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New University Center Becomes a Campus Beacon

By Kevin Wilcox

The dramatic new student center at Case Western Reserve University seems to emerge from the landscape, occupying a high-traffic, high-profile site on campus. 


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The building’s expansive glass gives views of an adjacent green space that was already a popular gathering spot for students. © James Steinkamp Photography

December 16, 2014—When Case Western Reserve University began planning a new student center, the site at 11038 Bellflower Road was a natural choice. The area was already a gathering place for students—a large green space serves as a popular setting for impromptu sports events and a nearby pedestrian corridor bustles with traffic.

A closer look revealed the challenges. That popular green field is actually located atop an underground parking garage. The busy pedestrian corridor was so important that it had to be maintained in some form. And a nearby arts courtyard with works by artist Philip Johnson had to remain in place.

The new center, which opened in late summer, was designed by the Chicago office of the architecture firm Perkins+Will. The firm took a contextual approach to the design, creating an angled structure that appears to rise from the landscape at points, embracing both the field to the west and the arts plaza to the east.

"The university wanted a place for the students to want to be," says Mark Jolicoeur, AIA, LEED-AP, the principal in charge of the project for Perkins + Will. "The students are dedicated, committed, and they work exceedingly hard. [The university] wanted to find a place for the students to get outside of their dorms—to have a place where they felt comfortable gathering. The whole notion of seeing and being seen was an important need for the university in this."

The university also needed a student center that embraced a variety of missions, from housing more than 100 student groups to providing dining options for patrons of the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra's performances and nearby Severance Hall. The open design, with extensive use of glazing, offers a high degree of visual connectivity among spaces that are designed for individuals and groups of many sizes.

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Viewed from above, the building appears to emerge from the green space and embrace it. The green roof and solar photovoltaic panels are two of the project’s key sustainability features. © James Steinkamp Photography

"They wanted the building to be very transparent and inviting," Jolicoeur says. "So the idea of glass and the ability to be as much of a beacon and inviting is very important—the ability to see and to see out."

This need for large expanses of glass presented a design and engineering challenge for the team. The west wall, overlooking the sports field, is floor-to-ceiling glass, as much as 48 ft high. The west orientation of the wall makes it prone to solar gain as well as extreme cold during the significant and often very windy Cleveland winters. "What we came up with is a double-wall system," Jolicoeur explains. A 3 ft gap separates two panes of glass, creating a thermally controlled space between. "In the summertime, the warm air is trapped and we have fans that expel it out the top. And we have shade devices [controlled by] photo sensors that retract or deploy for direct light."

Conversely, in the winter, the warm air trapped between the glass panels provides a buffer to the extreme cold. "So now that's working to your advantage, coupled with having a radiant heating and cooling system in the floor," Jolicoeur says.

The engineering of the structure was led by the Chicago office of Thornton Tomasetti. The constraints of the site presented one of the biggest engineering challenges of the project. The building cantilevers out over the existing, underground parking garage, which has ventilation shafts that also needed to be maintained in their current location.

"Bedrock is located approximately 25 feet below grade on the site," noted Donald Hamlin, S.E., a vice president at Thornton Tomasetti, who responded in writing to questions posed by Civil Engineering online. "Straight-shaft caissons were chosen for the foundation per the geotechnical engineer's recommendation. Existing utility tunnels crossed the site, so we had to make sure to avoid them when locating the caissons."

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The 3 ft gap between the glass panels on the west wall minimizes temperature impacts from solar gain and exposure to cold air. In summer, hot air is exhausted out through vents. In winter, any solar gain is trapped between the two panels to mitigate the cold. © James Steinkamp Photography

The cantilever is achieved via grade beams founded on the caissons. "Was it a challenge? Yes. But who doesn't like a good challenge? That's what makes it interesting," Jolicoeur says.

The building's unique shape—likened to origami by Jolicoeur—and unique programming requirements resulted in a number of special features that required additional attention from the engineering team, according to Rachel Autenrieth Jackson, S.E., LEED-AP, a senior project engineer for Thornton Tomasetti, who also responded in writing.

"Examples include...the westernmost 'leg' of the building that slopes in plan and section, dives into the ground, and ties into the existing parking garage; the monumental stair and pop-up roof above; an interior-exterior stair stringer that supported a portion of the curtain wall; miscellaneous facade support elements; and many areas of cantilevered floor framing, roof framing, and steel trellises that had to meet tight depth requirements," Hamlin said.

Some of these depth requirements emerged in the design phase, when the university decided to remove 1 ft from the floor-to-floor heights, but maintain ceiling heights at the original dimensions. The architectural and engineering team worked closely with the subcontractors to coordinate the utility penetrations through the congested ceiling plane.

"The tips of each wing of the structure have long cantilevers, which typically requires that deeper steel sections be used," Jackson said. "Due to the limited ceiling height, [Thornton Tomasetti] had to design several unusually shaped beams that were coped at certain locations or whose cross sections tapered to accommodate the tight ceiling constraints. Also, the architectural cladding tightly wrapped the structural members, so the depth of almost every beam had architectural implications that needed to be coordinated."

The two-story structure covers approximately 89,000 sq ft, some portions tapering to the ground and others soaring to as high as 48 ft. The monumental staircase leads to the second floor and the roof is raised over the stair, windows flooding the steps with light. A basement level is a key corridor connecting the loading docks on the south side of the structure with the food service functions on the north side.

"The foundation, basement, and first floor framing is cast-in-place concrete. Concrete was chosen for the first floor due to the cantilever over the existing parking garage. The second floor, mezzanine, and roof framing is structural steel with composite slabs, which was chosen due to the unusual shapes and angles of these floors," Hamlin said.

Wind and seismic loads are resisted by diagonal bracing that was strategically located to work with the layout of the floor plans. One brace was exposed as an architectural feature next to the outdoor stadium seating area, Hamlin said.

Sustainability was important to the university, which required the project to receive a silver rating in the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program. The project is currently on track for a gold rating by virtue of a number of sustainability features, including photovoltaic panels and vegetated trays on the complex, sloping roof.

"There are three primary roof planes that slope in different directions plus the 'pop-up' section above the monumental stair," Jackson said. "The roof framing consists of structural steel and composite slabs. Figuring out how the steel framing would interface at each location where the roof planes intersected required careful detailing and a considerable amount of coordination."

Because the roof slopes, the green roof trays are anchored with special plates that keep the soil from sliding down the slope.

The facility was completed on schedule and dedicated on August 24, in time for the fall semester. The structure now serves as an important hub on campus.

"It turns out—and this wasn't literal from our thinking in the beginning, but a natural evolution—if you take the sidewalk that was originally there, that the students moved through, and you look at the main corridor that goes through the building, it's almost identical. So, that movement remains unimpeded," Jolicoeur says. "It has been received very favorably. We are very happy about that."



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