The Living Building Challenge:

Palomar Community College

First came EnergyStar. Then LEED. Then NetZero. And today there’s yet another way to measure sustainability – the Living Building Challenge.

Created by the International Living Future Institute, the Challenge measures the sustainability of a building through seven categories called “petals.” According to the Institute, petal certification is the “world’s most rigorous proven performance standard for buildings.” To obtain it, applicants must provide proof of performance using actual energy bills and meter readings for a year, rather than projected calculations from modeling tools.


The certification process is daunting, but not impossible, thanks to advances in engineering and building technology. Syska recently had the opportunity to apply some of these at Palomar Community College, which aims to be the first community college building in the world to earn Living Building Petal certification.


Project Background

The project centered on a new maintenance and operations (M&O) complex at the college, which is located in San Marcos, California. Designed by BNIM Architects and Level 10 Construction, the net-zero facility encompasses 28,000 square feet across two buildings and replaces eight separate campus buildings. Syska led the design of MEP systems, information and communication technology, architectural lighting design, and sustainable engineering.

The Engineering Component

To achieve high levels of energy efficiency, along with occupant comfort, Syska used a variety of techniques:


  • Passive daylighting
  • Operable windows, louvers, and thermal chimneys for natural ventilation, leading to a reduction in cooling hours by 85 percent and in heating load by as much as 30 percent
  • Variant refrigerant flow (VRF) mechanical systems that operate during peak heating and cooling conditions
  • Dimmable LED lighting controlled by timeclocks, photosensors, and occupants
  • 300 solar panels installed on building roofs and walkway shade canopies – producing 5 percent more energy than is consumed by the complex
  • Water-efficient plumbing systems that decrease potable water consumption by 30 percent
  • Drought-tolerant landscaping
  • Rainwater harvesting system that provides seasonal irrigation
  • Renewable energy through photovoltaics


“The Palomar College M&O building exemplifies innovation in designing and implementing passive design strategies, which utilize thermal chimneys and are unique to this campus, says Matthew Porreca, principal at BNIM. “The progressive design-build delivery model reinforced the project’s high-performance goals, with every member of the team contributing to net-zero energy targets.”


“This new complex is truly state-of-the-art in terms of energy efficiency and sets an example for the way all new buildings should be built,” states Dr. Joi Lin Blake, the superintendent-president of Palomar College.


The A/E/C industry agrees. ENR named it the “Best of the Best” project in the national green design category and the “Best Green Project in Southern California.” The complex also won a 2019 Engineering Excellence – Honor Award from ACEC California.


“Palomar’s goals were not simply to attain the Living Building Petal certification, but also to provide a model for other buildings,” says John Passanante, senior principal at Syska. “The M&O complex demonstrates that buildings can be both sustainable and comfortable, with features that combat the challenges of climate change. This is the sort of work engineers around the world should be championing – and leading. At Syska, we look forward to collaborating on many more projects that meet the strictest standards of energy-efficiency.”