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UCSD’s New Campus Gateway: The Pepper Canyon West Project

UCSD’s New Campus Gateway: The Pepper Canyon West Project

By Luke Carothers

The University of California San Diego’s Pepper Canyon West, a student housing project marking a new entrance to the campus, is slated to open in August 2024.  The project is located on a six-acre site which houses two C-shaped buildings with prominent towers capable of housing a total of 1304 upper-division students.  On the ground level, these buildings contain retail and student amenity spaces that are purposefully designed to create an active, vibrant urban atmosphere.  UCSD’s Pepper Canyon West Project began in 2018 when the RFP was issued as a progressive design-build package.  Perkins & Will ultimately won the project, partnering with Clark Construction to create a winning design for the project.  Ryan Bussard, Design Director for Perkins & Will’s Seattle and San Diego studios, says that winning the project and going through a few design iterations, the Pepper Canyon West project was paused in 2020 with the outbreak of Covid-19.  

Bussard says the team used this time to work on the design’s efficiency as it relates to UC’s overall goal of providing on-campus housing for students that is more affordable than off-campus housing in places like San Diego.  For Bussard and his team, this meant maximizing the number of beds, which provided a challenge in designing apartment-style housing for upper-division students.  Targeting transfer students and other upper-division students, the design had to compete with similar style apartments found in off-campus housing.  The project was redesigned and resumed in the Fall of 2021 as students were returning to campus, thus resuming the need for student housing.

According to Bussard, the redesigned structure features “two spiral forms that have lower scale potential urban blocks for student housing, [ranging] anywhere from four to six stories.”  This design “grounds the building site” and creates courtyards with the buildings spiraling up to towers, which are 22- and 23-stories.  This arrangement creates multiple courtyards in which students can spend time and enjoy common space.  The design also features stepped massing, and exterior design inspired by the nearby canyon as well as an expansive glass curtain wall.

UCSD’s Pepper Canyon West project has a unique design in response to its position adjacent to a new pedestrian gateway for the university.  Two of the area’s public transit options–the light rail trolley (LRT) and commuter shuttle for the buses–have stops at this site on the campus’ east side, which, prior to these recent developments, had been largely undefined.  With the area defined as a campus transit hub, the goal was to extend the campus’ pedestrian mall–Rupertus Walk–to meet the LRT station.  In doing so, the campus maintained the goal of creating a diverse neighborhood, and one of the main goals for the Pepper Canyon West project was to respond to the area’s diverse context and complete the budding neighborhood.  Another aspect of the Pepper Canyon West Project was redesigning the eponymous park at the LRT station’s base.  Running alongside the project is Pepper Canyon Park, which rests in a type of canyon/arroyos common throughout the San Diego area.  The park was disturbed during the construction of the LRT station, and Perkins & Will was tasked with redesigning it.  According to Bussard, their goal in doing so was to fit the redesigned park within the urban, campus context while incorporating traditional landscaping.

The new project’s spiral forms along with its building site allowed for the construction of multiple courtyards which provides ample space for students to hang out in.  The goal in creating this design was to take advantage of San Diego’s weather by pushing programs from the inside out, which also allows for the structure to transition from high rise housing to contextual buildings that wrap and meet the edges of the building site.   Earlier design versions create dense arrangements that disrupted the ability to create meaningful outdoor spaces, and Bussard notes the particular challenge in altering the design to create a space that not only has interesting gateways and campus context but also one that features “pools of daylight and beautiful landscaping zones that students will want to use.”

Bussard says there was a desire to create a space that was “fairly dynamic” and sought to create a stronger sense of expression within the apartment units.  To do so, they began looking at the typologies of these units in an effort to standardize them.  Using five or six base unit types, the team extrapolated to multiple versions depending on the conditions.  Bussard notes that this process of standardizing units helped them achieve equity in terms of students having a similar, collective experience while occupying the building.  Like with other areas of the building, the design started from the inside out, which benefited the architectural design by allowing the team to “think carefully and strategically about where community spaces like lounges and outdoor terraces would be constructed in the building.”  

Another major challenge for the project came from the site’s close proximity to a functioning campus.  This forced teams working on the project to consider ways to help the speed of construction and reduce cost.  Bussard says they began looking at ways to move labor off-site, including examining a number of prefabrication strategies for the project from structural to building components.  The team eventually arrived at two approaches for prefabrication with the first being the prefabrication of the project’s toilet and bathroom components.  This decision greatly improved the speed of construction, which was further aided by the vertical stacking of similar units.  The other major prefabricated aspect of UCSD’s Pepper Canyon West project was the unitized exterior wall assembly, which Bussard points out as being unusual for this type of project in higher education.  The decision to use this process created a high performance curtain wall assembly in terms of sustainability and use as a weather enclosure.

UCSD’s Pepper Canyon West project is nearly complete, having recently celebrated the building’s topping out in November of 2023.  The building is slated to open later this year in August 2024.  Once completed, Pepper Canyon West will provide another crucial step in providing much-needed housing for students in the Southern California region.  As rent continues to increase in communities across Southern California, projects like this will be foundational in ensuring students can continue to live and learn in their chosen communities at an elevated level with an affordable price.