A Natural Fit

Recreation Complex at University of California, Santa Barbara

By Dawn Klingensmith


he design of the student recreation complex at the University of California, Santa Barbara, was inspired by nature in both subtle and dramatic ways. The latest addition to the complex is an eye-grabbing edifice that stands out among the campus's more traditional buildings while blending into its natural surroundings, including the magnificent Santa Ynez Mountains off in the distance. An architect photographed the mountains in the early evening, when they were awash in violet light, and then used that same color on the building's exterior. Further tying it to the landscape, the building is made up largely of floor-to-ceiling windows with spectacular views.

"When you look out from the building, you see all these wonderful colors in nature that resonate with the architecture," said Jon Spaventa, who directs UCSB's Department of Recreation, as well as the Department of Exercise and Sport Studies.

Not only is the recreation complex's newest building (Rec Cen II) reflective of nature, but as of last year, its original counterpart is highly protective of nature. The original building (Rec Cen I) first opened 14 years ago, and in the past three years UCSB has made some operational changes and retrofits to qualify for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification for an existing building.

LEED, developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, is a voluntary rating system promoting the design and construction of sustainable buildings, while LEED for Existing Buildings focuses on addressing operating inefficiencies. Buildings can qualify for basic certification or for Silver, Gold or Platinum designations. In 2008, Rec Cen I became the first facility of its type to attain LEED for Existing Building certification, having reached the Silver level. And improvements being made over the next year or so could make the building eligible for Gold or Platinum certification, according to Gary Jurich, assistant director, Department of Recreation.

"No other recreation center has done this. We were the first to go through the process and the first to be certified," Jurich said.

To qualify, UCSB reduced the rec center's waste by 55 percent, increased recycling by 70 percent, and substantially reduced electrical, natural gas and water usage.

To get a handle on the waste situation, trash was gathered for a week and then weighed and picked through. Those who did the sorting quickly realized that paper towels used to wipe down exercise equipment accounted for a huge amount of the facility's waste, as people were using much longer lengths than necessary. The university has since switched to pre-moistened antiseptic wipes that peel off, one at a time, from a roll.

"People use them more sparingly, and they're recyclable," Jurich said.

The university also switched to waterless urinals and dual-flush toilets, and installed flow restrictors in the waterlines. High-intensity-discharge lights were replaced with energy-efficient compact fluorescent bulbs.

Then, on Rec Cen II, UCSB installed a $1.48 million rooftop photovoltaic array to convert sunlight into electricity. By producing 70 percent of the power needed to run the building, the solar panels will pay for themselves in 11 years, Jurich said.

The university now uses insulated pool covers at night, for a savings of $100 a day in energy costs. This year, UCSB will install solar thermal water heaters to maintain its outdoor pool at 81 degrees, which, in tandem with the covers, will reduce natural gas consumption by 80 percent for an annual savings of $160,000.

It's fitting that UCSB's recreation department be mindful of the earth, because the original designs for Rec Cen I were more or less revised by nature. Rec Cen I opened as the UCSB Student Recreation Center in 1995, and the $15 million expansion was completed a decade later, adding an additional weight room, a multipurpose gymnasium, a climbing wall, locker rooms, a pottery studio and classrooms.

Plans for Rec Cen I called for one large gymnasium; however, soil testing revealed that the intended site had a fault line running through it. To comply with California's code, nothing could be built within 50 feet of the fault line on either side. The eventual solution was to build two smaller gymnasia with duplicate amenities split between them. The division turned out to be advantageous because "students are guaranteed whenever they walk in here, whatever time of day or night, they can recreate," Spaventa said, because if a class is taking place at one facility, the other one is available for walk-ins.

The revised plans also cooperated beautifully with nature. "I'm convinced God is a planner because when we pulled the buildings apart, it allowed us to get a lot more sunlight," said principal designer Scott Smith of the architectural firm Sasaki Associates, San Francisco.

Just inside Rec Cen I is a sunny atrium with chandelier-like lighting fixtures suspended from a 30-foot ceiling. "We call them Madonna lights because of their shape," Spaventa said. (He means the pop singer, not the religious icon.)

The floors are green slate outlined in hardwood. Other materials include massive timber framing, maple wall panels and glass walls. Sustainable features include operable windows and clerestories that save money on electrical lighting. In addition, the building's orientation provides for unimpeded views of the mountains and preserves mature oak trees and a eucalyptus grove.

Dramatically lit up at night, the climbing wall in Rec Cen II is visible through a high curtain of glass, which ties it in with the real mountainsides in the distance.

From the initial groundbreaking in 1995, the goal was to "establish an identity for recreation on campus." Spaventa said. As such, "The entire recreation complex is 'walled in,' or enclosed, so it's almost like a little recreational city."

Patrons must enter and exit at the same point, so access can be controlled and usage rates monitored. This configuration also thwarts would-be vandals.

One of the two original multipurpose gymnasia provides for such a lovely view of the mountains that the chancellor hosts dinners and dances there, and Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered a campaign speech there in January.

The university occasionally surveys students and consistently finds that recreation facilities are an important factor when they decide where to go to college. And though Spaventa believes that's the case for universities across the United States, he says it's especially true for Southern California, where outdoor recreational activities abound.

"Our students come from families who are involved in all kinds of recreational pursuits. They're accustomed to being outdoors—on bikes, at the beach. Recreation and fitness are very ingrained in the culture here," he explained.

In fact, Men's Fitness magazine in 2005 ranked UCSB as the second most fitness-minded college campus, behind Utah's Brigham Young University.

"We're framed by ocean and mountains conducive to all sorts of activities," Spaventa said, "so this is an attractive campus for students who are active and interested in fitness."

And it's an attractive campus in general, in the aesthetic sense, owing to the proximate natural wonders that were the inspiration for the student recreation center, the most striking and frequently toured building on campus.


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