1.6MM SQFT UC San Diego Living Learning Community Designed to Meet Needs of Growing Student Population

HKS Architecture, North Torrey Pines, University of California San Diego, North Torrey Pines Living and Learning Community, La Jolla, Clark Construction, Safdie Rabines Architects, OJB Landscape Architecture
Courtesy of Tom Harris Photography

By Catherine Sweeney 

A living and learning community at the University of California San Diego is offering 1.6 million square feet of residential and communal learning amenities. With full occupancy beginning in the fall of 2021, the seven-building campus is home to 2,048 students. HKS Architects, which designed the community, said the project was created in an effort to help fulfill the university’s growing enrollment rate. 

“The university is in a situation in which their enrollment needs are growing very quickly. They topped 42,000 this year, and it’s an all time high for them. In addition to that, the difficulty they are having in a neighborhood like La Jolla and San Diego, is [that] median rental rates are probably twice what they are elsewhere in the country and the availability is low, so students frankly just don’t have a place to stay,” Thom Greving, design director with HKS, said. “Second of all, the university is very committed to the idea of students living on campus because of the benefit it gives them in having a more well-rounded university experience.” 

The North Torrey Pines Living and Learning Neighborhood, which also was developed with help from Clark Construction, Safdie Rabines Architects and OJB Landscape Architecture, consists of seven buildings. As a living learning community, the space provides a variety of onsite amenities in addition to the residential component. These include a 1,200  below-grade vehicle parking structure, a two-story dining hall with six restaurants, retail space, a craft center, a teaching kitchen, a sound studio and outdoor and public space amenities such as a basketball court and rooftop terraces.  

“Over time, the university is becoming more committed to this living and learning idea. In the past, maybe it was just a learning area,” Greving said. “They’re moving more towards making sure the components of the project are of much more mixed-use in giving students the opportunity for this neighborhood experience.”

The community is also designed to blend in with the larger campus and North Torrey Pines region. With a focus on the San Diego coast and wanting to draw attention to an active healthy lifestyle, the project draws inspiration from the natural world with elements of exposed concrete and white exteriors with wood and glass paneling. 

“We always try to design projects so that if they were put anywhere else they would seem out of place because they seem perfectly in place here… In this case, that meant a project that was very much about the climate, the adjacency to the ocean, to the views, to the natural breezes and to the ability to be outdoors,” Greving said. 

While paying homage to the surrounding environment, the community was also designed with sustainability in mind. Because UC San Diego has the goal of achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions from its buildings and vehicles by 2025, the buildings were designed with natural ventilation. An onsite anaerobic digester also takes electrical energy from student’s food waste and turns it into enriched fertilizer to be used in the community gardens that are also located on the campus. 

Overall, the design is anticipated to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the university by 17 percent. The university also developed a first-of-its-kind class around sustainable construction, which is based on the project itself. 

“[The university’s] goals and their values around being responsible from a design standpoint as they put a project like this on the planet are very much in line with ours as well,” Greving said. “…It’s a fun idea that is helping people learn about being responsible, but it’s also helping us put projects on the planet that are meeting carbon reduction goals and energy reduction goals for the university.”

Yet, like any project of this scale and ambition, this one was not designed without challenges. According to Greving, the main hurdle was providing affordable student housing while still creating an amenity-rich space to which students are drawn. 

“Some of these buildings go up to 14 stories, so how can you create an environment where you have six or seven buildings of that scale and still create a sense of human scale to it, a sense of belonging, something that’s comfortable and a place that students want to be?” Greving said.  

The construction was completed this fall, but HKS’ work on the project is ongoing. The architecture firm is in the process of conducting research that could aid in the development of living learning communities moving forward. In collaboration with the university and two research fellows living in the community, the research project will analyze what the completed community brings to the university by making sure it is a place in which students are interested in living and studying. 

“It’s a campus, but it’s a campus within a campus, so to make sure that this was not only a welcoming space for those who lived here but also the rest of the [community]. They come to this location for classes or to visit students, and it has become one of the favorite places for students to go for food,” Greving said. “…It became a place that wasn’t a fortress, even though there was a sense of containment and place to it.”