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The Martha Rivers Ingram Commons at Vanderbilt – Sustainable Design and Construction

On January 25th, 2007, the planning team for the Martha Rivers Ingram Commons at Vanderbilt presented this project to the Middle Tennessee Chapter, United States Green Building Council. Key points of this panel discussion centered on the environmentally sustainable features of the project, with an emphasis on the need for a quality team, effective communications, and a commitment to sustainable building principles from all involved. Participants in the presentation were Tony Fort, Vanderbilt University Campus Planning and Construction (Owner’s Representative); Baird Dixon, Street Dixon Rick Architecture (Architect); Dan Barge, Barge Cauthen and Associates (Civil Engineer); Stephen Clinton, Smith Seckman Reid, Inc. (Mechanical and Electrical Engineering); Paul McCown, SSRCx, Inc. (LEED Consultant); and Joe Braden, American Constructors, Inc. (Contractor).

Following is a description of some of the primary sustainable design features of The Ingram Commons. This project was submitted to the USGBC and received LEED certifications.


The Ingram Commons is a phased construction project representing Vanderbilt University’s first key step toward a residential college system of living and learning for its undergraduate students. When this project is complete in the fall of 2008, all 1,600 Vanderbilt freshmen will live together in a cohesive community that offers instructional learning in the residential houses, senior faculty living on site in a community of scholars, and numerous social and community service activities for students outside the classroom. Ultimately there will be five new residence halls, five renovated residence halls, a dining and meeting center, numerous support facilities and an entirely new campus utility infrastructure. A number of the components of this project are the first to seek LEED certification at Vanderbilt.

Historical Context and Green Spaces

Map of The Ingram Commons showing green spaces

The site is on the George Peabody campus of Vanderbilt, which was planned in 1905 by Stanford White of McKim, Meade and White and modeled after Thomas Jefferson’s Lawn at the University of Virginia. The original Peabody campus is a very consistent architectural fabric of neoclassical structures, for the most part built between 1915 and 1930. The Ingram Commons is an extension of this Jeffersonian fabric to the east, and includes new structures organized around open quadrangles in a formal manner similar to the existing campus. To make way for this campus extension, two 1950’s and 1970’s student residence halls and a significant amount of surface asphalt parking were removed, and drives and parking have been pushed to the perimeter. The resulting site represents a significant addition of green space for members of both the university community and the community at large. In addition, new outdoor walkways through these green areas are provided to insure pedestrian links to the existing grid-work of city streets, thus making this urban site an even more viable link to the existing nearby bus transit system. Dedicated bike storage facilities are also provided, offering another means of alternative transportation.

Building a safe, healthy and comfortable living environment

Building elevations and quadrangles

A major goal of this project was to provide a safe, healthy and comfortable living environment for all residents of The Ingram Commons. To that end, conscious decisions regarding the systems and material choices were made during the design stage to assure high quality indoor air and to promote an environment of good health and comfort. Some of these features include:

  • Individual temperature controls are provided within all individual living units.
  • Energy-efficient mechanical systems provide fresh air ventilation in all buildings. In addition, all occupied spaces are provided with operable windows for fresh air.
  • All occupied spaces are provided with access to natural light. Daylight is introduced deep into the building interior wherever feasible, and access to exterior views is provided throughout.
  • Interior materials were selected based on low volatile organic carbon (VOC) ratings- including carpets, paints, sealants, wall coverings and adhesives- have been used to promote a healthy indoor air quality. Formaldehyde-containing products have also been expressly excluded.

Sustainable Design – merging tradition with innovative features

Typical lounge area in residence house with natural lighting, bamboo flooring, and environmentally-friendly furnishings

A primary design goal was to fit these new buildings as seamlessly as possible within the powerful historic context of the Peabody campus. Within this context, however, the planning team sought to make common-sense choices for all materials and systems that furthered the sustainability of the overall project. Following are a few examples:

  • Exterior brick and stone were meticulously crafted to match as closely as possible the adjacent 1920’s Peabody buildings. Multiple sample panels were built that examined color, texture, tooling of mortar joints, joint pattern, and the like. An additional key factor was the selection of brick materials locally thus reducing the need for cross-country transport.
  • Pervious paving has been provided at perimeter parking bays to reduce storm water runoff on the site.
  • The roofs of all new buildings are designed to be reflective, thus reducing the heat-island effect and reducing building cooling loads.
  • All plumbing fixtures have been designed to minimize water usage. Low-flow shower heads and lavatory faucets are used throughout.
  • In student rooms, dual-stage lighting controls are provided to reduce illumination levels.
  • The Ingram Common study areas are outfitted with bamboo flooring, and main entrance lobbies are provided with terrazzo flooring containing recycled glass.

Vanderbilt Design Philosophy

Completed Ingram Commons residences

Although The Ingram Commons project was the first at Vanderbilt to seek official LEED certification, many of the sustainable elements of the LEED process are either systems or work processes that were already considered standards for all Vanderbilt campus projects. What was perhaps new was the intentional effort required throughout the planning process to consider the design as part of a cohesive whole. There is a renewed effort to consider the direct consequences of various design decisions on the health of building occupants, and ultimately the long-term viability of the planet.

More information on The Ingram Commons

More information on Sustainable Design and Construction at Vanderbilt

More information on the U.S. Green Building Council