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Sports Center Inspired By Play Diagrams

Exterior view of Columbia University's dynamic new sports building which features an aluminum facade and multiple external staircases
The building has a striking presence, with an aluminum facade and multiple external staircases and landings that reinforce the design theme of diagonal lines on play diagrams. © Steven Holl Architects

Columbia University’s dynamic new sports building serves as an iconic public gateway to the athletic complex beyond.

April 16, 2013—Columbia University’s outdoor sports programs recently moved into a dramatic new building on the high-profile corner of 218th Street and Broadway, at the northern tip of Manhattan. Evocative of the angled lines used in sports play diagrams, the Campbell Sports Center serves as the gateway to the university’s Baker Athletics Complex.

The 48,000 sq ft, five-story structure, designed by Steven Holl Architects, in New York City, provides the university’s football program and other field sports teams with a modern training facility and office space near the practice and playing fields.

“There was this programmatic need for additional office space,” says Olaf Schmidt, AIA, an architect on the design team. “They wanted to move where the actual sports are being practiced. The other aim was to revitalize the whole site—not just add [space], but also add an iconic or beacon building at that public corner to make the Baker Athletics Complex visible in the public eye and create an identity.”

The building has a striking presence, with an aluminum facade and multiple external staircases and landings that reinforce the design theme of diagonal lines on play diagrams. A large two-story wing extends from the building two and a half stories about the ground, forming a gate to the site, Schmidt says.

“The entire circulation is pushed out onto the exterior. There are three places in which we have this dynamic zigzagging of the stairs on the facade,” Schmidt says. 

Exterior rendering of building displaying exterior stairway which frees interior space

The exterior stairway frees interior space. On the stairs and the
ground floor, facade panels are perforated in a dynamic linear
pattern that creates light and shadows. © Chris McVoy

The facade comprises ¼ in. thick marine-grade aluminum plates, 4 ft by 8 ft, with a sanded finish. On the stairs and the ground floor, the panels are perforated with a dynamic linear pattern that creates an interplay of light and shadow. The plates are mounted to the structure with a hook and pin system and have open joints.

“This is all mounted to standard steel stud wall with sheeting and waterproofing, a hanging system, and exterior insulation,” Schmidt says. “The most challenging part, I would say, was the facade. It was a very intricate integration. There are a lot of ins and outs and angles and irregularities. So there was quite an involved drawing process and field coordination as it went in.”

Early in the design, weathering steel was discussed as a potential facade material, but was ultimately discarded in favor of aluminum, which is evocative of the stadium bleachers and the nearby Broadway Bridge.

The building is founded on spread footings. Early concerns about the presence of fill at the site were dismissed after further geotechnical testing revealed good conditions. The structural steel frame is exposed on the interior of the building, diagonal steel bracing members visible through some of the windows. Floors are 8 ft wide, 12 in. thick precast extruded concrete planks. A 3 in. topping slab contains service elements.

“The building is tough and raw,” Schmidt says, explaining the design. “In the interior, you have the exposed concrete planks. We wanted to do the same with the steel.” To expose untreated steel, the design utilizes a provision in the New York City Building Code that allows for several unrated upper floors about a fire-rated podium, Schmidt says.

The design placed greater emphasis on the aesthetic characteristics and placement of the building’s mechanical systems, as the majority of those elements are exposed. The contractor team developed an online 3-D building information model of the project that detailed the mechanical systems.

South view exterior rendering of building

The five-story structure has 48,000 sq ft of much-needed space for
the university’s football program and other field sports teams.
© Steven Holl Architects

“We had weekly meetings for a while and I actually attended, which is unusual,” Schmidt says. “But since [the mechanical systems] were exposed, it was architecturally important for us to fine tune these items with all the trades.” That fine tuning included material choices, locations, and paint treatments.

The building includes an entrance lobby that leads into large, two-story strength and conditioning gym. A partial third floor houses a varsity coaches suite that overlooks that training space. The fourth floor houses the football program offices. The fifth floor has a hospitality suite, a theater-style meeting room, and a student athlete study center.

The building displaced a small maintenance structure and those functions and additional storage have been sited on the first floor, which is partially below grade. The building was completed within a tight, one-year schedule, with an official dedication in October, slightly ahead of the final punch list. Staff began moving in to the Campbell Sports Center in December.

The building’s high-performance envelope and mechanical systems, coupled with the use of high recycled-content materials and such renewable materials as bamboo, have the project on target for either a gold or silver rating in the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program.


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