Budgetary belt-tightening and time constraints didn’t stand in the way of a big addition at San Diego State University (SDSU). University officials used ingenuity and the talents of its staff to add a much-needed, 520-seat lecture hall to its Southern California campus.
And, they did it in 6 months.
“It’s a really good example of adaptive reuse,” says Kerry Nelson, a professor at the university’s School of Art Design and Art History, who assisted with the interior design of the project. “It was quite an experiment for the school to develop this large-scale classroom.”
With an enrollment of 34,000 students studying 78 undergraduate majors, the university needed more classroom space for large, freshman-level lecture courses. Budget and space restraints made new, from-the-ground-up construction prohibitive, so in the fall of 2002, university leaders devised a creative solution: convert an under-used, 70-year-old gymnasium into a stylishly modern lecture hall.
The building, constructed in 1933 as a Works Project Administration (WPA) gymnasium project, boasts distinctive Mission/Spanish Revival architecture and was called the Exercise and Nutritional Science (ENS) Building. The space – featuring high ceilings, built-in concrete bleachers, and wood floors – cried out for transformation from a space that was used by a limited and select group of students into a room that now hosts nearly 7,000 students each semester.
By the time this decision was finalized, it was March 2003. The lecture hall needed to be complete and ready for use when fall classes began in September 2003. The race was on.
“The fast track made it challenging. It was 6 months from the time the provost said, ‘We want it. Let’s do it,’ until we opened it,” says Scott Burns, the university’s associate vice president of enterprise operations, who at the time of the renovation was director of the Department of Physical Plant. “We knew it would be a challenge, but we felt it was possible.”
Burns said he made a deal with the administration. They couldn’t enter into lengthy debate on any of the key design and construction decisions. They had to immediately make up their minds.
“There was no time for indecision on color selections or anything,” Burns says. “The biggest issue I was worried about at the time was getting the fixed seats ordered, because they had long manufacturing lead times.”
Approximately 85 to 90 percent of the work, from design to finish, was engineered, supervised, and performed by in-house professionals from SDSU’s Department of Physical Plant – with the exception of specialty contracts (drywall, carpet, ceiling grid work, and fixed seating) and acoustical consulting. They accomplished more than $500,000 of renovation work in 90 days.
“It was probably, at the time, the largest single project we had undertaken with the in-house staff,” Burns says. “We do quite a bit of in-house construction. We have done a couple of other large lecture halls [with] 200 seats, but we did them each over the period of a year. We had never done anything this large or technically complex. It is the largest-scope project we ever had undertaken in the shortest timeframe.”
From the Top Down
The team worked within the building’s existing shell to develop the lecture hall. The massive room was built from the top down. The mechanical work, lighting fixtures, and audiovisual equipment that were to be installed above the suspended grid ceiling needed to be finished completely before work could be begin on the platform and the floor. All work installed above the 20-foot line was painted entirely black so as to blend in when viewed from below.
The entire space is lit by indirect, multi-level fluorescent fixtures that are pendant-hung from the ceiling. Because ceiling height would make later maintenance difficult and the cost of dimming ballasts prohibitively expensive, designers determined a dimming system would be impractical. Instead, the university’s electric shop designed and installed a system for adjusting lighting levels with switch legs.
Down below, the seating layout proved one of the biggest hurdles to clear in the early phases. Burns says the faculty was adamant that the flat-floored space needed to be converted into a true, amphitheater-style lecture facility because such a layout contributes to better sightlines. The entire first month, he says, was spent tinkering with layout and selecting the style and color of the actual seats so they could be ordered and would arrive in time for installation.
“We went round and round with probably a half-dozen different seat layouts until we arrived at the final one,” Burns says, noting that while straight rows of seats make it easier to lay out the seating and build the necessary ramping, the design team understood the importance of an amphitheater design. “It’s the best way to do it,” Burns explains. “The instructors feel better connected with the audience. We made it work.”
Nelson selected the hall’s interior finishes and color palette, which reflects the Mission/Spanish Revival theme of the original construction. She followed this theme in the seating selection.
