“Once in an Institutional Lifetime”: Before and After Princeton’s 2026 Campus Plan
Imagine Princeton in the early 1900s: The Dinky drops you off right before Blair Arch, and of course there’s not a Wawa in sight. You can wander through the many Oxbridge-influenced squares, admire the Gothic architecture around you, and find yourself on the grassy lawn in front of Nassau Hall. The association of open green space with this building inspired the first known use of the word “campus,” derived from the Latin word meaning field, to describe the university grounds.
But even on this quiet, historic campus, construction was plentiful. At the time, University President Woodrow Wilson, Class of 1879, was overseeing a major architectural project, led by the first university architect Ralph Adams Cram and the first landscape architect Beatrix Farrand. Together the two implemented the 1911 comprehensive campus plan, which combined architectural vision with intentional landscaping. Since then, major plans have continued to emerge. That’s why, when you walk around campus today, you’ll find modern buildings and modern research centers. If you tried to take Dinky from Blair Arch today, you wouldn’t get far at all. In fact, since the 1920s, the Dinky River has moved twice.
These campus plans involve years of organization and input from hundreds of people. Current university architect Ron McCoy ’80 has divided the 2026 institutional planning process into three parts: strategic goals, led by current university president Christopher Eisgruber ’83 and the Board of Trustees; The campus plan, led by the university’s architecture and infrastructure teams; and the capital plan, which provides funding for the campus plan. This is the most ambitious ten-year expansion to date, amounting to more than 3 million square feet added over the course of the plan, and marks the first time in Princeton’s history that the university has planned 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 full of 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 of the campus
The most recent plan for the campus began before the current one in 2002 under former university president Shirley Tilghman. It was managed by former university architect John Helfeter ’61. The plan had five main goals, the most notable of which was to maintain a “pedestrian-oriented” and walkable campus. The plan also supported fostering a sense of community and building in an environmentally responsible manner, although sustainability initiatives were not as widespread as they are now.
Former School of Architecture Dean Stan Allen, a 1988 graduate, had a “ringside seat” for the 2016 campus plan. “The campus architect and administration…will consult with the Dean of the School of Architecture for expertise on architectural matters,” Allen explained. .
When Allen arrived on campus, two architecturally adjacent building projects were underway. The first was Whitman College, a traditional Gothic college building. Meanwhile, across Washington Avenue, the university commissioned architect Frank Gehry to build the Lewis Library. “In some ways, you can’t imagine two styles more distinct than… Whitman College and Lewis Library on the other side of campus. But it was the same campus, same board of trustees,” Allen said.
Allen explained that although the university values traditional architecture, traditional buildings cannot meet the demands of modern laboratories. In order for the university to remain competitive for grants and funding, it needs to provide state-of-the-art laboratories. “The idea was that this could happen on the other side of Washington Avenue, where there was more space, and this gave permission to use a more modern architectural language,” Allen said.
The area now includes Jadwin Hall, the Frick Building for Chemistry, and the Princeton Neuroscience Institute connected by a bridge. 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, which began in 2017 and is scheduled to end in 2026, includes building a new residential college and developing a graduate student campus across Carnegie Lake.
Ron McCoy, the university’s current architect, is responsible for taking this framework and making it tangible, often literally, in a new period of monumental construction. Because the plan is so broad across time and space, the architecture team must “constantly review it and ask whether it provides the guidance we need to make the next set of strategic decisions,” McCoy said.
The five guiding principles of the plan are: providing an integrated environment for teaching, living, learning and research; Promote a distinct sense of place on campus; Promote a welcoming and supportive environment that 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.
While campus expansion and a commitment to sustainability are pillars of the 2026 Plan, the two values often seem at odds with each other. The construction of new buildings requires a large amount of embodied carbon, which is the carbon that is spent on constructing the building itself. This is different from operational carbon, i.e. the carbon expenditure of a building once it is actually built.
“When we started the 2026 Campus Plan, our focus at that time was on operational carbon, so the 2046 goal is about operational carbon neutrality,” McCoy explained. But since then, the team has concluded that “if the world only considers operational carbon, this is not enough, because buildings contain a significant proportion of carbon in their building materials.”
