Optimizing Sustainable Design and Community Connection in Higher Education

  • Jun 18, 2020

This column is featured in American School & University magazine.

By Rick del Monte, Managing Director, and National Design Director

After an earthquake devastated one of the institution’s campuses in Mexico City, leaders at Instituto Tecnológico de Monterrey sought to optimize the campus rebuild.

Despite the unfortunate circumstances that led up to it, the rebuilding project provided an opportunity to accelerate the application of the university’s strategic plan, the Tec 21 Educational Model. It addresses new ways of teaching and learning, the use of digital tools, a commitment to society rooted in humanitarianism, and the importance of interdisciplinary and collaborative learning.


When planning campus upgrades following the earthquake, safety and resiliency were paramount.

Crime prevention on campus had already been a key consideration in Mexico City, where a 10-foot wall topped with broken glass encircled the campus, shutting out the surrounding neighborhood. After the earthquake, however, the safety focus expanded to include withstanding natural disasters as well as preventing crime. The goal became to encourage community outreach while protecting against crime. The school leaders wanted a campus that is visually open and inviting while still maintaining the previous level of security.

In keeping with that theme, the university is planning for the next phase of the project to include retail and food outlets for the community on the ground floors of select buildings. University leaders want to attract prime restaurants, but they realize that the student population alone likely wouldn’t sustain them, so they plan to build an exterior plaza and draw people in from the community, creating a lively, active commercial area.

Buildings are designed to resist earthquakes with minimal damage and no loss of life. Campus leaders also incorporated solar panels so that it could continue to operate during power outages—supporting sustainability and resiliency. Protection from flooding was also built into the design—protecting not only buildings from water damage but also the nearby neighborhoods from runoff.

The buildings are set back about 30 feet from the street and elevated about three feet to keep them above the flood plain. The elevation transition has swales and other landscape features to reduce the effects of flooding on the community and is fully planted, creating a green band that is protective and aesthetically pleasing.

Resiliency on campus extends to the surrounding community; the campus is designed to be a place of refuge in a natural disaster.


Flexibility and agility. The buildings designed for the campus upgrade combine philosophical and practical elements, optimizing agility and flexibility.

Loft-style buildings provide flexibility that serves the university in the present and supports its vision for future teaching methods. To emphasize flexibility, the buildings are constructed of concrete and laid out with a rational grid of columns that support the classroom module.

Optimizing agility, classroom spaces are detailed with simple sheetrock partitions and are easily moved as needs change, without affecting the building structure.

Natural ventilation. The use of natural ventilation in these spaces eliminates the constraints of ductwork when planning future renovations.

This unique solution worked with the moderate temperatures and low humidity resulting from Mexico City’s high altitude. Classrooms around the perimeter are naturally ventilated with operable interior and exterior louvers, so that warm air from the classrooms can be drawn up through the large, central atrium.

The combination of open and closed spaces throughout the building create a variety of options for traditional instruction and the collaborative group learning—a key part of TEC 21.

Modeling inside and out. One of the key design strategies to accomplish the open and flexible vision for the project is the absence of bulky HVAC infrastructure, made possible by the building’s natural ventilation.

Despite the obvious benefits of this approach—both for space and sustainability—it was not without challenges. Unlike a traditional system, where it is clear to calculate the heating/cooling load and apply the necessary mechanical ventilation distribution, keeping track of natural ventilation means plotting predominant wind direction throughout the year and conducting scientific, yet hypothetical, calculations.

The interaction of the wind with the building exterior is modeled, and that information is used to study air patterns inside the building.

Although long-term costs are much lower, project leaders invest in the sophisticated modeling required for a natural ventilation system.

Campus leaders were willing to make that investment as the natural ventilation would be a good fit in the low-humidity, moderate climate of Mexico City, a uniquely adapted solution.

Curtain wall design and window detailing. To optimize natural ventilation, the design team worked closely with the curtain wall manufacturer and supplier to plan and detail the exterior wall.

The project team involved the curtain wall manufacturer early in the planning process so it could accommodate functional requirements while also maintaining the budget through a target value design process that starts with an approved cost and works within that condition.

Early design schemes involved pulling air up through the atrium into the classrooms, but after modeling, that approach proved less optimal because of the depth of the classrooms. Instead, later design iterations added vents at top and bottom that could loop the air. Overhead fans ensure constant air movement throughout the space.

The windows had a high solar energy performance rating that required a sophisticated, multi-layer coating, necessitating the use of insulated glass to protect the coating, even though it was not needed from an ambient temperature perspective.

The result is a comfortable internal temperature between 50 and 60 degrees on the coldest days, and between 70 and 80, with minimal humidity, on the hottest days in summer, when fewer people are on campus.

In Mexico, people generally are more accustomed to dressing for the weather and have a higher tolerance for the natural fluctuations of hot and cold, because air conditioning is not so ubiquitous as it is in the United States. Occupant comfort is maintained year-round with relative ease once these measures are in place.


Openness and transparency. The openness of the design conveys the openness the university wishes to project, not only in its teaching methods but also in the way it approaches community relations.

The building is literally permeable, with air flowing through it to ventilate and visually permeable with glass throughout the ground level. The visual access allows passersby to see the circulation in the main central atrium, and to observe students working in the library.

The transparency of the space reinforces the concept that different people are on the campus coming together to learn, with no boundaries.

Community engagement. Community engagement is a focal point of the project. Because of local crime rates, security concerns accompanied the shift toward a more welcoming atmosphere.

The ground floors of perimeter buildings on campus have commercial space, including restaurants and retail. These spaces face the street so that the public interacts with the buildings, while not formally entering the campus.

One of these public/private buildings is positioned back from the street, creating an event plaza and accommodating venue support, including food trucks. Plans are in process for a full-performance theater, where performances can be flexible to serve students, or the public.

Community integration. A major driver of the community integration was a sense of responsibility to improve the neighborhood where the campus is situated.

Providing services to the community was part of the planning from the outset. University leaders have partnered with local companies to provide training classes for workers to study for their high school equivalency.

Investing in the community also helps develop the emerging middle class in Mexico, resulting in more parents and families being able to send their children to college, ensuring a steady influx of new students.

Balancing outreach, visual appeal and security. As much as community outreach is emphasized, safety considerations remain a priority given the campus location.

Project leaders addressed the two objectives by integrating the security features into the landscaping to make the campus visually welcoming while also keeping it secure. The landscape design employs this concept in the perimeter fencing, which is detailed with vertical security elements that are woven into the existing trees and landscape, making them inconspicuous.

Existing features, such as abundant, mature trees and natural drainage structures, were incorporated into the landscape wherever possible, giving the new additions a natural, established look not often seen in new construction.