The Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability

Project information
Palo Alto, California
Stanford University

Climate and sustainability are the defining issues of the 21st century. Arguably, there is no other issue that is more important that will affect humanity and the planet.

Arun Majumdar
Inaugural Dean, Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability
Societal Challenge

Solving climate requires cooperation across silos

Climate change could be seen as a problem borne out of thinking in silos. Even while chemists and geologists realized over a century ago that the gasses produced by the industrial revolution could dangerously heat the atmosphere, policy and business leaders were still busy committing the planet to a fossil-fueled lifestyle that deepened the problem into the 20th and 21st centuries. Now that there’s a global consensus that climate change is the challenge of our era, the work to address it is inconveniently spread across science, policy, culture, and economy. If climate change was accelerated by thinking in silos, the solution must come from thinking and working across them.

Client Challenge

Designing a school to take on the world’s existential crisis

The Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability, Stanford University’s first new school founded in 70 years, was inaugurated in 2022 to tackle sustainability and climate change on this same premise of thinking and working between silos. The school’s leaders, a group of scientists and policy innovators at Stanford, envisioned a new kind of institution that used the physical space of the school to catalyze collaborations through unlikely adjacencies. Imagine a robotics engineer who regularly walks past the office of a fluid dynamics professor. They get to know each other, and drop into conversation over coffee. Before long, an idea is born to launch drones to monitor ocean temperature changes. They get a grant and soon are sharing a lab space. Their students, who may sit in different departments, are able to see the connections across disciplines and spot patterns and possibilities that would be invisible if they’d been working in silos. 

If the image of an academic environment bustling with serendipitous collisions and magical adjacencies sounds familiar, it may be because it’s a lot like a city with a great public realm. Stanford reached out for Gehl’s help in conceptualizing how the social environment of the school should look, and how physical design could support it — long before an architect is selected.

We build only what we need, and fully use what we build, by leveraging culture and technology that enables sharing, collaboration, and inclusion.

A Vision for the Spaces of the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability
The Impact

A microcosm of what’s needed for our planet

To inform the vision, Gehl conducted almost a hundred interviews, walk-arounds, and focus groups with faculty, students, and staff to understand where and how interdisciplinary collaborations originated and how they developed over time. The team mapped and observed spaces across the seven existing schools that would be contributing programs to the new sustainability school and the three institutes that would be located in the school.

Gehl used lessons about what has worked – and what hasn’t – to reverse engineer a new environment for collaboration. The results of Gehl’s ethnography and analysis have become a set of insights and design principles to guide the new school’s development as ground is broken on two new buildings and existing buildings are retrofitted to accommodate the new programs. This “operating system” of sociability and collaboration on which innovation and learning can run will underpin the major design decisions ahead for the school. 

If the effort is successful, the Doerr School will be like a theater stage filled with activity during each act of a play, with new sets and new characters taking center stage in sequence. Circulation areas can become impromptu collaboration spaces, and shared private work rooms are always a few steps away for booking electronically. The landscape in and around the school will be an important feature as both a social and an academic environment, leveraging California’s mild Mediterranean climate for outdoor classrooms and relieving the demand on conditioned space. Investment in quality amenities will be concentrated in shared spaces, where resources will benefit the most people and attract more users. Opportunities for “breaking bread” together will be a centerpiece of the social environment of the school and a way to graciously host guests. Efficiency, environmental sustainability, collaboration, and social sustainability are interwoven in our vision for the spaces of the new school — a microcosm of what’s needed for our planet.

An illustrated vision: By supporting cutting-edge climate research and enabling adoption of ever-evolving sustainable building approaches, the facilities will help Stanford promote an Earth where humans and nature thrive in concert and in perpetuity.

Food brings people together — the new Doerr School can create common ground by nourishing collectively

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We’ve loved working with Stanford University on this unique and important new school, adding to a growing portfolio of University Campus work.

Partner, Head of Climate, Team Director US Enterprise & Corporations
Blaine Merker
Associate, Urban Planner
Adriana Akers
Our services

Delivering impact through a multidisciplinary approach

Urban Strategy

Urban Strategy is the foundation upon which form, function and behaviour are created. Our holistic approach always starts with asking what life should exist in place, what spaces invite for that life, and what buildings and facilities support this. People and life first, always.

Public Life Data

Public Life Data, the collection and analysis of qualitative and quantitative information about how people use and engage with public spaces, uncovers the true picture of how design impacts behavior. Our teams use this collected analysis to develop strategies and plans that foster more equitable, healthy and climate-positive lifestyles.

Leadership & Organizational Change

We empower leaders to drive positive change within their organizations by designing processes that facilitate engagement and prioritize the needs and experiences of individuals to enable systems-wide behavior change.