Guest Column - April 2012
Find a printable version here

Design Corner

Success Breeds Success
The Evolution of a Student Center

By Dave Larson

As colleges and universities continue to explore more effective ways to enrich the overall learning environment in their university communities, it is an exciting time to plan and design facilities that reflect this evolution in thinking. As designers, we are seeing the amalgamation of recreation centers, student centers, food centers, libraries and more. They are merging into single one-stop building complexes with these elements connected by comfortable and welcoming common environments. This creates a critical mass of activities appealing to a broad spectrum of interests, thereby bringing together students and faculty from widely different academic concentrations. Students have the opportunity to see and interact with other students and faculty outside the formal classroom environment and may be introduced to an activity or interest that they might not ordinarily see or experience in the "bubble" of their academic cocoons.

In 2004, the newly renovated and expanded student recreation center at The University of Alabama opened to rave reviews with enthusiastic participation in its expanded programs and amenities. During ensuing years, the university experienced growth as a result of the vision and leadership of the current administration. Out-of-state recruitment and an aggressive expansion of facilities nurtured the growing number of students, ultimately taxing the capacities of the existing recreation center—even though the facility was only 7 years old. A significant part of the university growth strategy was to encourage more on-campus residency, which led to a major increase in the construction of new residence communities, particularly in the northern zone of campus. A new concentration of students, largely freshmen, located across campus from the existing recreation center, coupled with capacity problems at the existing facility, led to exploring the possibility of providing additional recreational offerings within the new North Campus residential community.

As internal discussions about the new center continued, stakeholders saw opportunities in joining forces to provide a facility with a sense of place and identity. Ultimately it was decided to combine recreation, residential housing offices and a convenience food concept in the new facility. Additionally, the new location would serve as the last stop for campus tours; a place to comfortably hang out and an opportunity for more detailed discussion in a welcoming, loose atmosphere.

A triangular-shaped piece of land between two large residence halls was selected as a potential location because of its desired proximity to the many students slated to live in the immediate area. The picturesque site overlooks a municipal park and the Black Warrior River. It is elevated approximately 40 feet, offering beautiful views for the recreation (and other) amenities being housed in the new building. The site's size and shape required stacking of the program elements with a three-court gymnasium ultimately occupying the second floor, allowing for more flexible planning options on the first floor.

A two-story entry hall visually connects the facilities' two floors. This initial entry provides a "wow" factor that contributes to the sense of place and identity desired for this facility and the entire North Campus community. The majority of student-use spaces will offer views of the river with generous use of north-facing glass. The glass will glow at dusk and dawn, serving as a beacon for the North Campus.

A 7,000-square-foot weight and fitness area, a three-court gym, a mini food court, convenience store and casual seating will all take advantage of the spectacular views the site has to offer. Because of the tragic tornado that ravaged the City of Tuscaloosa and threatened the university population in April 2011, much thought was given to the safety of students and staff should a catastrophic storm visit again. To this end, the new facility will incorporate a basement capable of withstanding a tornado of any magnitude with a capacity of 3,000 people. The basement will provide multiple uses for campus-wide functions in addition to serving as an emergency area of refuge.

The proposed North Campus Student Center will create opportunities by offering a diverse group of functions under one roof. The common space creates an identity that reinforces the destination value and gives image to the complex. The facility's common area will provide a last stop for scheduled parent-student campus visits. At the tour's conclusion, visitors will be welcomed to relax, enjoy the views and rub elbows with current University of Alabama students.

The openness and transparency of the design, featuring glass walls instead of solid walls to separate major spaces, allows people to immediately orient themselves in the complex. Visitors can casually learn about different activities in a non-threatening manner—literally window-shop for activities.

The facility must accommodate these diverse functions while maintaining an interconnected environment. Each function has its own space that is linked by a common lounge area, similar to a shopping mall layout. As a result, the common areas can remain accessible indefinitely while allowing flexible hours for each adjoining functional space.

Since the new Student Center will be visually prominent on the north edge of campus, facing a busy municipal park adjacent to the Black Warrior River in Tuscaloosa, the exterior needs to express the architectural roots of the campus and embrace its original architectural vocabulary. The result is an architectural hybrid of old and new, indicating that one is definitely at The University of Alabama. The interior architecture will be a dramatic contrast from the exterior expression with the use of glass, exposed concrete structure, steel and high-tech lighting. Natural light will flood most spaces, reducing reliance on artificial light sources.

The University of Alabama can certainly feel good about its accomplishments and its growing global contributions. Its success has been contagious, with the momentum of this success requiring careful stewardship to stay on track. The university continues to head in the right direction with the evolution of program offerings and amenities that this new multi-use student center can provide. Success does indeed breed success.

David Larson, AIA, has 40 years of architectural design experience. As a senior vice president and as director of design with TMP Architecture of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., he leads the firm's efforts in the planning and design of recreation and sports projects. For more information, visit