WHR Architects Celebrates the Grand Opening of the New Student Center at the University of Houston Ceremonial Ribbon Cutting...

01/23/2015 | WHR Architects

WHR Architects Celebrates the Grand Opening of the New Student Center at the University of Houston Ceremonial Ribbon Cutting Marks the End of a Multi-year Renovation and Expansion Project

WHR Architects, joined University of Houston students, administrators and faculty as they celebrated the grand opening of the final phase of the 80-million dollar UC Transformation Project, which was funded 95 percent by student fees. The design team, led by several alumni of the University of Houston School of Architecture, brought an intimate knowledge of the campus and campus life to the makeover, which includes the renovation of 92,000 square feet of existing space and the addition of 120,000 square feet of new construction and the creation of outdoor plaza. 

WHR transformed the original 1967 University Center with bold moves to make it an open, flexible, light-filled and active social space on the changing campus. The completion of the new Student Center complex is an important milestone in the evolution of the campus. It serves as the vital cultural and social center of the campus and is a defining project of one of the largest campus transformations in the nation, scheduled to include over nine million gross square feet at its completion.

“When I was a student, in our third year in the architecture program, we did walking tours of the campus and we got to learn about all the buildings on campus that didn’t work. That stuck with me and it’s one of the reasons we designed the Center to be a game-changer,” WHR Lead Designer John Smith says. “The University Center was always a home away from home for students and still is, but now we’ve put it above ground and made a plaza to form a gathering space.”

The designers sought input from current students asking: “What would make the new Student Center a true destination?” Top issues on the students’ wish lists resonated with the perceptions of the WHR team:

  • Greater comfort, more welcoming
  • More seating options from quiet study places to hangout spaces
  • Incorporation of the school color and mascot to reflect student pride in the university
  • More activity, a place for pep rallies and other student gatherings

The initial challenge was the complete rethinking of the bunker-like UC with its 60’s brutalist concrete façade, uninviting atrium space, nickednamed the Arbor, and a series dark, dank, long-neglected underground spaces. The new design reconfigures the interior layout, opening up the space to create a variety of gathering places of different scales and connecting to the building to the new additons and the outside. In a nod to Cougar pride, red, the official school color, is used throughout spaces and as an accent on the façade.

In the three-story atrium, at the heart of the building, is the reconceived Arbor Lounge. Here in the now covered, interior space, the monumental stairs are the focal point for gathering, the new social center of the building. The uncluttered west side is defined by the flexible open space of the new Legacy Lounge. The overall design integrates larger gathering spaces, which can be used more flexibly, with more specifically designated service and administrative spaces.

“We worked closely with the students to make certain that the furnishings in the new and renovated spaces would work for them, said Lori Foux, WHR’s lead interior designer for the project. In mock-ups of the space, student “tested” the desks and chairs for function and flexibility — sitting, leaning, lounging and reconfiguring to create the variety of social spaces that they wanted. Giving the students options from ‘see and be seen’ spaces to more intimate gathering places for quiet conversations or study with appropriate seating was a priority.”

In addition to the renovations to the existing building, WHR also designed a new 68,000 square foot building on the north side of the Student Center, which houses open, collaborative spaces for student organizations and a new student senate chamber on the second floor. To the east is a 52,000 square-foot two-story addition, which with food services and amenities plus a new 450-seat theater on the ground level and new meeting and event spaces on the second level. Additionally, the newly relocated bookstore now connects ground and basement levels on the east side of the building.

The transformation is now complete,” said Smith. “It is exciting and rewarding to see how it reflects the vision we shared with the students. It’s a spirit building that embodies today’s University of Houston — a powerful Tier One institution that continues to grow in stature academically and, with the new Student Center, in the hearts of the students.”

WHR, based in Houston, Texas, with additional offices in Dallas, Raleigh, New York City and Copenhagen, Denmark, is a full-service architecture and interior design firm. The firm’s commitment to critical thinking is balanced by an ingrained empathy that results in both improved project outcomes and positive working experiences for their clients. With over 170 people firm-wide, the 35-year old firm is working on projects worldwide for top­tier public and private education and medical institutions. WHR is one of EYP’s practice groups. For more information about WHR Architects, visit http://www.whrarchitects.com.   

EYP is a renowned global provider of high-performance building design, research, and consulting services to higher education, government, healthcare, and corporate clients. Ranked #1 in sustainability and fifth overall on Architect magazine’s prestigious Architect 50, the company provides seamless project delivery with access to the award-winning expertise and resources of its family of practice groups, which includes sustainable design leader EYP Architecture & Engineering; WHR Architects, healthcare design specialists; and The Weidt Group, building energy performance specialists. More than 550 professionals in architecture, engineering, energy, and interior design collaborate across 15 offices in the United States and Europe to deliver expertise-driven design. For more information, visit http://eypaedesign.com/.