One tactic they have taken to reduce embodied carbon is to use large timbers for construction whenever possible. The new Princeton University Art Museum, Hobson College, Schmidt Hall, the Class of 1986 Fitness and Wellness Center, the new UHS building, and the ES & SEAS buildings will all have a mix of massive wood structural systems because the amount of energy needed to create steel or concrete is much higher. According to McCoy, when you replace these materials with block wood, “you can remove a little bit of embodied carbon,” and in fact even sequester the carbon.
This change is one example of how sustainable construction affects not only the inner workings of buildings but also their aesthetics. “It’s a fact that 10 to 20 years from now, when people look at this generation of buildings, there will be a moment in time where people can say ‘this is how a place can attack embodied carbon’.” Reducing embodied carbon will be “a very experimental part of the campus because wood is a very special material, it adds a kind of warm glow, it has an acoustic quality, and it will be really dramatic,” McCoy added.
While modifications to embodied carbon will likely have a greater aesthetic impact on university building in the future, there is an even greater change taking place beneath our feet. Princeton’s thermal energy systems are now being converted to a geothermal exchange system, which will largely, though not completely, replace the cogeneration plant and steam distribution system that currently provides heat, improving the university’s energy efficiency and water use. “Ironically, the geographic exchange system is invisible,” McCoy said. “When you look at a campus, you can’t tell where the power comes from.”
While this is currently the case, power plant manager Ted Borer hopes to change that with a new heat pump facility dubbed TIGER (Thermally Integrated Geographic Exchange Resource).
Puryear, his boss, Tom Nyquist, and their team advise McCoy and his team on how to heat, cool, and operate buildings more effectively.
“We want to be a role model that others can follow, and a place where students can learn through our own activities,” Puryear said.
Vision is part of being a role model, and for inspiration, Bohrer goes back to a Philadelphia power plant from the 1920s. “This station had a mahogany railing, and it had a restaurant above the Turbine Hall so people could sit and eat and see the energy being generated for the city. Because that was the shiny, modern thing and everyone was obsessed with it.” Today, the university is putting the same principles into practice with the facility TIGER, which will be built east of Jadwin Gym, will have large glass windows. That way “you can look inside and interpret what’s happening to the different-colored pipes and systems,” Purer explained. Additionally, the building will have a conference room for presentations before tours of the plant. “It’s a teaching space as well as an energy facility…and it’s reminiscent of what we were doing with the country’s power plants a century ago.”
Borer added that the geographic exchange system allowed the university to think outside the box in several ways. “We haven’t thought about using the land 800 feet below the campus yet.” Now, the university is also examining the possibility of creating rooftop properties for green roofs and solar energy. “It’s about realizing that we’re not discreet and isolated. We’re part of a very close-knit community…and what we’re building is starting to reflect that,” Purer said.
Consult students for the plan
The planning teams held regular meetings with the USG and GSG focus groups, which McCoy said served as “contact points where we could get input from the broader campus community” when the plan was still in development in 2016. This team often designs its consultations Depending on the specific groups that will use the buildings.
One challenge with a plan that requires “such a long-term, firm institutional commitment,” according to McCoy, is that the lead advisors are those who are signed up when the plan is rolled out. After that, it becomes difficult to incorporate student voices as an ongoing discussion. Despite these challenges, McCoy explained, “student voices and beliefs are constantly being filtered into our system…it’s a very organic process.” While those included in the focus groups in 2016 may have had a greater voice in the plan’s original framework, the current student body is given ongoing input into the policy choices made within the framework.
John Raulston Graham ’24, an architecture major and architect at USG, appreciates the university sharing student voices in their initiatives. “Ron McCoy has been very open to having students participate in the construction performance team in the past,” Graham said.
One way students are consulted is through post-occupancy studies, where the planning team talks with people who live and work in the buildings they plan to renovate to collect data.
Graham also described the “general consultations” for students that accompany each project. For example, when the university began work at 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 hail it as the key to the future. Either way, McCoy is confident this plan will be remembered for years to come. “The university is always under construction,” McCoy noted, borrowing from President Christopher Eisgruber. “Under construction means evolving institutional practices so that programs serve the core mission of our teaching and learning.”
He asked the students to step back and “realize that we are doing this for the greater good of the Earth and the future of humanity. Construction is something we must all tolerate, and perhaps even accept.”
Rafaela Gold is a columnist for Prince magazine.
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