Student center becomes social hub of campus

June 14, 2011 |

Founded in 1896, Clarkson University, in Potsdam, N.Y., has for more than a century espoused practical technology-based education coupled with a spirit of invention. Those qualities came to the fore in the design and construction of a new student center.

In 2006, students voted to increase their fees to help pay for a new student union that would achieve two main goals: first, to unite many dispersed student programs in one building; and, second, to link the new center to the other academic buildings on campus.

Four years later, a Building Team led by architect Perkins+Will and contractor Pizzagalli Construction delivered a soaring three-story, 60,000-sf student center that has become the social hub for the university’s 3,000 students. The three floors are connected via a “Forum” that runs through the center of the dramatic glass-brick-sandstone structure, whose arched windows and stylized cupola allude to Old Main, the historic central structure of the university’s original downtown campus across the Raquette River.

Two enclosed bridges provide comfortable access to other academic buildings—a welcome feature, considering that winter temperatures in New York’s North Country can drop to -40°F.

The LEED Silver-targeted facility provides space for multiple activities: the main dining hall, a marché-style servery, a bar/café, multipurpose meeting rooms, a meditation room, lounges, game rooms, a convenience store, student-run radio/TV stations, the student newspaper office, soundproof music rehearsal rooms, and a post office. The Forum seating faces a huge media wall.

The national economic downturn hit just as construction was starting in early 2009. The team provided a list of design options to the university that cut costs 25% below the original budget, which allowed the university to make improvements to existing residence halls on campus.

The building uses locally produced concrete blocks invented by a member of the Clarkson engineering faculty. The blocks use 20% recycled industrial glass. The Building Team also used BIM software (Autodesk Revit) to provide tight coordination and trim construction conflicts.

To link the new student center back to Clarkson’s roots, the university asked for red sandstone to be used. The original buildings in the historic downtown campus were built with sandstone from the local quarry owned by Thomas S. Clarkson, in whose memory Clarkson University was founded. Unfortunately, the original quarry had been mined out, sending the Building Team on a mad search to find a replacement. With luck, they located an individual who had an inventory of sandstone from the original quarry—just enough for the base of the student center and several fireplaces.

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