For nearly sixty years, the students of the University of Texas had lobbied for a new student center. They wanted a hub for the social and extracurricular activity that would ultimately shape so much of their college experience. Now, they have one—a student center fundamentally built for and by the students.
For many students, college is their first venture into the wider world of cooperation, civic involvement, and learning to live as a community beyond their family unit. While dorms and lecture halls are fixtures in the college experience, they limit and control the ways that young adults can exercise agency in their world. What sort of communal activity could flourish if students had the space to create, organize, and connect on their own terms? A student center could be just this, serving as a common “living room” on campus and hub of student-driven activity.
Because the Student Activity Center (SAC) was funded by student fees and intended for student use, Overland approached these students as clients. Thousands participated in the design process, giving the Longhorns a sense of ownership in a building intended to be their commons. A place of their own.
Sited along a high-traffic footpath, the SAC needed to balance ideals and practicality. No one wanted to lose their direct route to class. Inside, the space needed to offer prospect and refuge. It needed to provide places conducive to meeting up but equally offer plenty of opportunity for privacy.
In addition to “plenty of power and WiFi”—major needs on the twenty-first-century campus—the resulting design included familiar spaces uniquely designated for student use. A 5,000-SF ballroom, a 500-seat auditorium, a black box theater, twelve conference/meeting rooms, and outdoor gathering spaces are all available for clubs and student organizations.The SAC also houses student organization offices and a student government chamber.
When the students’ budget ran short of their design ambitions, Overland offered a solution that makes the most of the temperate Austin climate. Courtyards, rooftop terraces, and other outdoor spaces further contribute to the conversation the building has with the surrounding campus, while conditioned exhaust air vented extends the seasons that these spaces are able to occupied. “Buildings are not just destinations, they should be an active part of our daily lives,” said Principal in Charge, Rick Archer.
University of Texas students are known for their environmental and global sensibilities, and the SAC sought to reflect that in its design. The Turrell Skyspace atop the building provides meditative quiet for students and visitors. Overland incorporated a green roof, water catchment system, and other efficiency measures to complement the mature oaks and ample sunlight connecting the students indoors to the world outside.
Around 15,000 students per day flow through the SAC. It works as a thoroughfare between the east and west sides of the campus where students can simply pass through, or sit and stay a while. Addressing more than just the flow of students, the SAC also represents a sense of connectivity and movement among the campus buildings. Limestone and terracotta fit the university’s architectural vernacular, while distinctive modern design establishes its moment in history. It balances the need for timelessness and integration with the historic campus while being open, transparent and welcoming. But most importantly, it serves as a place to see and be seen, a place for meeting, and a place for building community.