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Duke Kunshan University

Duke Kunshan University

With Phase II Just Beginning, Phase I Designers Discuss the Ultra-Modern Project in Eastern China

By Editorial Staff

With a four-acre water ecosystem as the central landscape element, the campus is also organized around flexible public spaces, ecological design and spatial character that responds to seasonal changes. Photo: LandDesign

Phase II of the Duke Kunshan University buildout is now underway. New Facilities will include an employee center, library, student residences, community and administrative centers, and a sports complex. Once Phase II is complete, the university residence halls will have the capacity to accommodate 2,000 undergraduate students, 500-800 graduate students, and 800 employees. All major buildings will be within a three-minute walking distance, and will include no fewer than 26 new classrooms and 18 to 22 laboratories. All buildings within Phase II are expected to receive LEED certifications from the U.S. Green Building Council as well as the equivalent qualifications from the China Green Building Council.

The 200-acre campus in the Jiangsu province in eastern China is a Sino-American joint venture founded by Duke University and Wuhan University. DKU was granted final establishment approval in September 2013, and has hosted students since 2014. In August 2018, the Duke Kunshan campus welcomed its inaugural undergraduate class.

For Phase I, LandDesign was selected to provide landscape architecture and civil engineering in collaboration with Gensler and Futurepolis. Of Phase I’s five buildings, all of them are LEED accredited, with the academic building and conference center rated LEED Gold, and the student residence, faculty residence, and service building rated LEED Silver.

The 30-acre Phase I project featured a four-acre water ecosystem at its center, making the site an absorbent “sponge campus,” where almost every rain drop is absorbed, stored, permeated, purified and reused. Duke Kunshan’s ecological system consists of four major parts: a naturally designed waterscape for rainwater collection and storm control, rainwater gardens to enhance on-site permeability, an underground filtration system for water quality assurance, and an irrigation system which fully uses purified rainwater. The extensive water features symbolize the region’s water towns.

Two people who were instrumental in creating the Phase I Duke Kunshan ecosystem were LandDesign’s Kevin Vogel with civil engineering, and Richard Petersheim with landscape architecture. They spoke with Civil + Structural Engineer about the project as well as working in China.

Civil + Structural Engineer: Looking at the press on the Kunshan project, it looks like LandDesign and Gensler won the contract through an intense international design contest. Describe the contest: How long did the process take, what were a few of the key steps that had to be taken to be considered, what was the competition like and, more specifically, what partnership appeared to be the front-runner as the competition unfolded?

Kevin Vogel & Richard Petersheim: Gensler was already involved in the project and the master plan had been developed. Our client was the City of Kunshan, but we also had to be sensitive to Duke University. Our team’s strength was bringing together our understanding of Duke University and our local partner’s understanding of Kunshan. The process took 3-4 months and we presented a design solution reacting to the water town culture of the City of Kunshan and the lushness of Duke University’s Durham campus. By understanding the relation of water to the local culture and environment, we were able to create a unique learning experience centered around water.

C+S: How did LandDesign differentiate itself along the way to become part of the unique Kunshan campus? This could have been something the firm did long before this project appeared on the horizon. What makes LandDesign different than other firms that offer similar services and that work in similar markets?

KV&RP: LandDesign’s culture has always approached civil engineering and landscape architecture disciplines as a single design process. For the project to be successful – the bold idea of incorporating water into the campus master plan – technical answers surrounding hydraulic and hydrology of the system had to be addressed in a short time in concert with the hardscape/landscape design objectives. There was no handoff from one discipline to the other – everyone worked together.

C+S: What was LandDesign’s prime responsibility on this contract?

KV&RP: LandDesign was the prime consultant for landscape architecture and civil engineering services.

C+S: How did LandDesign and Gensler come to form a partnership for this project? Do you foresee the two firms doing more work at Kunshan? If so, what is in the pipeline, or at least on the radar?

KV&RP: Gensler was brought on board under a separate client and project prior to LandDesign winning the design competition for the campus and being selected to lead the civil engineering and landscape architecture portions. The working relationship with Gensler was great! We have since worked together, and there are future phases of Duke Kunshan that may present another opportunity to collaborate together.

C+S: Water features, reflecting the environment in and around Kunshan, are an important piece of the campus design. What do you think LandDesign achieved with its landscape architecture and civil engineering, both technically and aesthetically?

KV&RP: We were able to balance stormwater management with a beautiful landscape design that integrated with the building architecture and common open spaces on the campus. That region of China frequently floods and by incorporating stormwater management into the context of the urban hardscape and landscape we were able to effectively mitigate flooding, provide opportunities for stormwater reuse and enhanced the water quality on campus. Additionally, the campus was designed to foster diverse water habitats through the use of local flora and fauna. Today, the water gardens on campus are home to birds, amphibians and small mammals.

C+S: What was the most difficult aspect of this project, and what solution did you develop to overcome the challenge?

