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.

Student Input

This project was far from a top-down affair. The university administration was determined that students have a say, and for that reason student representatives were present at every planning meeting.

One resulting change to initial designs came at the insistence of one student representative, who argued convincingly for more privacy within the design of student government offices. In the end, students will be the users; it made sense that, when possible, we would accommodate student suggestions.

Demographic Considerations

Despite the building's emphasis on open spaces, demographic considerations led to another area with deliberate privacy.

About 70 percent of the student body is female. While the new student activity center needed to appeal to both male and female students, it was important that it not be seen as "just for jocks."

In response, the new student center has been designed with dance and aerobics rooms on the upper level of the fitness area to be less well seen than other areas. The goal was to create a space where women could exercise without feeling self-conscious.

As a historically black university, the campus's predominantly African-American population also was a consideration in the design. Fraternity and sorority life is important at WSSU, and events such as dances and step shows are a vibrant part of Greek life. The ballroom is designed to accommodate performances and other large events.

Finally, the university is addressing some of the health challenges of its students. While the fitness areas are intended to promote healthy lifestyles, the building will also be equipped with larger, more robust furniture and chairs to make the space more comfortable for large users.

Sustainable Spaces

One of the project's goals was to create the feel of wide open spaces in a "green" environment. Upon entering the building, visitors will be greeted with an expansive openness that allows them to see immediately where they are going, whether to the gymnasium or the student government offices. This is accomplished both with glass and open air access.

While the university does not intend at the moment to apply for LEED certification, the building would qualify. Some of the sustainable aspects of the center include the use of glass to maximize radiant heat in winter and keep temperatures moderate in the summer. The center is being built with all recycled, durable materials that were chosen from suppliers near Winston-Salem.

Efficient lighting and a heating and air conditioning system that meets American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers sustainability standards also contribute to the building's green functionality.

Brian Tibbs is project manager and partner with Moody Nolan, with experience in a variety of building types, including small university and institutional renovations, as well as large campus and municipal projects. For more information, visit

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