Architects working in a university setting pride themselves on design that responds to student needs and blends in with the campus landscape. DIALOG and B+H Architects, who collaborated on a new student union building for the University of British Columbia, are no different. But they worked under a unique arrangement. The new AMS Nest, a 250,000-square-foot student union that was completed this summer, wasn't merely designed with students in mind; it was created with them as the clients. UBC students had raised 75 percent of the funds themselves via a hike in fees, so they, in turn, became the bosses, deciding whom to hire and contributing feedback and direction via a series of nearly 20 design charrettes.
"They wanted a culture of sustainability, since once it was built, it was going to be their new home," says Kevin Stelzer, a principal at B+H Design who worked on the building's sustainable features. "They didn't just have an aesthetic agenda, they wanted a low-energy, sustainable structure. And they put their money where their mouth was."
The creation of the 250,000-square-foot center, a $103 million (Canadian) project in the works since 2007, challenged the two local firms to build a community center that fit in with its surroundings while achieving strict sustainability requirements. The standard spatial requirements, including revenue-generating restaurants and meetings rooms as well as activity centers such as studios and theaters, fit the typical stipulations of campus design projects. But the site's history provided an additional twist; a symbolic knoll, a traditional site of student gatherings and protests, would need to be partially demolished to fit new structure in its intended home, open space between existing campus buildings. The architects decide to respect the history of the site by incorporating the knoll's profile inside the building, carving out a curved, stepped entrance in the lobby meant to function as an informal and symbolic gathering spot. The grand impression of the sunken steps is heightened when contrasted with the suspended Bird's Nest, a wood-paneled black box theater that hovers over the main lobby like a pendant lamp.
"The theater had a strict volumetric requirement," says Stelzer, "so we moved it around and created this very sculptural space."
The more pressing challenge from students was sustainability, which the architects met with a series of technological features that cut the energy usage by 70 percent (as compared to a similarly sized, code-compliant structure). The key feature in this regard is the roof. A series of slotted panels, covered in solar cells, offers natural lighting and ventilation when open, provide 30 percent of the building's energy, and generate enough power to activate a series of solar thermal chillers on warm days. Combined with passive ventilation and thermo-active concrete, the building performs at a level worthy of submitting for LEED Platinum certification.