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Sense of Place

University Center at The University of Memphis

Building a cultural center for a commuter school
University Business, Sep 2010

What was originally supposed to be a renovation of the University Center at The University of Memphis (Tenn.) became a much bigger project.

  • Function: A student center also serving faculty, staff, and community
  • Challenges: Due to structural and design problems in the existing University Center—including leaks, air conditioning problems, and difficulties with elevators—Memphis staff decided to start from scratch and design a completely new facility. From there, one of the biggest challenges was finding the best spot on campus for a student activity hub. Demolition of the existing center to build on the same site was deemed best, although that decision brought with it some problems. Largely a commuter school, students would be left without space to gather for study groups and to hang out between classes as the institution embarked on the single most expensive building campaign in its history. Planning for the project began in 2003, while building demolition and construction started in 2007.
  • Solution: During the two-year construction period, campus officials compensated for the lack of a student center by renovating a sorority to use as a temporary center and furnishing existing lounge space throughout campus with extra tables, couches, and chairs. But students weren't just accommodating about using a new space during construction. Through student government surveys, they largely agreed to fund the project also, through a $96 student debt fee, which will pay off 30-year bonds used to finance the construction.

This spring the new building, totaling 169,000 square feet, was ready. Its three levels consist of offices for student organizations and Greek chapters; a ballroom equipped to seat 1,000; a 350-seat theater; a three-story atrium; a food court including several "concept" areas such as pizza, hamburger, and sushi bars, a grab-and-go area, and a stand-alone restaurant; and official university offices.

Of the university's 21,000 students, 18,000 are commuters, so an inviting atmosphere was important. "We wanted to build a space where students would want to come on a daily basis. ... Our campus had really lacked that even in the old University Center," says Bill Porter, assistant vice president for student affairs and dean of students. Reb Haizlip, the lead design architect for Haizlip Studio, says, "We tried very hard to fulfill the university's objective and create this central hub, with the radial point being the atrium. It brought to the floor that this is an urban campus; it's a magnet for students, staff, and the community, and we tried to reflect that in the design." And the center has been just that. "It is exceeding our expectations," says Porter. "We had to expand the hours of the building and some of the spaces within it almost immediately."

  • Cost: $50 million
  • Completed: March 2010
  • Project Team: Inman Construction (general contractor), Haizlip Studio (lead design architect), Fisher & Arnold (architect), all of Memphis