Thirty years before the Declaration of Independence was signed, Princeton University was chartered in Elizabeth, New Jersey, making it the country’s fourth-oldest college. Yet even with this rich history, Princeton has little desire to return to the past; the sustainability plan it established in 2008 looks consistently toward the future, except in one area—carbon emissions. Princeton plans to reduce its emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, despite significant growth in the past decade and a half. All signs point toward the school succeeding in its goal, in part due to the world-renowned talent the school has assembled to help.

Princeton’s pedigree as a leader in the sciences—35 Nobel Laureates and 20 National Medal of Science winners are associated with the school—has helped place it at the forefront of green building. With the introduction of the 2008 sustainability plan, Princeton set its sights on reducing annual carbon emissions by 17 percent, from 114,700 metric tons to just 95,000 metric tons. Steering clear of shortsighted carbon offsets, the school is deploying an aggressive program based on the reduction of greenhouse gases, resource conservation, active education, and civic engagement, driving emissions reduction plans on its own terms.

“Princeton doesn’t just follow LEED regulations; they feel that they have—and I think they actually do have—a vision that goes beyond it,” says architect Tod Williams, a Princeton alumnus who leads a New York-based design firm with his wife, Billie Tsien. “They are not interested in deploying green strategies that yield little return.”

Shouldering the needs of a 500-acre main campus that holds 180 buildings, 7,900 students, and 6,000 employees, Princeton’s potential for environmental leadership is great, and in 1996 it installed a cogeneration facility, laying the foundation for further transformative steps. Nine years later, the university added a 2.6 million-gallon chilled-water storage tank, which gave the campus one of the nation’s most efficient and cost-effective central power facilities.

Reaching its 1990 emissions levels while creating modern learning spaces, however, requires not only cutting-edge technology but also inspired design, and Princeton has hired renowned architectural talent, including such respected studios as Steven Holl Architects, Studio Ma, and Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects (TWBTA), to bring its plans to life and help shape the campus of 2020.

details Project Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment Size

Project Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment
Size 129,000 ft²
Completed 2015 (expected)
Architect Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects
Landscape Architect Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates
General Contractor Sciame
Energy Cascading air plenum system, high exhaust towers
Water Cascading closed-loop chilled-water system, rainwater storage for plumbing
Landscape Public plaza and garden, extensive vegetation cleans air
Rendering: DBOX

Lecture halls use indirect sunlight from a large window and skylight to naturally illuminate the room and align the building’s design with the sustainable strategies being taught inside.

Lecture halls use indirect sunlight from a large window and skylight to naturally illuminate the room and align the building’s design with the sustainable strategies being taught inside. Rendering: DBOX

Rooting Research

On the campus’s northeastern edge, at the corner of Olden Street and Prospect Avenue, construction is under way on the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, which will use LEED Silver standards as its benchmark. The center is designed by TWBTA and sited next to the existing Engineering Quad. Founded in 2008 through a $100 million gift from international business leader Gerhard Andlinger, the center will house research and teaching areas meant to advance areas of sustainable energy development, energy conservation, and environmental protection and remediation.

“I went to Princeton for many reasons,” Williams says, “one being that it was a beautiful campus. Its landscape is as beautiful as its buildings. That’s true throughout the campus, but it’s less true by the engineering buildings. This was an area in great need—I was always upset about the way the buildings interfaced with the campus, and it felt like the most pedestrian of buildings and the worst of landscapes.”

In order to breathe life into this neglected corner, the concept of a garden entrance was created in tandem with Princeton’s landscape architect, Michael Van Valkenburgh. The goal is to beautify the campus, provide shade, and most importantly, produce clean, fresh air. It accomplishes this with a more open design meant to remedy the Engineering Quad’s closed-off layout, which had been built as a series of double-loaded corridors for the sake of efficiency. Instead of focusing only on functional requirements, the new program offers a respite for researchers and students by encouraging movement through the building with attractive stairs, minimal elevators, and a promenade.

