Here in Southern California we’re known for year-round sunshine. But that’s not all: our coastal cities also enjoy a steady ocean breeze. San Diego’s Mesa College sits 360 feet above sea level just three miles from the salt water of Mission Bay, with unobstructed access to the west wind. So when our project team set out to conserve energy in the college’s new Continuing Education facility, we took inspiration from these natural advantages.

Our concepts for passive cooling and natural lighting solutions evolved to inform the entire building’s design. Not only do these sustainable solutions surpass California’s stringent Title 24 energy efficiency requirements by 43%—they truly bring the best of San Diego’s environment into the classroom.

A Building That Breathes

Continuing Education Mesa College

The natural ventilation solution combines mechanically operated windows with an open-air corridor. When the ocean breeze flows into the central hallway through screens in the stairwells and clerestories, it is harnessed by a funnel-shaped feature (we call it a wind scoop) that distributes the airflow into each classroom. The resulting airflow is strong enough to cool students without disturbing the papers on their desks.

Natural ventilation diagram

Each teacher controls the classroom temperature through a single switch on the wall that offers the choice between natural and mechanical cooling. When the temperature falls within the comfort zone (as it does the majority of the year), the passive ventilation system disengages the mechanical air conditioning and automatically opens the windows.

In our design discovery process, teachers told us that they love to open the windows and doors. This building encourages that behavior, so we expect that the teachers will choose natural ventilation most of the time.

Let the Sun Shine In


Other sustainable features complement the natural ventilation system. Capitalizing on the natural light admitted through the large windows, we chose a responsive lighting system that dims electric lights during the day to reduce energy use. Light shelves on the tops of architectural elements and skylights on the second floor cast additional daylight deep into each space. Meanwhile, large overhangs and sun shades shelter windows from direct sunlight in the warmer months.

Students and teachers don’t have to step outside to enjoy sunny San Diego—but if they want to, it’s easy. Most of the large classroom spaces on the first floor open onto outdoor courtyards, play space, and patios.

Achieving LEED Silver

The facility has been awarded LEED silver certification by the U.S. Green Building Council, making it the district’s fourteenth LEED certified facility. Natural ventilation and daylighting played a big part, while sustainable construction materials and high-efficiency plumbing and mechanical systems also contributed to the green qualifications.

What’s Inside

The two-story facility gives a permanent home to several Continuing Education departments: English as a Second Language, Parent/Child programs, Emeritus programs for adults age 55+, and Disability Support Programs and Services.

With so many departments to serve, we faced the challenge of accommodating multiple uses throughout the building. So we incorporated flexibility into each space.


A large multipurpose room on the first floor can be divided into smaller areas, or cleared for dance classes. Art labs and a sculpture courtyard are adjacent to a professional-grade teaching kitchen, which can be closed via an accordion wall. The parent/child space features large garage-style doors that open directly onto enclosed outdoor play space and gardens. Custom casework cabinetry built into each classroom’s back wall offers expanded storage for traveling teachers.

Grand Opening

Several hundred people came to celebrate the building’s grand opening on March 20. The ceremony was followed by guided tours of the building, which is already filled to capacity with students.

Come See for Yourself

Download the self-guided tour brochure (PDF) and visit on your own time, or contact us to schedule a private tour. See the full project details.

Posted in: Completed Projects Education