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Spectacular Views Highlight CUMC School of Nursing

Exterior rendering of CUMC School of Nursing, which features a curtain wall system of glass panels
CO|FXFOWLE will use a unitized curtain wall system of glass panels to enhance the connection between the nursing school and the neighborhood. CO|FXFOWLE

The glass-enclosed school will feature open meeting spaces, a rooftop terrace, and visible space for realistic simulations of medical practices.

January 7, 2014—A design team unwilling to settle for just fulfilling the project’s charter produced a fresh, glass-fronted building for Columbia University’s $45-million School of Nursing.

The newest element of the Columbia University Medical Center’s portfolio, the School of Nursing will be known not only for housing a sophisticated simulation center for teaching purposes, but also for its top-floor event space and rooftop terrace, which will offer views of such New York City landmarks as Yankee Stadium and the historic High Bridge.

And it never would have happened without a design team willing to take a risk in its proposal to the school.

The simulation center, an 8,000 to 9,000 sq ft, two-floor workspace populated by real-world nursing equipment and “breathing,” lifelike mannequins, was at the heart of the project charter given to firms that were invited to enter a design competition for the structure, which was to occupy a 20,000 sq ft site. However, the rooftop space, which offers sweeping views of the building’s neighborhood on the north end of Manhattan (at West 168th Street and Audubon Avenue), was a standout element of the winning design, which was submitted by a joint venture comprising CO Architects, of Los Angeles, and FXFOWLE, of New York City. The joint venture, known as CO|FXFOWLE, wowed the selection committee, according to Patrick Burke, AIA, the medical center’s assistant vice president for capital projects, by designing a 68,000 sq ft, seven-floor building that would sit on just half the site. 

It came down, essentially, to a math problem. The school of nursing plans to expand to 140,000 sq ft in two phases. The competition called for a Phase 1 proposal with the understanding that Phase 2 would add to that structure sometime in the future.

Interior rendering of the school of nursing building which displays glass-paneled simulation labs

Glass-paneled simulation labs will promote a feeling of
transparency for visitors, students, and faculty at the planned
Columbia University School of Nursing.

“A lot of designs went with a shorter, 3.5-story scheme that allowed for us to build up above. But with that comes the challenges of building above an occupied building,” says Burke. “FXFOWLE and CO Architects said, ‘We’re only going to build on half the site now, 10,000 square feet, but we’re going to go up to 7 stories.’ They basically left the south half of the site vacant to allow for a future structure. And it was very thoughtful.”

A parking lot currently occupies the site, so the finished project will include a 20,000 sq ft belowground parking facility, maintaining that resource for professors, students and researchers.

Michael Syracuse, AIA, LEED-AP, the project architect for CO|FXFOWLE, says the competition brief included some incongruities that his team’s proposal helped solve. First, the school assumed the first phase of construction would yield a structure that would later be “overbuilt” by the second phase, but CO/FXFOWLE architects felt that this would change the look and feel of the project’s first phase, which the school understandably wanted to celebrate. Why put so much work into a design that’s eventually going to be redone? Second, a three- or four-story building would be overwhelmed in a neighborhood populated by taller structures. And finally, along with the technical challenges inherent in any construction above an occupied space, there was a concern that the process would also be disruptive—noise and structural concerns might have required the school to close for a period of time. 

“We decided we’d color outside of the box and hope Columbia realized that potential,” says Syracuse. “We didn’t think they would receive our proposal, see that it was a seven-story building, and [throw it out]. Even if there’s some master plan or feasibility study done before we get there, we try to dissect that and understand what the drivers are … and Columbia’s desire was not [for] a three-story building, it was a school of nursing.”

So the idea for a taller building with a smaller footprint and rooftop meeting and terrace space was born. “There’s no space that serves that [social] function in the current building,” says Syracuse. In the winning design, he says, “The seventh-floor lounge space and adjacent terrace—and the whole first floor—are really important collaboration/hang-out/study/lounge/special event spaces. They foster the type of learning that they’re looking for there.

The seven-story glass-enclosed nursing school building will stand out on the corner of W. 168th Street and Audubon Avenue in Manhattan

The seven-story glass-enclosed nursing school building will stand
out on the corner of W. 168th Street and Audubon Avenue in

“The terrace is really unique,” he adds. “In a [neighborhood] where there’s very little open space and limited green space, this is going to be one of the few areas on campus with outdoor space, much less on the rooftop with some view.”

Those views from the roof will be impressive, for sure, but the primary goal was to create a building that was both welcoming and visually appealing. The key to this, says Syracuse, was to make the building as transparent as possible at ground level, and to maintain that theme of transparency throughout the higher floors. Compared to the other buildings in the neighborhood, the school will allow those on the sidewalk to see inside, and those inside to feel as if they are part of the streetscape. Once inside the building, students, faculty, and visitors who walk the halls will be able to see the future of nursing without having to open doors or enter labs.

“Putting learning on display is a key driver,” says Syracuse. “[Columbia] wants a forward-looking building, [and] that’s coming from the dean and a board of advisors.” He says the idea of embodying the future of nursing is “driving the glass facade and clean finishes and open spaces, and that continues into the simulation spaces. We’re not trying to hide that. We’re celebrating the technical nature [of the rooms].”

The building’s facade is a unitized curtain wall system typical of high-rise construction. The panels are fabricated off-site and then clipped into place, a design aimed at requiring very little on-site work, says Syracuse. The finished product is a tight, energy-efficient building envelope that also has a crisp look. Some less-public spaces, such as conference rooms or faculty offices, will receive a glaze, making them more private without adversely affecting the overall sensibility of the building. Most of the panels will measure 4 ft 9 in. by 12 ft 9 in.

The architects have teamed with DeSimone Consulting Engineers, of New York City, for the structural design, which is still ongoing.

With this building the school, founded in 1892, wants to celebrate its heritage while also taking a strong step into the future. Prospective students want to enroll in a top program that also has a pleasant, modern work environment. Burke believes this modern building with an education focus is a way for Columbia to combine those goals, especially after many years of building up the treatment and research side of the Medical Center’s portfolio.

“This is an important period of time for education here at the medical center,” he says. “We currently have two buildings going. One is for graduate medical education that is a much more avant-garde design.” (Read Dramatic New Med School to Grace CUMC Campus, on Civil Engineering online.)

“And then we’re going to be doing the ground-breaking on this building about a year from now,” he adds. “It’s a unique period of time where we have two brand-new buildings [and] both buildings are for the education of future clinicians.”



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