Demonica Kemper Architects Renovate a Campus: Designer Forum

By Rebekah Wightman


Moraine Valley Community College, a thriving community college campus about 20 miles outside of Chicago, has been busy the last few years responding to continued increases in enrollment. As the local population seeks to reinvent itself and learn new trades, the college has responded by adding curriculum and staff, which inevitably means adding new facilities and expanding/renovating existing facilities on campus to meet new current and future needs.

This was the case when the college approached Demonica Kemper Architects to reinvigorate their Center for Contemporary Technology (CCT). The CCT is used for teaching such curricula as computer technology; systems, security and information assurance; welding; HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning); mechatronics; auto mechanics; emergency medical services; and fire science.

Built in the early 1980s, the original programs required large, industrial-type classroom and lab space, and the building was originally designed to be pragmatic and utilitarian with very little exterior light coming into the building. The interior space was, in large part, white with very high ceilings and disorienting corridors that made wayfinding for students rather difficult. 

The interior renovation scope included updating the organization of some of the premier programs within the facility, simplification of the building’s circulation system and an upgrade to the interior finishes throughout the facility to create a more technology-focused environment. Additionally, the CCT was in severe lack of student life space as compared to the other buildings on campus, and this needed to be addressed. As part of the reorganization of the programs within the building, a new Center for Systems Security and Information Assurance (CSSIA) was identified as the program to be located at the building’s front door in an effort to breathe new life into the facility.

As indicated above, the college recognized the need to add student life space within the building where students could touch down impromptu and find space on their own or within a small group to learn outside the classroom. Because this building is the heart of the campus’ technology learning, they felt it was important to incorporate a large number of open computer stations for students. These computers would not be within a traditional computer lab type setting but incorporated throughout the public open spaces, integral to the interior flow of the circulation paths and fostering continued learning outside of the classroom.

The design team’s first challenge and initiative was to open up the choked front entrance and create the building’s front porch—a large public space that would house a variety of soft seating groupings for individual or group use as well as the largest of the many banks of open computers scattered throughout the building. This is also the area where the original building’s largest and only design feature existed and remained—a long linear skylight that sliced through the building at an angle. With the desire to keep what little natural light the building had to offer, the team capitalized on the skylight’s severe juxtaposition to the rectilinear nature of the building and used the angle to spawn an array of angles throughout the flooring and ceiling materials at the building’s main entrance. The end result gives the new front door a feeling of movement and direction, pointing the patrons to paths of circulation.

Additionally, these angles in the ceiling above began to push and pull at different heights, giving the illusion that the building was comprised of many layers that could be peeled away. The use of yellow translucent polycarbonate ceiling panels subtly reveals the infrastructure above the ceiling. Part of the team’s goal with the renovation was to reveal and display in select areas the internal infrastructure of the building that pertained to the classes taught within the facility. By exposing these building elements, a real world application study is provided to students who just walked out of class learning about things like HVAC and IT cabling. The building itself can continue to teach and inform even when students aren’t sitting in a classroom. 

The project was under strict budgetary restrictions, so an economical flooring solution was critical. Due to the high traffic within the building and the college’s standards for flooring throughout the campus, a resilient flooring material would be required for the main circulation paths in the corridors. Altro’s Quartz tile seemed to be the right solution for the main corridors as the price was right, and the college could save long-term maintenance costs by not having to strip and wax it like traditional VCT. The extremely high PSI rating was also a desirable trait, considering the possibility of unusually heavy and rugged machinery and items being transported over this floor due to the curricula taught. Aesthetics and format also played a role as the speckled pattern Quartz tile has less directional movement than VCT, and it comes in an unusual size format, 24”x24”, which lent itself perfectly to the desired floor pattern. Sustainability is also a priority for the college, so the tile being phthalate-free and containing recycled content was also a plus.

The corridors are wide with high ceilings, so the patterning on the floor was intentionally designed to balance this large expanse with just the right scale of overall texture. The floors were designed to emulate a macro digital pixelation—a nod to the computer technology programs taught within the building. 

While the main circulation areas were defined with the Quartz tile, it made sense to define the public gathering spaces with carpet, a more sit-and-stay-awhile material. Because of the strong gestures made in the flooring pattern that also extended to the front entrance of the building and not wanting to interrupt the pattern to insert a walk-off type product, Interface’s Superflor and Flor were selected as the right carpet for the job. This material works as double-duty carpet in this case—acting as a walk-off material up front, while at the same time being able to extend throughout the space and achieve a solid color carpet look to let the overall larger pattern be the focus. The slices of bright blue carpet in the front porch area responded in hue to the custom printed polycarbonate panels in the ceiling that were printed with a circuit board pattern—another nod to the computer technology program in the building. 

