For UCLA chief sustainability officer Nurit Katz, it’s all about the light. Windows dominate the lobby and meeting rooms at the new UCLA Meyer and Renee Luskin Conference Center, flooding the interior with sunshine. But Katz is quick to point out that the bright interior is more than an architectural feature: Maximizing the use of natural light also reduces energy consumption.

In ways visible and invisible to visitors, the center repeatedly demonstrates that sustainability is not about sacrifice or even trade-offs. As faculty member and environmental economist Magali Delmas puts it, “In this place there is no compromise between sustainability and beauty.”

A professor in the UCLA Anderson School of Management and the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, Delmas has done extensive research on the benefits of LEED-certified green buildings. In one study, she found that LEED and Energy Star buildings were 18%–25% more efficient.

But natural light is only one of the features that has helped the conference center, located at the heart of the campus, become a showplace for sustainability.

Landscaping around the Luskin Conference Center features California-friendly, drought-tolerant plants; a satellite weather controller governs the minimal irrigation required. Approximately 92 percent of the structural steel frame used in the building is made up of recycled content. Some of the wood paneling guests see comes from sustainably managed forests. Lobby windows use insulated glass to minimize heat gain while maximizing natural light.

Jamie Kripke/UCLA
Simple, but elegant table settings reflect UCLA's commitment to sustainability, from tables and reusable table mats that bypass linens and laundering to bowls that are entirely natural, carved of Himalayan salt.

Energy efficiency isn’t the only aspect Delmas studies. She also looks at what she calls the social dimension. “We feel better and are more productive in LEED buildings,” she says. Many campus meeting rooms are built without windows, perhaps for fear that views could be distracting. “But people feel better and listen more in rooms filled with natural light,” she says.

The Luskin Conference Center is waiting to receive its official LEED certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. All new construction at UCLA is expected to achieve the LEED Silver standard. But the conference center was designed to score at least at the gold level — and may be poised to receive platinum, the highest designation of all.

Campus architect Jeffrey Averill has been involved with every LEED building at UCLA since the first, La Kretz Hall, was certified LEED Silver in 2006. LEED encourages thoughtful decisions to reduce the environmental impact of the construction process itself. For instance, using local materials reduces emission impacts. The brick that dominates the exterior walls of the Luskin Conference Center is locally manufactured. It also visually connects the new center to iconic campus buildings such as Royce Hall and Powell Library.

Environmentally friendly materials are another consideration. The elegant wood veneer in the lobby area is Forest Stewardship Council-certified as sustainably harvested. “We now have 30 LEED-certified projects on campus with many more, including Luskin, on the way,” Averill says. “With each project we continue to improve the performance such that six of the last seven have been Platinum.”

LEED certification is an accomplishment in any context. But in the hospitality industry, it is even more impressive. The state of California estimates that an average-sized hotel purchases more products in a week than 100 families do in a year. Waste generation can be as high as 30 pounds per room per day. Dismaying as these figures are, they also demonstrate the upside of a residential conference center that’s built to be green in every aspect possible. Construction methods and materials, energy and water use, food, transportation, amenities and waste all have been carefully weighed in designing and operating the Luskin Conference Center.

Emma Sorrell, sustainability manager for housing and hospitality services, helps to maintain a “sustainability compendium” to document carbon neutrality and zero-waste goals as well as to educate guests about sustainable operations. Her long list of sustainability achievements ranges from the use of fair trade coffee and sugar to recycling leftover shower soaps via a nonprofit that reconstitutes them for distribution around the world.

“We practice what we teach,” Katz likes to say. In addition to the use of natural light and insulated glass for energy savings, Katz notes that the restaurant and landscaping make Luskin Conference Center a living laboratory for sustainability.

For instance, the Plateia restaurant offers California wine on tap. Each keg replaces 26 glass bottles. Over the lifespan of a keg, that could save literally a ton of glass bottles. Similarly, the table settings bypass linens for reusable table mats, while distinctive bowls are entirely natural, carved of Himalayan salt.

Jamie Kripke/UCLA
Half of the wood paneling pictured above comes from sustainably managed forests certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.

The landscaping emphasizes California-friendly, drought-tolerant plants. What little irrigation is needed comes not from sprinkler systems but from a satellite weather controller. The center transit island has a broken curb to allow water into the swale, where it can soak in and replenish groundwater.

Appropriately, the first major conference held in the center was the October 2016 environmental conference “Earth Now, Earth 2050.” Convening experts to exchange the ideas and innovations that will shape the future is the whole purpose of the center. And what better place for environmentalists to meet than in a showplace of sustainability?

— From UCLA Magazine's January 2017 issue.