Lots of Class

Berkeley High School Student Union and Recreation Complex
Berkeley, Calif.

S U B M I T T E D    B Y:

ELS Architecture and Urban Design in Berkeley, Calif.

Size: 86,230 square feet

Project cost: $30 million

Quick tour:

  • 8,680-square-foot student union
  • 1,040-square-foot breezeway
  • 14,000-square-foot gym
  • 4,400-square-foot dance studio
  • 11,800-square-foot natatorium
  • 8,750 -square-foot library

When it comes to innovative design, Berkeley High School's new recreation and athletic facilities pass with flying colors.

The complex enlivens the public high school, an urban campus that was revamped as part of a local bond initiative to upgrade all of Berkeley's schools. The $30 million project includes a 25-yard competition and teaching pool, gymnasium, student union and dining hall, library, classrooms, administration offices, and college counseling center.

Located within Berkeley's landmark Civic Center Historic District, the new buildings are designed to create gateways into the campus as extensions of the existing city streets. The segmented design organizes functions into zones allowing community use of the gym, pool, dining hall or library during non-school hours.

Built of durable cast-in-place concrete to withstand heavy daily use of recreational and student services, the high school complex is light-filled and has a high degree of transparency. The quality of design encourages students to feel pride and ownership, discourages graffiti—an important feature for any school—and encourages participation. The new complex supports the social interaction essential to the school's educational mission, as well as reconnects the high school to its urban community.

On a tight urban site, the buildings were crafted to take maximum advantage of daylight. Large clerestory windows in the gym and glazed walls framing the pool allow natural light to pour in. Elevations facing west are glass-enclosed, providing cross-ventilation and additional views and daylight.

On the interior, bold yellow structural trusses sport the team color while adding interest and scale to the large spaces. On the second floor, a glass-enclosed view into the gym provides dynamic movement to enliven the area in front of the elevator.

But it's not just the aesthetics or the additional programming opportunities that make the buildings special. It's the attention to the detail, the understanding of how teens think and what's important to them.

"Students were the center of the entire project and were kept in mind throughout the entire process," says Jack McLaughlin, former superintendent of Berkeley Public Schools.

For example, the central student union, ringed with clerestories, has become a popular gathering spot for eating, discussions and performances, much to the satisfaction of counselors and student advisors whose new offices open directly to the seating area. As such, use of student services has increased sharply.

In order to get to the student union, students have to pass the counseling center. Officials hoped the layout might encourage students to try services they might otherwise ignore.

Making the grade, however, required the architect to overcome several challenges. First, the design needed to meet strict safety standards and earn state approval. There also was a tight budget and a high degree of public involvement that included a landmarks commission and a historic preservation society.

Fortunately, the parties involved were determined to get it done right. The new complex showed the students they were a valued segment of the community.

"It sent a very important message," says architect David Petta with ELS Architecture and Urban Design in Berkeley. "It tells everyone that the youth of this city and the facilities that symbolize and serve the youth are just as important to the civic fabric as the spaces of adults."


W H A T   T H E   J U D G E S   S A I D

Architecturally well-defined street edge as well as campus court space. Simple but workable palette of materials. Very complex design problem.

Frank G. Beans

Exciting mix of activities guaranteed to attract students and the local community. Great use of bold colors on the gym trusses. The use of wood in the student union rotunda is elegant. Successfully redefines the 1930s campus quad. The breezeway link is especially nice. Creative planning, thoughtful design features and sustainable strategies come together gracefully. The emphasis on site planning, relationship to the quad and the urban fabric is well done.

Colleen McKenna

Great enhancement to this campus use—simple and flexible major uses. Great variety of volumes and forms—really creates appearance of multiple campus buildings. I love the transparency to the union and rec uses. Very nice treatment for edge of site to create private courtyard space within. Very nicely detailed. Great expression of structure. Skin has great variety without excessive detail.

Chris Kastelic

Unified look that creates a well-defined urban edge. Creates a nice boundary for the campus quad. Straightforward layout based upon logical progression of spaces. Creates a sense of security from the street, while opening up at strategically appropriate locations. Nice transparency to the quad, enlivening the student experience. Nice attention to energy-conscious ideas.

Greg Garlock

A S S O C I A T E D    F I R M S

Associate architect

Darden Architects, Inc

Landscape architect

Pattillo & Garrett Associates

Structural engineer

SOH & Associates

Electrical engineer

Silverman & Light

Mechanical engineer

SJ Engineers

Civil engineer

G.T. Kuntz Consulting Engineer

Pool consultant

Aquatic Design Group

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