Location Las Cruces, NM
Program 466-seat theater, rehearsal space, lobby, classrooms
Size 59,000 ft2
Completion 2012
Certification LEED-NC Gold
Awards Associated General Contractors New Mexico Chapter, Best Buildings Awards 2014: Best Construction Management at Risk Project

The New Mexico State University (NMSU) campus in Las Cruces gets an abundance of sunlight each year but constantly lacks rain. So when the university decided to build the LEED Gold-certified Center for the Arts, the project team knew it would need to take those factors into account. The 59,000-square-foot building sits on the north end of the campus’s main horseshoe of buildings and houses a 466-seat theater, rehearsal room, classrooms, and a main lobby nicknamed “The Arroyo” after New Mexico’s winding river beds.

Although many challenged the ability to build a LEED-certified theater building, the building’s design team used a variety of innovative techniques. “We installed large windows so that we could harvest as much daylight as possible, and sun scoops that track the pattern of the sun across the roof, allowing light into the lobby,” says NMSU’s university architect, Greg Walke. Sun scoops are skylights that allow the most light to come in at any point of day. The university saves on lighting costs, and the curving lobby takes on a different character depending on where the sun is in the sky.

To address the water needs of the area, the site is designed to manage stormwater, and rainwater is captured to provide 100 percent of irrigation to the building’s drought-tolerant landscaping. Further reducing use, low-flow fixtures were installed throughout the facility.

The building’s irregular form creates a variety of views. Its façade features local stone that references New Mexico’s natural geography.

The building’s irregular form creates a variety of views. Its façade features local stone that references New Mexico’s natural geography.

Client New Mexico State University
Architect Holzman Moss Bottino Architects
Associate Architect ASA Architects
Mechanical Engineer Kohler Ronan
Lighting Designer 
Cline Bettridge Bernstein Lighting Design
General Contractor McCarthy Building Companies

One of the building’s more unique features is its displacement ventilation system. Displacement ventilation is key in a climate like New Mexico’s where buildings typically use air-conditioning year round. “We cool air coming in from the outside by ventilating it four to six feet above the ground, where most people are standing,” Walke says. “Then, because hot air rises, the areas above people’s heads heats up, but they’re still comfortable.”

As a building devoted to the arts, the structure needed to be aesthetically appealing. The planners tried to push the envelope, raising visibility and getting people to talk about its unique design. “We wanted a place that the students and the public could enjoy, so we brought in different colors, shapes, and light patterns in The Arroyo, and we built the building closer to the street so that it didn’t turn its back on the town,” Walke says. “It offers great views of the mountains from its big windows, and students sit in its nooks and crannies even when they aren’t going to class there.”

When Kohler Ronan Engineers started working on the team of architects, engineers, and project managers responsible for the Center for the Arts building, the goal was to achieve LEED-NC Silver. But with a little exploration and a lot of hard work, the team was able to reach LEED Gold and reduce energy consumption by 28 percent more than required in the ASHRAE/IESNA standard. “By performing several energy models of the building at an early stage in design, we were able to analyze different energy efficient measures to see which we could improve upon and give us our biggest payback in terms of energy,” says Kohler Ronan’s Steve Lembo.

Not every idea Kohler Ronan tested worked. Early in the process, while analyzing different systems for airflow and temperature control, the team tested a system that would allow natural ventilation to cool the building. Because the amount of available hours for natural ventilation to cool the building effectively were not ideal, it would have been too expensive to include as an energy efficient measure. Furthermore, New Mexico’s numerous dust storms that occur several months of the year did not make natural ventilation a viable option.

The frequent use of red and green alludes to the two main colors of chiles, of which New Mexico produces more than any other state in the US.

The frequent use of red and green alludes to the two main colors of chiles, of which New Mexico produces more than any other state in the US.

“For the most part, campus buildings, and in particular performing arts centers, are used seven days a week at all hours of the day, and they have occupancies that fluctuate greatly compared to corporate buildings,” Lembo says. “The systems that are designed for these buildings must consider these fluctuations in usage and occupancies and adjust accordingly.”

One of the biggest energy savers is a series of energy-recovery wheels that operate in the summer and winter in the theater, lobby, and rehearsal rooms. These wheels use energy contained in the air that would normally be exhausted in the building to pretreat the incoming air, cooling it in the summer and heating it in the winter, providing cost savings and allowing for smaller HVAC units throughout the building.

Kohler Ronan used the same idea by borrowing energy from the building’s hot or chilled water for the radiant floor system. “Most people are familiar [with] and use radiant floor heating in more of the projects they work on today,” Lembo says. “However, we used a combined system of radiant cooling and heating for the lobby of the building. When direct sunlight reaches the floor of the building unobstructed, a system of radiant pipes will absorb the sun’s energy in the summer or add heat in the winter.” The radiant floor allows for a reduced need for air circulation, which in turn leads to a considerable savings in fan energy and reheating.

The project also incorporates a number of now-standard sustainable features, like low-flow fixtures, demand controlled ventilation, occupancy sensors, and a 14-kilowatt photovoltaic array. Regionally sourced materials include stone from two local quarries, including limestone and onyx accents from New Mexico Travertine in Belen, New Mexico, and larger limestone blocks from Texas Stone Quarries in Garden City, Texas. Both are within LEED’s required 500-mile radius.

Interior rehearsal spaces are left somewhat raw compared to the decorative lobby and auditorium.

Interior rehearsal spaces are left somewhat raw compared to the decorative lobby and auditorium.

In addition to its mechanical systems and green features, the Center for the Arts identifies with its surroundings in symbolic ways. The building exterior is immediately identifiable for its New Mexico stone, which continues into the lobby. As a centennial building built during New Mexico’s 100th anniversary of statehood, the team also wanted to identify with some of the historic buildings around it, including its 104-year-old neighbor, a green-tinted campus building. That’s why architects finished the building with a pattern of green and red stucco. “We also wanted to give a nod to the classic New Mexico chile dilemma—red or green,” Walke says. “As the country’s largest producer of chiles, everyone has an opinion as to which color is best.”

This building is a part of NMSU’s initiative to ensure that buildings on campus are LEED certified. While the campus had already been using many green building techniques, such as locally sourced materials, the photovoltaic array was a new element that Walke says he’d like to use again on future buildings. The university is also perfecting displacement ventilation, which will save money on energy costs during the 300-plus cooling days in Las Cruces. “I think we’ll focus more on building healthy buildings in the future,” Walke says. “Displacement ventilation is already a step in that direction, because it’s more natural and healthy than blowing air horizontally across the room.”

New Mexico State University’s Center for the Arts may just be the beginning when it comes to sustainable buildings for the university—and for the arts. The school is considering two more phases of arts-related building projects. Kohler Ronan, for its part, is hoping to be a part of them.