Because of the high amount of traffic this space would receive, a traditional solid color loop-type carpet would inevitably show stains and traffic patterns, especially in the bright blue required for this design. It was explained to the college when the product was presented that after a lot of use and maintenance, the fibrous product actually morphs into something less “hairy” and more “felted” which would, in this case, strengthen the floor pattern, and the feathered appearance would perform even better to conceal stains. It is crucial to keep in mind what flooring products will look like long-term, what the changes may be with continual wear, and if they will continue to support the design in the long-term for your client.

In the open lounge and computer areas, groupings of an assortment of different types and heights of chairs, sofas, benches and occasional tables were utilized, which created a landscape of variety, making it possible for anyone to find somewhere they feel comfortable to stop and work, connect, socialize or learn. To further facilitate every possible mode of impromptu learning, the open computers were designed at different counter heights and even at different floor levels to provide varying sight lines and create spaces within spaces so that the lounge area doesn’t feel like a sea of computers. To create this large undulating piece of millwork whose profile emulated a circuit board, laminate was used as a surfacing material to capitalize on its ability to maintain its aesthetic quality long-term but still achieve a wood look. Abet Laminati was selected, as the company also offers matching commercial plastic laminate flooring that was used on the platform and the flooring inlay at the snack bar in the center of the building. This way, the computer counters and platform as well as the vending enclosure and adjacent flooring inlay could appear as though it were all carved out of a single piece of wood, yet meet the budget and performance requirements at the same time.

From the beginning of the project, the college desired for its new Center for Systems Security and Information Assurance, which is a unique and highly marketable program for the college, to be a focal point in the building—and highly visible from the front entrance. It was desired to have the network servers that were used as teaching tools for the program be secure but also visible to the public. A rectilinear room was placed near the entrance of the building along the main thoroughfare of traffic and constructed of laminated yellow glass. This yellow cube becomes the “brain” of the building and a prominent design feature, further exemplifying the building’s infrastructure and translucency.

Because of the static control requirements in the server room, there was a need to transition from carpet to a resilient product and back to carpet again as one large slice of flooring extended through and beyond this room. To accomplish this, black carpet was used for this slice to ensure that the transition of material beyond the yellow glass would not be noticeable. Black Quartz tile was used inside the room, which appeared no different through the glass than the carpet on the other side. One additional design challenge was overcoming the transitions of material over what was once a raised access floor in only parts of the building. Where walls once stood, the subfloor would transition from concrete slab to raised access floor over recessed slab. This meant that carpet was primarily designed to be maintained over the raised access floor areas, but in a few cases, like that of the server room that sat over a raised access floor area, the Quartz tile had to be installed over the raised floor. To accomplish this, since the college wanted to completely abandon the functionality of the raised floor, a thin sheet of plywood was laid over the floor, skim coated, and then the Quartz tile was installed over that. In the case of the server room, this transition was easy as the material height difference could be handled, with a rubber transition at the door. In one other area of the building where this material transition over the raised floor to concrete slab could not be avoided, more careful consideration had to be placed on the installation. The same method with plywood was used, but the skim coating had to be feathered down from one height to the next (1/2” total) over an area of about ten feet to ensure that the transition was not noticeable and a rubber transition could be avoided.

At the rear of the building—the side that actually faces the center of campus—a new glass exterior facade was designed that opened the formerly opaquely faced building onto campus and connected the once disconnected building with the rest of the campus. A lounge area was carved out on this side of the building. A large wood undulating ceiling floats above the space whose profile again emulates, at a very macro scale, the undulations of a circuit board. Below this ceiling, Milliken’s Theory 2.0 carpet was used, the pattern of which mimics a sort of digital pixelation. A translucent blue polycarbonate wall floats above one of the existing classrooms, providing more views into the inner workings of the building. And there was a collaborative effort between the design staff and the college to create the custom-printed wallpaper graphic, which incorporated more computer imagery.

The balance of the renovated classroom spaces were outfitted with sealed concrete in heavy duty lab spaces and epoxy coating with broadcast quartz in the auto repair lab for its slip-resistant properties. In the general lecture classrooms, Shaw’s Site Lines in color Mine Your Past tied into the building color palette seamlessly.

The Center for Contemporary Technology was once a quiet, sterile, underutilized building. Since its transformation and revitalization, the hallways are now busy learning spaces, and there is a general sense of awareness of what is going on in the different curricula as they are exposed to public areas. The design of the flooring, ceilings and color placement work together throughout the building to guide and pull you along its accessways, where once a confusing maze of corridors existed. Previously, having a class in this building meant making the dreaded trek to the far corner of the campus to sit in a building that seemed out of place and out of context with the rest of campus—disconnected. 

Now the CCT is a destination on campus: a place that students want to be and engage, the ultimate success for a building meant for learning.

Copyright 2013 Floor Focus

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