Workbook: Engineering Learning

Natural light floods one of the new classrooms at American River College. The new building, designed by HGA Architects and Engineers, integrates the arts and life sciences. Image courtesy HGA Architects and Engineers.

Visit almost any college campus, and it’s nearly always the same story: There are science buildings and there are arts buildings. They exist independently with little-to-no overlap. Take it one step further. Most of the classrooms have standard nine-foot ceilings covered with acoustic tiles and basic lighting, narrow corridors and faculty offices shoehorned in nooks and crannies around it. The new Life Sciences and Fine Arts Building at Sacramento’s American River College tosses out that old playbook. Designed by HGA Architects and Engineers, the new structure is meant to foster interdisciplinary learning and connections among students and faculty.

The story of the building begins with some practical considerations. “There was a need for more art and science spaces, but they couldn’t be integrated into the existing facilities,” explains Creed Kampa, an associate vice president at HGA. “They saw it as an opportunity to bring the two departments together.”

In practical terms, bridging the gap between science and art informed an array of design decisions. The arts and science classrooms are dispersed throughout the building—not relegated to separate wings in the 12,000-square-foot-structure.

Faculty offices are arranged on the front of the building, making them more accessible and facilitating the interaction between instructors and their students. A corridor that gives access to the classrooms was purposefully widened to give students a chance to linger and communicate. The same logic applies to the built-in lounge seating and tables created for the students to congregate at before and after class. These spaces are intended to trigger casual conversations and, says Kampa, “the more of casual conversations you have, the more you spark innovation and ideas. We were thinking about about the total environment to enhance learning.”

To animate the spaces, getting light inside was a key consideration and one that presented challenges given the site: It backs up on the existing life sciences building. Justus and his team made the most of the challenge. Classrooms for art and fashion face were positioned on the north side to take advantage of the quality of the light. A space for shared rehearsal, where light was much less of a concern, was a natural fit for a spot against the existing science building. Elsewhere, classrooms that overlook an interior gathering space have generous skylights.

“We created a dynamic space that feels good to be in and to create a setting for meaningful exchanges,” Kampa notes.

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