CO Architects Design an Energy-Efficient (and Eye-Popping) Student Center for a California University

The building at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, overcomes the hubris of its iconic predecessor by embracing context and climate.

The Student Services Building at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, rises from a landscape of berms. Courtesy Bill Timmerman

“Look at the difference of temperature. It’s unbelievable,” says architect Paul Zajfen, the design principal of CO Architects. He and co-principal Alex Korter are standing in a breezeway beneath the gently swooping roof of the Student Services Building at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. The heat can still feel punishing during early fall in the college town, some 30 miles east of Los Angeles, so the cooling air that passes through the corridor (thanks to the Venturi effect) is a welcome change.

The Los Angeles–based firm is responsible for the design of the new LEED Platinum–certified building, which replaces a problem-plagued facility by the architect Antoine Predock. The latter structure, opened in 1993, its wedge-shaped silhouette long a campus marker, was riddled with construction inefficiencies that ultimately led to a lawsuit pitting the university against the contractor. It was also discovered that the building sat on the San Jose Fault, causing concern over its structural integrity, and in 2010, administrators voted to decommission it completely. (“Doomed from the Start” is how the school newspaper judged Predock’s design in a recent story.)

A billowing roof distinguishes the building, designed by CO Architects, from its campus neighbors. While appearing complex, the roof system uses standard components, such as 16-inch planks and recycled aluminum. Courtesy Nils Timm

Safety, structural, and seismic issues aside, students and faculty bemoaned the building’s stacked arrangement. The circulation was impractical and did not comply with ADA standards, a classic case of program subordinated to eye-popping form. “It was a hierarchical layer cake, so we tipped it on its side,” says Korter, who acted as project architect of the Student Services Building.

Now more pancake than layer cake, the 138,400-square-foot facility stands on what was formerly a 1,000-car parking lot on this predominantly commuter campus. CO Architects was also tasked with masterplanning the surrounding land parcels, which the university intends to fill out over the coming years. To this end, the firm reoriented roads and added access points, such as a drop-off and bus-stop area, effectively conferring gateway status on the building.

The overhang was determined with the help of solar studies. In plan, the building is cleaved into two volumes by the capacious breezeway, which acts as a new campus corridor. Courtesy CO Architects

As a gateway, it presents a foil to the visual dynamo of Predock’s currently empty ivory tower. Closer to the ground and with an undulating roofline that echoes the ridges of the surrounding hills, the Student Services Building is on the whole more mindful than its predecessor. An exhaustive series of solar studies informed the overhang depths, “all of them completely optimized,” Korter explains. “This building has a really low energy use mainly because of the roof overhang shading the whole thing. It’s like this giant umbrella.” This has the added benefit of concealing mechanicals, so that “nothing protrudes through the roof; it all reads like one shell,” Korter says.

While resembling a solid carapace, the roof is translucent in places and is less imposing for it. Bulges that look like raised eyebrows pull daylight into the interior offices. At grade, the building locks snugly into a series of berms. ( The water-wise landscaping, by Spurlock Landscape Architects, taps into reclaimed water lines coming off a nearby freeway.) Calling it “the groundscraper,” as some on campus have taken to doing, isn’t far off.

The breezeway Courtesy Bill Timmerman

The nickname suggests a unified structure, though it is actually cleaved into two volumes, the breezeway passing between them. With 30,000 square feet spread out over two stories, the west wing services faculty and staff operations. The larger, three-story east wing houses student services (ground floor), administrative offices (second floor), and amenities like the south- and southeast-facing terraces for the university president, provost, and university advancement department (top floor).

Crossing the threshold into the 110,000-square-foot east wing, Korter points to a new information zone, the first of three “portals” sprinkled throughout the ground floor. Each is designated for a different function, ranging from financial aid to registration; together they form a “concierge that addresses anybody’s needs,” Korter says.

Interiors are sparse and industrial in feel. Courtesy Bill Timmerman

Working spaces and seating are arranged to facilitate in-person interactions. Conference rooms initially embedded within the slate of offices run along the busy main corridor. Elevators are tucked away to encourage use of the wide, open staircases. And the breezeway has already become a popular gathering spot.

The east wing courtyard, meanwhile, is open to members of the wider campus community. Even enclosed by glass, the space is calming, an effect, perhaps, of plantings. The architects expect the few saplings to grow as tall as 50 feet and eventually extend past the roofline in places. This might mar the clean contours of the building shell, but it’s in keeping with CO Architects’ ethos, Zajfen says: “We’re concerned about how our buildings fit into the climate and region. This isn’t a building that would happen elsewhere.”

Prominent staircases double as social spaces within the building, as does an interior courtyard. Courtesy Bill Timmerman

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Categories: Educational Architecture