By Matthew Herman and Robert Thomas
Like many historically black colleges and universities, N.C. A&T State University is adapting its mission to reposition its 125-year-old campus within a changing institutional landscape. N.C. A&T is seeking to grow its enrollment while facing increasing competition from non-HBCU institutions, including the University of North Carolina’s flagship Chapel Hill campus.
Originally a commuter school, A&T also aspires to build its resident student base. Among other initiatives, the university’s strategic plan identified a need for an updated student union to bolster recruitment and retention efforts. The strategic plan called for a renovation of and small addition to the existing Memorial Student Union that was built in 1969.
As programming got under way, however, it became clear that the renovated union would not accommodate the flexible, hybrid spaces that students were seeking. While benchmarking existing facilities can be helpful in estimating the amount of space a program may require, the recent rapid evolution of student centers makes it harder to reconcile user feedback with those benchmarks.
While the architects gathered feedback through a variety of forums – social media, town halls, stakeholder meetings, surveys, and open houses – intercept interviews proved to be the most informative method despite the comparatively small sample size involved. In these one-on-one interviews, students – most of whom had not participated in other forums – provided more frank responses about their study habits and experiences with the existing student union.
These interviews, along with other user engagement efforts reaching more than 1,500 students, contributed to a clearer understanding of program needs. Ultimately, the decision was made to replace the existing student union with an entirely new facility. Following are the key findings that informed the design:
- Students prefer to study in more social settings (e.g., cafés, lounges) versus the traditional library.
- The demand for collective social spaces was far greater than estimated.
- Students want flexible and adaptable spaces of varying scales and the ability to reconfigure furnishings to suit different needs.
- The popularity of gaming as a social/recreational activity also greatly exceeded space projections.
The resulting design for the new center compiles a diverse program of student lounges, study and meeting spaces, food venues, a convenience store, a student bookstore, a post office, a ballroom, multipurpose rooms, and a range of student organization suites and administrative support services into a dynamic hub that will reinvigorate the physical and symbolic core of N.C. A&T’s campus.
In contrast to the union’s rigidly defined and controlled spaces, the new student center organizes a wide variety of spaces – small to large, active to quiet – in a gradient that transitions from recreational to academic as one moves up through the open central atrium. This gradient of varied spaces extends outward to the landscape, recognizing that creating strong connections with the surrounding campus is critical to the new center’s success as a campus hub.
Envisioning the new student center as a connector rather than a discrete building opened up the possibility of addressing some of the campus’s long-standing challenges. The campus is organized around two poorly linked off-set quads with undergraduate academic buildings and the main library and dining hall located on opposing corners, a configuration that generates a strong diagonal flow of people through the campus.
While the new student center is strategically sited between the quads to capture this movement, improving the connection between the two greens also became a priority that significantly informed the design. The project served as a catalyst for reimagining the entire streetscape and the public spaces connecting the campus, leading to the development of a significant plaza at the end of the main green that creates places for performances and other activities and improves the primary circulation path through campus.
The center responds to the greens and connects them by organizing program elements into off-set bars running east to west. Larger components – the ballroom, marketplace dining, student organization suites, and study rooms – are lifted above the ground level, giving the building a formal presence on both quads while allowing the landscape and people to flow through.
While the student center’s landscape and architecture signal a new chapter for N.C. A&T, the design also works to strengthen the connection to the university’s history and traditions. An Aggie-gold “thread” integrated with the center’s circulation weaves through the building. Composed of seating areas, interior monuments, and interactive kiosks (and an app) featuring stories and figures from A&T’s past, the thread links the center’s forward-looking environments to the university’s legacy.
By allowing a deep understanding of N.C. A&T’s strategic goals, campus plan, and current and future student needs to drive the design, the vision for the student center expanded well beyond traditional interpretations of the building typology. The resulting project transforms the N.C. A&T campus and charts a new course for its future development.
Matthew Herman is director of the Chicago office of BuroHappold Engineering and has led higher education projects ranging from advanced energy solutions to master planning, including leading the firm’s design of the N.C. A&T Student Center. Robert Thomas is a principal and director of design at VINES Architecture, the Raleigh-based firm commissioned to design the N.C. A&T Student Center, and is a Professor in Practice at the N.C. State University College of Design.