Picture the Princeton University of the early 1900s: the Dinky drops you off right before Blair Arch and, of course, there is no Wawa in sight. You stroll through the numerous Oxbridge-influenced courtyards, admiring the Gothic architecture around you and find yourself on the grassy lawn before Nassau Hall. The pairing of open green space with this building inspired the first known use of the word “campus,” derived from the Latin word for field, to describe University grounds.
But even on that serene, historic campus, construction was abundant. At the time, University President Woodrow Wilson Class of 1879 was overseeing a major architectural undertaking, led by the first University Architect Ralph Adams Cram and first Landscape Architect Beatrix Farrand. Together, the two carried out the comprehensive campus plan of 1911, combining architectural vision with intentional landscaping. Since then, the master plans have just kept coming. This is why when you walk through campus today, you will find modern buildings and state of the art research centers. If you tried to take the Dinky from Blair Arch today, you wouldn’t get very far at all. In fact, since the 1920s, the Dinky has moved twice.
These campus plans involve years of organization and input from hundreds of people. Current University Architect Ron McCoy ’80 broke down the 2026 institutional planning process into three parts: the strategic objectives, led by current University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 and the Board of Trustees; the campus plan, led by the University architecture and infrastructure teams; and the capital plan, which secures funding for the campus plan. This is the most ambitious ten-year expansion yet, amounting to over 3 million square feet added over the course of the plan, and this is the first time in Princeton’s history that the University has planned for all of the land it owns. In addition to this massive expansion, the University is making sustainability a priority in the construction process.
Today’s campus is ridden with fences and holes as the University undergoes giant construction projects, but the growing pains are all part of an intentional vision for the future.
Changing visions for campus
The most recent campus plan before the current one began in 2002 under former University President Shirley Tilghman. It was steered by former University Architect Jon Hlafter ’61. The plan had five main objectives, the most prominent of which was to maintain a “pedestrian-oriented,” walkable campus. The plan also supported fostering a sense of community and building in an environmentally responsible manner, although sustainability initiatives were not nearly as widespread as they are now.
Former Dean of the School of Architecture Stan Allen ’88 had a “ringside seat” for the 2016 campus plan. “The campus architect and the administration … would consult with the Dean of the School of Architecture for expertise around questions of architecture,” Allen explained.
When Allen arrived on campus, two architecturally juxtaposed construction projects were underway. The first was Whitman College, a traditional Collegiate Gothic building. Meanwhile, across Washington Road, the University had commissioned architect Frank Gehry to build Lewis Library. “In some ways, you couldn’t imagine two styles more distinct than … Whitman College and Lewis Library on the other side of campus. But it was the same campus, the same Board of Trustees,” said Allen.
Allen explained that, while the University valued traditional architecture, the requirements of modern day laboratories could not be accommodated by traditional buildings. In order for the University to remain competitive in grants and funding, it needed to supply state-of-the art laboratories. “The idea was that this could happen on the other side of Washington Road, where there was more space, and that gave permission to use a more modern architectural language,” said Allen.
The area now includes Jadwin Hall, the Frick Chemistry Building, and, connected by a bridge, the Princeton Neuroscience Institute. In the same period, the University also built Butler College and the Lewis Center for the Arts.
Allen’s time as dean certainly saw an increase in campus construction, but the expansion now underway is unprecedented.
The current ten-year campus plan, set in motion in 2017 and set to finish in 2026, includes the construction of a new residential college and the development of a grad student campus across Lake Carnegie.
Ron McCoy, the current University Architect, is in charge of taking this framework and making it concrete, often quite literally, into a new period of massive construction. Because the plan is so broad across both time and space, the architecture team must “constantly review it and ask whether it is providing the guidance we need to make the next set of strategic decisions,” said McCoy.
The plan’s five guiding principles are: providing an integrated environment for teaching, living, learning, and research; enhancing the campus’ distinctive sense of place; fostering a setting that is welcoming and supportive and encourages positive interaction and exchange; creating a climate that encourages thoughtful and creative approaches to sustainability; and serving communities that extend beyond campus.
In particular, the framework’s commitment to sustainability requires new approaches to construction and operations, as the University aims to achieve net carbon neutrality by 2046.
The aesthetics of sustainability
While campus expansion and commitment to sustainability are both pillars of the 2026 plan, the two values often seem to contradict one another. Constructing new buildings requires a significant amount of embodied carbon — the carbon expended on the construction of the building itself. This is different from operational carbon, the building’s carbon expenditure once it has already been built.
“When we initiated the 2026 campus plan, our focus was at that time on operational carbon, so the 2046 goal is about operational carbon neutrality,” explained McCoy. Since then, however, the team has concluded that, “if the world considers only its operational carbon, that’s not good enough, because buildings have significant embodied carbon in their construction materials.”
