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Designed to Flow

Unified design can steer campuses into the 21st century, once we figure out how to use it.
University Business, Dec 2008

DON'T WORRY IF YOU can’t express the difference between long-term planning and unified design on a campus. Even architects say they’re fuzzy on the difference.

Long-term planning—as in the campus master plan—is a blueprint of campus growth that arranges room for new buildings. Unified design encompasses more uncharted waters. For Steven Ansel, the principal in charge of design at S/L/A/M Collaborative in Glastonbury, Conn., it involves creating a palette of building designs—not to ensure everything looks identical but that individual buildings complement each other. He refers to it as contextual design.

David Dimond, a principal at Chicago-based Perkins+Will, says unified design is about finding similar proportion/scale between new and existing structures; identifying common colors, textures, and shapes (such as brick and stone elements); creating interior courtyards, atriums, and lobbies that link with exterior porches, pedestrian arcades, and green spaces; and unifying buildings and landscapes (such as through pathways and buildings with ample windows).

This approach means that “campuses will resemble a string of cultured pearls as opposed to a necklace made of apples, pears, and kumquats,” Ansel says.

Other architects, including Michael B. Wilkes, CEO of Architects Delawie Wilkes Rodrigues Barker in San Diego, say that this strategy prevents every building project from striving to be a landmark statement, which can drive up costs.

Pulling off unified design can be as tricky as defining it. For Ansel, the real question is about how to reproduce existing architecture styles with integrity, as well as add the technology modern academic buildings need. “It doesn’t start with a casual appreciation but one where you really look hard at the old buildings—not to see why people think they are quaint and attractive but why they’re a good piece of architecture, what makes them tick,” he says. “If you can understand that in levels ranging from overall composition to the building materials and the details, you can generate a passion for it.”


This newest member of the Cal State system, located in Ventura County northwest of Los Angeles, opened its doors in August 2002 on the grounds of a former medical residential facility. The staff inherited classic California mission-style architecture built in the 1930s. Tall sycamore trees rim the property. Unfortunately, the floor heights were wrong, the electrical systems ancient, and the classrooms too small for modern teaching.

Officials vowed to bring the facility up to snuff and add on without sacrificing the atmosphere. Two renovations took place early on, and the first new building, for science, opened in 2003. Construction is now set to begin on a student union building, and two more academic buildings are in the planning stage.

--TIMELINE: 2001-present and beyond (pending state budget)

--DESIGN ELEMENTS: Thick, white plaster walls with small cuts in the windows, red tile sloped roofs, and porticos with columns that run the outside of the buildings.

--LONG-TERM PLANNING TRICKS: Officials realize teaching spaces may need new structures, with existing ones used for niche purposes. Luckily, true mission-style architecture is extremely sustainable; the window sizes and tile roofs keep the interiors cool.

--THOUGHTS ON UNIFIED DESIGN: “Blending old and new has been tough. I’m not saying it needs to look good or that they need to do a modern interpretation, but that it needs to fit in. A lot of architects think we’re kidding in the interview. I am not kidding.”


—Deborah Wylie, associate vice president of operations, planning, and construction

In 2005, new president Nido Qubein knew he needed to create a physical campus to match the upscale education and lifestyle vision he intended to shape at High Point University. Since breaking out the hammers and saws, officials at the institution have renovated or built eight buildings, ranging from classrooms to residential halls and a student union. Four more will be completed by the end of 2008, for a total of 1 million square feet of new space and 600,000 square feet of renovated space, at a cost of $250 million.

--TIMELINE: 2006-2009

--DESIGN ELEMENTS: Most buildings offer large, outdoor seating areas as frames, with an 8- to 10-foot-wide brick sidewalk connecting it to the next facility. Buildings either boast a steeple or a dome and have hotel-style lobbies with upholstered chairs, marbled floors, chandeliers, and Oriental rugs.

--LONG-TERM PLANNING TRICKS: New construction specs require wide hallways and predictive, consistent patterns so students can more easily navigate any building they enter. Each building contains a serving kitchen as well, so it can fit in with any future changes.

--THOUGHTS ON UNIFIED DESIGN: “The number one compliment we get on facilities is that it all goes together. We don’t have any wild-looking buildings. Everything looks as if it’s all done by the same architect.” —Nido Qubein, president

Unified design requires schools to develop a campaign document, or design guidelines, to accompany master plan materials. These design lines spell out the style of architecture as well as compatible materials to make it happen. San Diego-based architect Michael B. Wilkes likens it to family DNA. “Some siblings are [identical] twins, some are nonidentical twins, and others just resemble each other. Most are quite different personalities, but they all belong,” he says.

Here are how some colleges and universities keep it together:

--Soka University of America (Calif.) has a Tuscany theme requiring travertine stonework around windows, red tile roofs, and cherry wood doors and molding.

--Hillsborough Community College (Fla.) buildings follow a strict 5-foot by 5-foot module and are physically connected to one another. Existing buildings use 12-inch by 12-inch porcelain tile exterior cladding and flooring material.

--Boise State University’s (Idaho) collegiate gothic style requires brick with sandstone accents and an imposing faςade to carry growth across a thoroughfare.

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