Tod Williams Title

Tod Williams
Title Principal
At Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects
Based New York City
Working On Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment
Known For Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia and the American Folk Art Museum in New York City

With this connection, the center relates to the campus organically. Grounding the building figuratively and literally, the facility has been lowered into the Earth, with the garden presenting its most visible visage. Williams and his team took a modest approach and aimed to highlight the spaces between the buildings more than the building itself. The garden is not meant to stand out as a disconnected oasis but to relate to Princeton’s other buildings and landscapes, creating an integrated campus.

Williams also wanted to emphasize the campus level—keeping it down to Earth. The focus is on the discourse that occurs outside the buildings and not just the extremely rarefied activities that occur inside where, like astronauts in white suits, researchers conduct experiments in ultra-filtered clean rooms disconnected from the outside world. When they’re done in the labs, they can enter the garden spaces, shedding their white coats and stepping out into the sunshine to rejoin the university culture.

The Andlinger Center created a paradoxical challenge for the architect. Despite a mission of finding ways to sustain the planet through energy conservation and other methods, the fact is that the requisite research laboratories are notorious energy users. In response, Princeton’s consulting engineers designed a cascading air system that could achieve the extremely clean conditions researchers need while using minimal energy.

A lab’s clean rooms, which must be free of low-level environmental pollutants such as dust, airborne microbes, or chemical vapors, are super-conditioned and filter air constantly. Instead of adjusting the air in isolated areas of the clean room, which is what’s typically done, the Andlinger Center’s clean rooms will feature a HEPA filter ceiling over the entire space, which lowers the static pressure loss. When it comes to air filtration, the recirculation of air is the largest power user in a mechanical system, so by lowering the pressure drop, Princeton was able to install lower-powered recirculation fans.

The research facility also will employ an innovative and efficient chilled-water system for dehumidification, again an important requirement of the clean room where the air must be extremely dry. The chilled water from the central plant precools the clean room’s outside makeup air, then cools a condenser making a small amount of very cool water before returning to the plant. A similar process is applied to the air, where the fresh air consumed in the lecture hall and the other non-lab spaces is used as makeup air in the labs.

details Project Lewis Center for the Arts Size

Project Lewis Center for the Arts
Size 139,000 ft²
Completed 2017 (expected)
Cost $300 million (projected)
Architect Steven Holl Architects
General Contractor Turner Construction
Energy Geothermal wells, LED lighting, daylight harvesting, high-performance envelope
Water Rainwater catchment used for campus chillers
Renderings: Steven Holl Architects

The Lewis Center complex features organic forms and porous façades featuring digitally cut stone and ceramic-fritted glass walls. The project serves as a new campus gateway and captures storm water via green roofs, an underground cistern, and a pool.

The Lewis Center complex features organic forms and porous façades featuring digitally cut stone and ceramic-fritted glass walls. The project serves as a new campus gateway and captures storm water via green roofs, an underground cistern, and a pool. Renderings: Steven Holl Architects

Access to the Arts

On the opposite end of campus, southwest from the Andlinger Center, past Wilson Residential College, and down to the Princeton Dinky Station, is the site of the future Lewis Center for the Arts—another project meant to modernize and enhance the Princeton experience.

The performing arts play a distinct role and provide a unique outlet at Princeton, and Steven Holl Architects is erecting a complex that will revamp the university’s educational capabilities and demonstrate its green potential while designing a complex equivalent to LEED Silver standards.

Noah Yaffe Title

Noah Yaffe
Title Junior Partner
At Steven Holl Architects
Based New York City
Working On Lewis Center for the Arts
Known For Knut Hamsun Center in Hamarøy, Norway, and the Herning Museum of Contemporary Art in Herning, Denmark

Like the majority of Steven Holl’s projects, the 22-acre redevelopment, designed in conjunction with Beyer Blinder Belle, is a unique response to its site, even though the Dinky Station was moved 460 feet to the south in order to enhance the connection between the campus and the community. The project unifies three distinct spaces—the theater and dance building, the music building, and the Lewis Center building, which houses administrative offices and a gallery—by creating one lobby area, echoing the function of the courtyard above it.

“We really saw this as the heart of the project—arts interchanging ideas and the possibility of creating a building that people could spend a whole day and evening inside,” says Noah Yaffe, the partner in charge at Steven Holl Architects. Students and visitors glimpse a black-box theater, dance theater, orchestral space, gallery, and collaboration space all from the complex’s central heart, thanks to “invitation views” that use large windows to create a sense of transparency for both building inhabitants and passersby. This also seeks to spark encounters between those in different programs.