One tactic they’ve taken to reduce embodied carbon is using mass timber for construction whenever possible. The new Princeton University Art Museum, Hobson College, Schmidt Hall, Class of 1986 Fitness and Wellness Center, the new UHS building, and ES & SEAS buildings will all have some mix of mass timber structural systems because the amount of energy required to create steel or concrete is much higher. According to McCoy, when you replace these materials with mass timber, “you can take a bit of a dent out of embodied carbon,” and in fact even sequester carbon.
This change is one example of how sustainable construction is altering not only buildings’ inner workings but also their aesthetic. “It’s a fact that 10–20 years from now, when people look back at this generation of buildings, there will be a moment in time that people can say ‘that’s the way a place can attack embodied carbon.’” McCoy added that the reduction of embodied carbon will be a “very experiential part of campus because wood is a very distinctive material, it adds a kind of warm glow, it has an acoustic quality, and it will be really dramatic.”
While adjustments to embodied carbon will likely have a greater aesthetic impact on University construction going forward, there is an even greater change taking place right beneath our feet. Princeton’s thermal energy systems are being transitioned to a geothermal exchange system, which will largely, though not entirely, replace the cogeneration plant and steam distribution system that currently deliver heat, improving the University’s energy efficiency and water usage. “Ironically, the geo-exchange system is invisible,” said McCoy. “When you look at campus, you can’t tell the source of energy.”
While this is currently the case, Energy Plant Manager Ted Borer is hoping to change that with the new heat pump facility dubbed TIGER (Thermally Integrated Geo-Exchange Resource).
Borer, his boss Tom Nyquist, and their team advise McCoy and his team on how to most effectively heat, cool, and power their buildings.
“We want to be an example that others can follow, a place where students can learn through our own activities,” said Borer.
Part of setting an example is visibility, and, for inspiration, Borer looks back to one particular Philadelphia power plant from the 1920s. This plant “had mahogany railings, it had a restaurant above the turbine hall so that people could sit and eat and see the power that was being generated for the city. Because that was the modern sparkly thing and everyone was obsessed with it.” Today, the University is putting the same principles into practice with the TIGER facility, which will be built east of Jadwin Gym, with large glass windows. That way, Borer explained, “you can look in and you can interpret what happens with the differently colored pipes and systems.” Additionally, the building will house a conference room for presentations before tours of the plant. “It’s a teaching space as well as an energy facility … and it harkens back to what we were doing with power plants in the nation a century ago.”
Borer added that the geo-exchange system has allowed the University to think outside the box in numerous ways. “We hadn’t thought about using land that goes 800 feet below the campus until just now.” Now, the University is also considering the real-estate on top of buildings for green roofs and solar energy. “It’s about realizing that we’re not discreet and solitary. We’re part of a hyper-interconnected community … What we build is beginning to reflect that,” said Borer.
Student consultation for the plan
The planning teams had regular meetings with USG and GSG focus groups, which McCoy said served as “touch points, where we can get input from the broader campus community” when the plan was still under development in 2016. This team often tailors their consultations by focusing on specific groups that will be using the buildings.
One of the challenges of a plan which requires “such an anchoring and long-term institutional commitment,” according to McCoy, is that the main consultants are those enrolled when the plan is set into motion. After that, it becomes more difficult to incorporate student voices as an ongoing discussion. Despite these challenges, McCoy explained, “the voices and beliefs of students are constantly being filtered into our system … It’s a very organic process.” While those included in focus groups in 2016 might have had a greater voice in the original framework of the plan, the current student body is given continuous input to the policy choices made within the framework.
John Raulston Graham ’24, an architecture major and USG architect, appreciates the University’s involvement of student voices in their initiatives. “Ron McCoy has been very open to having students participate in the building performance team in the past,” said Graham.
One of the ways in which students are consulted is through post-occupancy studies, in which the planning team talks to the people who live and work in buildings they plan on renovating to compile data.
Graham also described a “general consulting” of students that accompanies every project. For example, when the University began work on Hobson College, Graham attended an event where representatives presented the plan and asked participants a series of questions.
Some students are dismayed by the construction. Some laud it as the key to the future. Either way, McCoy is positive that this plan will be remembered for years to come. Borrowing from President Christopher Eisgruber, McCoy noted, “the University is always under construction. Under construction means advancing institutional practices so that programs serve the core mission of our teaching and learning.”
He asked that students step back and “realize that we’re doing this for the greater good of the earth and the future of humanity. Construction is something we should all have tolerance for, and maybe even embrace.”
Raphaela Gold is a staff Features writer at the ‘Prince.’
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