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Guest Column - March 2012

Design Corner

Driven by Demographics
Student Activity Center Design Must Consider All Constituencies

By Brian Tibbs


When designing a student services center, it's essential to remember that every school, every student and every project is different. Student populations continually change, and technological capabilities are always evolving. University personnel and planners need to ensure they consider these factors as they embrace and develop the culture of their campus community.

Founded in 1892, Winston-Salem State University is a public liberal arts institution located on 110 acres in Winston-Salem, N.C. Part of the University of North Carolina system, WSSU offers world-class degree programs in growing fields such as health sciences, information technology, financial services and teacher education.

Its success and reputation for excellence has led to its growth. Between 2003 and 2009, WSSU's enrollment ballooned from 2,500 to 6,400, an increase of more than 150 percent. It's the kind of growth that can stress facilities designed to accommodate smaller numbers of students.

For some time, the hub of student activities at WSSU has been the Thompson Center Student Union, an 11,000-square-foot facility that houses administration offices, a fitness center, three restaurants, a post office, game room and a multipurpose room. As enrollment grew—and as intramural programs and promotion of healthy lifestyles became more important—the university began to realize the need for a facility that would allow a wider range of both student services and fitness activities.

In 2007 the university began discussing ways to meet those changing campus life needs. A decision was made to build a new student activities center near the south side of Thompson. Woolpert was hired as the architect of record and Moody Nolan as the design architect. The university broke ground in March; the new Donald Julian Reaves Student Activities Center (named earlier this year after the university's well-respected chancellor) will open in early 2013.

About the Student Activity Center

The 90,000-square-foot building will cost $27.4 million and is intended to complement programs housed at Thompson while offering students expanded opportunities for social gatherings, leisure activities, study and fitness.

Built into the side of a hill, the building will serve both upper and lower sections of campus while creating exterior campus plazas that capture campus activity inside and out. Located prominently near the center of campus and clearly visible from Martin Luther King Jr. Drive to the south, it will become, in many ways, a university focal point.

Developing the building's features was a collaborative process that included the architects, university administration, faculty and students. The Reaves Student Activities Center will include a fitness area, a two-court gymnasium and a running track. A new food court, student government offices, facility administration, student lounges, a beauty salon, barbershop and campus ballroom complete the offerings. The university has said it intends to keep the cafeteria, bookstore and student services offices in Thompson.

Design Challenges

The site itself posed a number of design challenges, including a steep slope on one side of the building. A split-level design tucks the gymnasium into the slope and provides generous window space on the other side of the building.

The project represents a combination of what typically are two distinct functions on university campuses: recreational functions and passive leisure activities. In other words, it is neither an athletic center nor a typical student union, but a hybrid of both. The challenge was to provide a seamless environment between the two so that students could flow easily between the student services areas and the recreational areas.

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