There is Power in Place

September 4, 2020

The impact of architecture & design in higher education

As STEM and Biotech career opportunities continue to evolve, community colleges are rising to the challenge of offering programs and courses that meet the growing needs of their communities.

Virginia Western Community College (VWCC) is no exception. They were recently awarded a $37 million state grant to add a new STEM building to their growing Roanoke campus.

At their Weyers Cave campus, Blue Ridge Community College (BRCC) partnered with local employer, Merck pharmaceuticals, to grow their bioscience department and build a new bioscience center in order to meet the workforce demands of that company and others in the region, as well as to attract similar companies to the region.

VWCC Stem Building

Growing science, engineering, and biotech programs often require new buildings capable of housing state-of-the -art technology.

However, a place to house technology isn’t necessarily the key function of these buildings. In fact, studies have shown that building design impacts learning in higher education. The president of VWCC, Dr. Robert Sandel, charged his faculty to “dream big” as they created a list of what to include in the new STEM building. “He asked us to envision something that would be cutting edge and part of the community,” said Amy White, Dean of the school of STEM.

For two years, SFCS architects and the college’s team of faculty and administrators planned the design of an area that would positively impact teaching, learning, enrollment, VWCC’s reputation, and the greater community. They knew they needed plenty of intentional space for students to quietly study and to collaborate in small groups. It was important to design a showplace to celebrate the advanced Mechatronics and Fabrication labs and to create curiosity and pride in the college. The structure had to include state-of-the-art laboratories and flexible classroom spaces to enhance interactive learning. Placement on campus was also important, as Stakeholders felt it was necessary the building contribute to an open campus green.  Everyone was also aware there must be an abundance of natural light.  

The SFCS multidisciplinary in-house team of architects, mechanical engineers, structural engineers, electrical engineers, interior designers, and fire protection engineers worked together throughout the design and building processes to ensure success. It also collaborated with its lab planning consultant, HERA. A building that has so many technical and place-making requirements is like a giant puzzle. SFCS VP Brenda Landes stated, “At SFCS, we’re always working to explore possibilities and develop solutions on behalf of our client.”

The STEM building at VWCC is now an anchor space for the college. Its light-filled glass and brick exterior is a beacon for students and the community at large. Its intentional placement draws students and the community through the building to access the rest of the campus, and frames the new central campus green space. SFCS Architect, Dereck Aplin, enjoys designing for higher ed, especially state–funded schools. “We start with a blank slate and can visualize something that hasn’t been seen before. I feel like I am designing a gift for everyone, creating an experience I can really identify with as an end user,” he said.

BRCC Bioscience Building

When asked about his favorite feature of all the buildings he has helped design for higher ed, Aplin answered without pause, “In the Bioscience building at BRCC, we were able to create an internal public space that benefitted the campus at large, it’s an interior space that enriches the entire campus and creates a greater sense of community.”  

Although it is the newest building and focal point on the VWCC campus, the STEM building fits in well – its look and feel makes sense. It is stately, especially for a community college campus, and at the same time feels modern and uplifting.

STEM school Dean Amy White said, “I’m confident the students and faculty all stand a little taller in this space. The faculty is energized and proud to continue our work. We also see students interacting with faculty more often, because the space is designed to encourage collaboration.”  

Indeed, there is power in place.

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