Walker Hall Graduate Student Center – Design for Resources

The Walker Hall Graduate Student Center is the adaptive reuse/preservation of one of the oldest buildings on the University of California Davis campus. The project transformed a vacant, seismically unsafe concrete, steel, and wood structure – built in 1927 to house the agricultural engineering program – into a new, high-performance 32,400 GSF Graduate Student Center and active learning classroom complex. The two-story Spanish Colonial-style northern wing was converted into the Graduate Center on the ground floor with graduate administrative offices above. Three one-story, clear-span southern wings, originally agricultural machine shops, were converted into two general assignment active-learning classrooms and a lecture hall. The original wings were reduced by 6,000 GSF to create the new Walker Promenade, a major new pedestrian way at the campus core linking a transit center to the west to the Shields Library to the east. Truncating the three wings also “right-sized” the building to the program requirements, reducing the construction cost as well as future operational costs and carbon emissions.


The strategy for the adaptive reuse of the existing structure transforms the project into a multifaceted hub that revitalizes the fabric of the campus. The historic spirit of the building has been fully respected while making it work for current and future needs. A complex program, beautifully handled.

Noteworthy performance features include:

1. LEED Platinum

2. 75% of historic building is reused, 57% reduction in embodied carbon, 100% FSC certified wood, 34% recycled content materials

3. Thoughtful inclusion of native vegetation and birdsafe design.

//framework for design excellence measures
Measure 1: Design for Integration
Weaving together history, community, and high-performance, the idea that the old can be innovative is at the core of the Walker Hall adaptive reuse. 75% of the 95-year-old concrete, steel, and wood structure was preserved, resulting in a savings of 709 metric tons of CO2 – a 57% reduction in embodied carbon compared to a similar new building. A seismic upgrade provides safety and resilience in future earthquakes, ensuring another 100 years of building life. New thermal insulation and high-efficiency building systems, combined with dedicated renewable energy provided by an on-campus solar farm, results in 100% offset of all electrical loads. While the University’s project goal was LEED Gold certification and 20% better than California’s Title 24, the project achieved LEED Platinum and exceeds T24 by 50% at no additional cost.
Engaging both the history of the original building and the arid climate enriches occupants’ daily experience. Existing steel trusses, concrete columns, and finishes are retained and celebrated; high-performance southern facades are inserted within the original shells. Shaded glazing provides glare-free transparency of activities within, fostering a stronger academic community. New exterior details—sunshades, daylight collectors, a sculptural steel stair, folded shade canopies—reflect the industrial history of the building.
Measure 2: Design for Equitable Communities
Walker Hall offers undergraduate classes and graduate student services to virtually all 38,000 students at UC Davis – the nation’s top-ranked public university for diversity, inclusiveness, and internationalization. Located at the core of a widely celebrated bicycle-friendly campus, near a public transportation hub, and incorporating a variety of Universal Design strategies, the project welcomes everyone. The Graduate Center serves 7,000 diverse students representing 100 graduate and professional degree programs. It offers a range of free services including a Student Pantry (addressing student food insecurity), professional development, diversity resources, psychological counseling, lactation and childcare spaces, meeting spaces and quiet writing lounges.
Measure 3: Design for Ecosystems
The project includes extensive landscape adjacent to the building that serves the Campus Core. Planting selections balanced campus standards, stormwater treatment requirements, and drought-tolerant native plants that restore the regional ecosystem and provide new habitat for native species. Future resilience of landscaping as the climate changes was also considered. 100% of the glazing was replaced in the project with bird-safe designs, including frit textures and opaque shading elements.
Measure 4: Design for Water
Given the Central Valley’s hot, dry climate, potable water use reduction was a focus. Low-flow fixtures are used throughout, resulting in a 35% reduction in water use compared to the baseline for university buildings. At the building exterior, all irrigation water is non-potable, supplied by a campus-wide treated waste water system. Native drought-tolerant planting is used to reduce irrigation water by 72%.
Measure 5: Design for Economy
A construction cost of $756 / GSF is low for university buildings in Northern California, which varies between $700 to over $1,200 / GSF. The budget was established by State funds provided for a seismic upgrade of Walker Hall, which the University determined would cover the entire project cost. Consequently, every design decision needed to reap multiple benefits. Reducing length of the existing south wings reduced both first cost and operating expense while creating a new Promenade. The exterior surfaces were simply restored and painted. Flexible interior spaces allow for multiple uses: classes, meetings, conferences, or other unforeseen functions.
Measure 6: Design for Energy
While the University’s project goal was LEED Gold certification and 20% better energy performance than California’s Title 24, project team collaboration resulted in LEED Platinum certification and energy performance 50% beyond code at no additional cost. Original steel windows were replaced with high-performance units and exterior shading. Envelope insulation was increased beyond code. An efficient VAV system provides conditioning appropriate to the variable climate. 100% of electrical loads are offset by an on-campus PV farm with a permanent allocation for Walker Hall. The current gas boiler is scheduled for replacement by an all-electric district hot water system, currently under construction.
Measure 7: Design for Well-Being
Healthy, non-toxic materials were prioritized throughout the project. A new topping slab encapsulates the original machine shop floors, eliminating residual toxic exposure. Daylight modeling confirmed 75% of regularly occupied spaces are daylit and 92% of spaces provide views to nature. The active learning spaces feature glare-free daylighting with overhead tubular skylights. Shades, lighting, and AV systems are integrated into automated room controls. Anticipating increasing wildfire seasons, MERV13 filtered centralized ventilation high IAQ. 90% of workspaces are located at the window line while private offices and conference rooms occupying the middle of the building receive borrowed daylight via interior glazing.
Measure 8: Design for Resources
75% of the original structure and shell – consisting mainly of high-carbon concrete and steel – was reused and upgraded to modern performance standards, resulting in an embodied carbon reduction for the entire project of 57% from a comparable new building. Low-carbon concrete was used for new foundations and shear walls. A full seismic upgrade extended the life of the 95-year-old building for another 100 years. Wood used in the project was 100% FSC-certified while other materials consisted of 34% recycled content. Interior spaces were designed for flexible use, reducing the need for future partition relocations.
Measure 9: Design for Change
Just as the 95-year-old Walker Hall – originally designed to invent 20th century agricultural machinery – has been transformed to enable 21st century teaching, learning, and interdisciplinary collaboration, the renovation was designed to support adaptation into the future. Its flexible spaces already accommodate a wide variety of uses, hosting a variety of programs, classes, and student clubs, including religious groups using the spaces for sacred gatherings. The seismic upgrade, new high-performance systems, non-bearing interior partitions prepare the building to adapt to changing needs and conditions for at least the next 100 years.
Measure 10: Design for Discovery
Walker Hall is a case study for what architects should urgently focus on as the Climate Emergency advances: prioritizing adaptive reuse of high-embodied carbon existing buildings. We know it is crucial to rapidly reduce carbon emissions in the next 7-10 years if we are to avoid catastrophic climate destabilization. We also know that the best, most economical way to do that is to renovate existing buildings instead of building new. But creative adaptive reuse offers important benefits beyond resource management. It also allows us to experience a creative dialogue with the history and culture of our Places.
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