Joseph Nicola on Berkeley Law and the Case for Sustainable Reuse in California
The environmental benefits of renovation and adaptive reuse over new construction are becoming increasingly clear at a time when university campuses are facing the demands of rising student enrollment, growing research and technology programs, tighter finances and expanding environmental awareness. Much coverage has been given to newly constructed facilities that fulfill programmatic needs while creating a visible testament of leadership and strategic direction. These architectural investments have the power to revitalize institutional identity, bolstering funding and recruitment efforts. However, if handled strategically, renovation of existing facilities can achieve these same benefits—while better aligning with an institution’s policies for environmental stewardship.
Signaling a New Era
The University of California, Berkeley, School of Law faced this challenge when, in 2005, it began to evaluate options for a new facility. Founded in 1894, the preeminent law school had occupied its current home since 1951, but over time, disparate additions had compromised the school’s identity, physical coherence, and day-to-day functionality. Confronted with a growing faculty and student population, expanding research assets, and the need to reinvigorate its profile as a premier law program, the school opted to renew its facilities and revitalize its identity through the renovation and expansion of its existing home.
Preserving its existing buildings, rather than demolishing and starting anew, made for a complex design and construction process that required careful orchestration between the design team, builder, and facilities management. However, the result exemplifies the economic and environmental benefits of building reuse. The multi-phased solution updates and clarifies existing buildings while creating an iconic new centerpiece that unifies the campus and embodies the school’s educational mission for the coming decades.
Achieving More with Less
The project comprised three phases of strategic renovations to existing structures, and a fourth phase focused on the construction of a new 55,000-square-foot addition. Composed of a glass pavilion with a café, classrooms and study areas set above a two-level, below-grade library, the addition accommodates Berkeley Law’s growing research collection, establishes a new social and academic hub, and defines a new entry to the school. Sited on an underutilized courtyard adjacent to the existing building, the addition takes advantage of scarce land by placing two full floors below grade, and seamlessly links to existing buildings through indoor and outdoor bridges.
Architecturally, the new library and pavilion integrate indoor and outdoor, old and new. Exterior materials are brought into the interior, and flexible furnishings and sliding glass walls allow the pavilion to convert from a study area into a communal event space that extends into the adjacent courtyard. Below grade, the addition celebrates Berkeley Law’s architectural heritage, transforming the existing building’s foundation into a wall of split-face Indiana limestone that captures light and shadow from above and gives the library’s main reading room a tactile quality.
Renovated space in the original building, totaling 49,000 square feet, complements the new pavilion and library and support Berkeley Law’s continued academic leadership. Relocating the library facilities from the central core of the existing building to the new addition made room for open central circulation path that links original and new structures and remedies the previously disjointed circulation.
Moving the library, also freed up much needed space for classrooms, research areas, and a future clinic. The renovation introduced three distance-learning facilities, a moot courtroom, conference rooms, meeting areas for student groups, law journal offices, faculty offices, and numerous upgraded classrooms. Extensive site-work unifies existing and new elements and better connects the school with the surrounding campus, most notably through a new west-facing terrace adjacent to College Avenue plaza—a key campus meeting point.
Commitment to Sustainability
In keeping with Berkeley Law’s commitment to sustainability, the renovations and addition significantly enhance the school’s environmental performance, which has achieved LEED Silver for Commercial Interiors from the U.S. Green Building Council, and is on track to achieve LEED Gold for New Construction. Environmentally responsive design elements include drought-tolerant and native landscaping; rainwater capture; daylighting; sustainable materials; high-efficiency, user-responsive building systems; and low-flow plumbing fixtures.
Most importantly, the project’s environmental impact was greatly minimized by reusing and expanding Berkeley Law’s existing facilities, avoiding unnecessary teardowns and rebuilds. By increasing the longevity of existing buildings through key renovations, and by introducing a new structure that addresses critical functional and social needs, Berkeley Law establishes a distinctive, modern presence that will endure for another half century. The strategy offers a valuable model for how campuses can prioritize sustainability while heralding a renewed academic vision and identity. If adopted at a larger scale, these strategies can play a critical role in reducing material waste and CO2 emissions in the academic building industry.
Director, Academic Practice
Joseph Nicola is an Associate Principal at Ratcliff, a California-based architecture and planning firm. As director of the firm's Academic Practice he works with institutions to define sustainable development strategies. Joseph is an award-winning and internationally recognized architect with over thirty-five years of experience effectively leading large-scale university projects.