Comfortable, 22-inch-wide tablet-arm chairs permitted the renovation to achieve the target capacity of 520 seats. Nelson specified tones of mortar and slate for the fixed seating’s upholstered and laminate surfaces. “We needed to respect the palette of the existing campus,” she says.
Once the seating issue was resolved, demolition was min-imal, says SDSU Project Architect Jeffrey Herr. “We left in the existing wood floor and built platforms over the floor to do the stepping for the seating,” Herr says. “We designed that in-house, and we also built it in-house.”
Challenges and Solutions
Beyond the tight completion deadlines and the seating layout, the project posed its share of other construction trials. For starters, the old gymnasium opens onto a small, charming, fully enclosed Spanish-style courtyard sitting 20 feet below road grade. The courtyard – the only possible staging area for the project – would remain as the facility’s entrance, so a 60-foot crane had to be used to lift construction materials over the building into the jobsite, including drywall studs and the lift rentals for work on the ceiling areas.
“That was the only way to get any bulk material into the construction site at all,” Burns says.
Once inside, the team had to bring various aspects of the old building up to code, including fire egress and occupancy issues. Crews had to tackle lead paint abatement. The previously un-air-conditioned space needed air-conditioning installed. And then there was the issue of acoustics.
The room’s height, its original construction of concrete with a series of large glass windows and no acoustical baffling, and the technology planned for the room presented special sound attenuation challenges.
Attached to the gym space is a dance studio that was to remain in use as a dance studio. The studio also had no acoustical baffling. The studio presented a bit of a conundrum for designers beyond the acoustic response of the future lecture hall space itself. “You could go into the studio with music blaring and not hear noise in the gym, but you could hear the music from the dance studio as clear as a bell in the gym,” Herr says.
The construction team worked with acoustical engineers Eilar Associates of Encinitas, CA, to devise a solution.
Acoustical baffles now hang from the ceiling. Layers of barium-infused, high-density rubber and drywall cover the existing concrete walls and built-in bleachers. Another layer of panels was fabricated in textures and colors to complement the finished walls. Floors also are carpeted.
These design features work together to mitigate the problems presented by the long distance from the ceiling grid to the audience area, the need to provide amplification coverage throughout the room without feedback and phasing problems, and the elimination of sound filtering from the adjacent dance studio.
“It worked,” Herr says. “I was thrilled.”
Quality Construction = Quality Instruction
All elements of the new hall support the room’s real purpose: to provide quality instruction to many students at one time. To that end, the university incorporated an awesome array of technology into the room design.
Instructional equipment includes a smart “sympodium,” three 12-foot by 16-foot screens and a clear speaker system. Lecturers have all the necessary computer equipment – among many things – to make PowerPoint presentations, display Internet pages, and illustrate points through the use of a digital pen that writes directly on what’s displayed on the screens.
Every student seat is equipped with a Student Response System (an electronic number pad with a digital screen) so that each student and the lecturer can interact in innovative ways not possible in conventional lecture hall settings. Professors can wirelessly poll the class, get feedback on how the lecture is being received, administer quizzes and have them immediately scored, and more.
The 6-month construction timeframe also included training the necessary staff and faculty on the new teaching technology. “The professors are totally excited by it,” Herr says.
Robin Suttell (email@example.com), based in Cleveland, is contributing editor at Buildings magazine.
The seating layout proved one of the biggest hurdles to clear in the early phases; the faculty was adamant that the flat-floored space needed to be converted into a true, amphitheater-style lecture facility because such a layout contributes to better sightlines. “We went round and round with probably a half-dozen different seat layouts until we arrived at the final one,” says Scott Burns, the university’s associate vice president of enterprise operations, who at the time of the renovation was director of the Department of Physical Plant. While straight rows of seats make it easier to lay out the seating and build the necessary ramping, the design team understood the importance of an amphitheater design. “It’s the best way to do it,” Burns explains. “The instructors feel better connected with the audience. We made it work.”