a new identity for the campus, double its instructional space, and grow its leadership in sustainable building practices by creating a new green campus.

No small task. The campus is located on the former Williams Air Force base, a 6.4ha (16-acre) site whose soil and water were contaminated by petroleum spills, radiological waste, and solvents, among other environmental evils. Cleaned up and restored, the now sustainable site comprises five buildings, two of which are new construction and the project was awarded LEED-NC Gold certification.

The 22,050m2 program houses academic laboratories, university classrooms, faculty offices, a lecture hall and a fine arts complex that includes a black box theater, applied arts painting and drawing studios and gallery. Its contemporary design aesthetic of masonry, glass, translucent fabric shade screens and weathered corrugated steel siding over a structural system of exposed steel frame, merges effectively with its desert context. The ASU Polytechnic building program was configured to create three distinct landscaped courtyards and a shaded trellis walkway that allow for exterior but protected circulation by students and faculty. The elevation of each building shields it from the elements but allows it to still engage the site.

“The design intent was to create dynamic pedestrian environments that offer a cool, pleasant experience,” said Dromiack. “The buildings are designed around three-story atriums that are fully covered by perforated metal panels on the horizontal surfaces and open on the vertical surface for ventilation. Each atrium has three large fans for increased air circulation, and the north and south ends are open to create view corridors and increase air movement.”

On-site river rock was used to construct gabions and over 3,500 tons of asphalt and concrete were recycled as underlayment for walkways and a fire road loop, retaining walls, and benches. Decomposed granite was used for walkways and various strategies reduced water usage.

Other sustainable building strategies include cloaking the roofs with a bright white EPDM membrane that reflects sunlight away from the buildings. East and west facing pre-finished and weathering, perforated steel shade screens project 1.22m from the buildings’ skin to protect them from the sun. Teflon-coated fabric, Trex™ recycled wood and photovoltaic panels have also been used to shade the structures.

Locally made wire mesh planting screens encase the exterior stairway towers and create a “planting apron” that runs along the lower edge of the exterior perforated screen panels. These have been planted with trumpet vines and other appropriate flora to provide both beauty and increased shade. The screens also reduce energy consumption.

Ultimately, RSP’s design for the ASU Polytechnic Academic Complex created a new identity for the school by employing a green, sustainable design strategy. The buildings elevations and exterior porches create a varied but integrated environment that encourage gathering, community and academic pursuit. The school now projects a palpable sense of place and pride felt by students and faculty alike, while being visually and ecologically in harmony with its desert surroundings.

The $104 million project has garnered numerous awards including one of 10 given by the American Institute of Architects’ in 2012 for sustainable architecture and green design solutions that protect and enhance the environment; Best of the Best 2008 Green Building in the U.S. given by Engineering News-Record; and a 2009 AIA National Merit Award for Educational Facility Design.

Contributing editor Mason Riddle writes frequently on sustainability and design. Her piece on collaborative team of Ali Heshmati and Nora Norby appeared in the July/August issue.

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