Like the majority of Princeton’s buildings, the Lewis Center will feature low-flow fixtures, but that’s just the beginning of its sustainable water plan. Rainwater captured on the roofs originally was going to be used for pond features and toilet flushing within the complex. By working closely with Van Valkenburgh and the project’s civil engineer, Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, a new strategy was devised that has all the roof catchment in the area feeding into the cooling towers at Princeton’s main chilled-water plant. This district plant powers the entire campus and is responsible for much of the university’s energy savings. Rather than design the Lewis Center as an island, Steven Holl’s office integrated it into the existing infrastructural web, feeding the cogeneration plant even as the new building benefits from it.

Below the buildings, meanwhile, 140 geothermal wells will work with the building heat pumps to keep the facility well tempered, and LED lighting will illuminate even the performance spaces.

details Project Lakeside Graduate Housing Size

Project Lakeside Graduate Housing
Size 382,000 ft²
Completed 2014 (expected)
Certifications Mid-rise LEED Silver (expected), low-rise LEED Gold (expected)
Architect Studio Ma
Landscape Architect Hoehn Landscape Architecture
MEP Engineer Dagher Engineering
General Contractors W.S. Cumby and Costanza Builders
Energy Geothermal heating and cooling, energy-efficient lighting and controls, Energy Star appliances
Water Low-flow fixtures, no irrigation after plant establishments
Rendering: Studio Ma

The townhomes and apartment buildings reference Princeton’s architecture but include recycled materials, rain gardens, and passive solar design. Rendering: Studio Ma

Green Grad Housing

Fostering an open and collaborative campus extends beyond education and research, and Princeton’s holistic approach also is seen in its Lakeside Graduate Housing project. Along the Dinky Station tracks that extend south from the Lewis Center is the site of the university’s future mid-rise and low-rise townhomes, which are designed to LEED Silver and LEED Gold levels, respectively. The project, 13 structures on roughly 16 acres designed by Studio Ma, was initiated to consolidate graduate housing and foster a more cohesive campus community.

Christiana Moss Title Principal Company

Christiana Moss
Title Principal
Company Studio Ma
Based Phoenix
Working On Lakeside Graduate Housing
Known For PRD 845 in Phoenix and Yuma Heritage Library in Yuma, AZ

The site features existing woodland areas alongside new meadows and rain gardens, which help effectively manage storm water and improve the quality of runoff into the adjacent stream and lake. Further pushing Princeton’s sustainable initiatives, residents are allowed to park their cars in Lakeside’s garage but are prohibited from other campus lots, deterring students from driving to campus buildings. Instead, Lakeside will offer shuttle services and include pathways for pedestrians and cyclists.

“The site presented a wonderful opportunity to extend and connect Princeton’s campus to Lake Carnegie,” says Christiana Moss, a principal at Studio Ma. “The site plan orients buildings along view corridors that also coincide with the optimal solar orientation. Building masses are lean, tall, and vertically articulated, taking cues from the Gothic tradition of Princeton while maximizing southern exposure.”

The townhomes and apartments feature highly efficient ground-source heat pumps. Princeton ran a life-cycle cost analysis to determine HVAC options, considering not just initial cost, but also the annual operating expenses and environmental costs, the latter of which is determined with a “carbon tax” of $35 per metric ton of carbon dioxide. The options under consideration had similar life-cycle costs—until the carbon tax was factored in. The result tipped the decision to the ground-source system.

20/20 Vision

Princeton’s work is not done. The school has six years to make good on its mission to reduce emissions to 95,000 metric tons and effectively turn back the clock to the year 1990. And as of 2012, Princeton had cut its emissions to 108,000 metric tons, which means the university is on target to achieve its goal.

Princeton is looking at its past, admitting it can do better, and succeeding. Forward-thinking building designs by world-class architects are being matched with powerful systems to rise above outdated practices of yesteryear. Although time and hindsight will ultimately be the judge of Princeton’s sustainability plan, for now, the university is looking past its challenges and toward the forthcoming green campus. Its vision is clear—2020 is just ahead.