KV&RP: From a civil standpoint, meeting LEED requirements for water quality and quantity controls; mitigating flooding risks; incorporating a system that would continuously recirculate the water on campus to negate any stagnation; and integrating all of that into the design aesthetic for Duke Kunshan. Additionally, effectively communicating and collaborating with our local civil partner was a challenge from a language barrier standpoint, but also a unique and fun experience!

C+S: Mr. Petersheim, your bio says you specialize in building constituency. As it pertains to Kunshan, what did you have to do to get everyone on the same page, both internally within the team, and externally with the clients?

RP: I spent time with both Duke University and the City of Kunshan to listen to their concerns, goals and visions for the campus. That helped us come to a commonality on our design approach that would balance both the needs of the City and University.

C+S: Mr. Vogel, your bio says you specialize in the nuts-and-bolts aspect of projects – regulations, construction coordination, and permitting, etc. What stood out to you about Kunshan?

KV: Local regulations required a varied approach to stormwater managements and the LEED standards needed to manage runoff to higher levels of treatment and attention. We had to ensure we met both requirements and maintained the aesthetic of the project. The project was  fast paced from a design and construction stand point.

C+S: Duke University. Wuhan University (One of the earliest comprehensive national universities in modern China). The People’s Republic of China. These are some pretty big names undertaking an ambitious program. What was the pressure like working for clients like this?

KV&RP: It was critical that we shepherded the values and opinions of both our client (City of Kunshan) and Duke University, who would ultimately operate the facilities. Working between the two entities at the same time was challenging but taking time to build consensus was critical for the project’s success.

C+S: These days, you hear a lot about the lifecycle of a project and long-term strategic asset management. What are a few of the central challenges a “sponge campus” like Kunshan presents, with its vast water features and abundance of environmental technology? In other words, what will need to be done, or what has already been done, to sustain the sustainability of the campus?

KV&RP: The University’s understanding of the operation of maintenance needs of the water management system was vital. A system with multiple and varying types of BMPs working in tandem requires that each piece of the puzzle is performing. The Sponge City initiative was developed during or after this phase of the campus was designed and built, but it represents the elements of the initiative. It is a prime example of how to manage surface water flooding and water quality issues that arise with development, and how incorporating stormwater management into the urban environment can be a vital part of solving that challenge.

C+S: LandDesign President Rhett Crocker was recently quoted as saying, “It’s key to make it personal,” when talking about building clients and business. How did this type of mindset play out with Kunshan?

KV&RP: Duke University was a neighbor to our Charlotte office, and it was important that they be reflected well in China and were happy with the final product. LandDesign’s reputation was also important in that we were intimately involved with every aspect of our scope, and that the local team become an extension of LandDesign.

C+S: How was China? What did you learn about yourself and your profession?

KV&RP: Professionally, it was very rewarding to drive the design and work with professionals from around the world. Despite language barriers and cultural differences, we were able to collaborate and pull off a design that was technically complicated and have the end result be so successful.

Kevin Vogel, PE
Richard Petersheim, PLA








Key Phase II Stats

Groundbreaking: Aug. 16

Scheduled completion: End of 2021

Site area: 189,334 square meters

Building coverage: 19.98%

Green space area: 66,268 square meters

Green ratio: 35%

Buildings in Phase II

  • Basement garage
  • Employee center
  • WHU-Duke Research Institute
  • Visitor center
  • Administration building
  • Library
  • Sports complex
  • Community center
  • Graduate student center
  • Undergraduate student residence
  • Service building


  • Once Phase II is complete, the university residence halls will have the capacity to accommodate 2,000 undergraduate students, 500-800 graduate students and 800 employees.
  • All major buildings are within a three-minute walking distance.
  • Phase II will include no fewer than 26 new classrooms and 18 to 22 laboratories.
  • All major buildings are within a three-minute walking distance.
  • Once complete, all of the buildings in Phase II are expected to receive LEED certifications – one platinum, four gold and the rest silver – from the U.S. Green Building Council as well as the equivalent qualifications from the China Green Building Council.

“We have built something unique at Duke Kunshan University. As with Phase I construction, these new buildings will be aesthetically impressive and distinctive, but more importantly they will serve our mission to create dynamic spaces for students, faculty and staff to interact, engage and innovate.” –Youmei Feng, chancellor, Duke Kunshan University

SOURCE: Duke Kunshan University

Richard Petersheim, PLA, is a Partner and Senior Landscape Architect at LandDesign. Committed to creative and sustainable urban design, he is responsible for project development through construction, and directs a passionate urban design studio with focus on strategic urban planning, infill development, transit planning and station area design, higher education master planning, and retail development.

Kevin Vogel, PE, is a Partner and Civil Engineer at LandDesign. He is responsible for design staff management of engineers, surveyors, and landscape architects. He is also responsible for full cycle project management, from contracts and administration through construction documentation. He is responsible for directing both public and private site development and infrastructure improvement projects both regionally and internationally.