The New Academic Hybrid: Creating a Mixed-Use Campus Community

Collaborative Academic Space


As financial challenges for new construction continue, it has become increasingly difficult to justify and pay for single-use facilities. Institutions are faced with economic limitations that directly affect capital improvement projects and construction budgets, with facility needs often exceeding available funding. How can institutions leverage their physical resources to overcome the unrelenting challenges of rising costs? How can colleges compete for renowned faculty and the best and brightest students? The campus and its built environment can serve as one of the most powerful magnets for these highly sought users, but funding limitations can pose a threat to creating the dynamic and state-of-the-art facilities that this coterie has come to expect.

Arizona State University (ASU) responded to this challenge by merging several academic programs into a single building, College Avenue Commons. Located a few blocks from the main campus, the building is situated on a highly visible corner and extends the reach of the university into the surrounding City of Tempe community. The program-rich facility houses four distinct user groups: the Del E. Webb School of Construction; Sun Devil Marketplace; University Tours and University Classrooms. The project was funded through multiple funding mechanisms including the State Board of Regents and private funding. This complex mix of users and stakeholders meant the design team — Gensler, in collaboration with Architekton — needed to carefully navigate and satisfy the goals and aspirations of each.

Open hybrid academic space



Key to the success in combining this varied set of users into a single building was an extensive and meticulous programming phase to ensure the right mix was achieved and all needs were met. Through the active engagement of the users in this critical phase a unique synergy was achieved, creating new learning opportunities and encouraging the cross-pollination of ideas. Many of the breakout areas, common corridors, computer bars and conference rooms emulate the desirable amenities found in co-working spaces. These highly sought-after opportunities mean more students, faculty and community members congregate and use the building. Technology is leveraged throughout the facility with lectures being broadcast in the vertical “mixing chamber,” exposing everyone in the communal space to discussion topics in real time within the adjacent classrooms and laboratories.

Building connected to outdoor spaces


THE WORD ON THE STREET. The College Avenue Commons project was so important to the city of Tempe, AZ, that ASU, in cooperation with the city, redesigned the street, eliminating the curbs, connecting it to the building’s outdoor spaces, lawns, patios and balconies and creating a gathering place for game-day parties and graduation celebrations, a place where town and gown can mingle. “All great cities and institutions have great squares and plazas,” says Rachel Rasmussen, an ASU alumna and associate at Architekton, one of the building’s two architecture firms. “We wanted to plan the street and building together.”

An important aspect of College Avenue Commons is the vertical and horizontal program crossover. This is showcased in the journey of a prospective student. Students and families arriving for an introduction to ASU begin their exploration in the University Tours welcome center. From there they continue into the double-height volume of the auditorium, wind through the facilities and classrooms occupied by the Del E. Webb School of Construction and finish in the Sun Devil Marketplace. This path reveals most of the building and demonstrates the symbiotic relationship between programs.

University Tours showcases real learning environments. The Del E. Webb School of Construction benefits from unprecedented exposure to incoming freshmen. The Sun Devil Marketplace welcomes prospective consumers, excited about the ASU-branded products available. This win-win-win scenario was deliberately planned by the design team and has contributed greatly to the overall success of the building.

Since the opening of the facility, the Del E. Webb School of Construction has experienced rapid growth. As G. Edward Gibson, director of the School of Sustainable Engineering and Built Environment, states, “Since we have moved into the facility, the enrollment has grown by almost 30 percent, while research productivity as measured by project awards has increased by about 20 percent.” Statistics like these help support the idea that a mixed-use building, when programmed correctly, can act as a magnet for the programs and the university, making hybrid buildings a financially beneficial academic and community asset.

college hybrid academic space
academic auditorium


WE CAN LEARN FROM THIS. As the home of ASU’s construction school, College Avenue Commons was envisioned as a teaching building. From the first meetings about its design, the faculty, architects and builders were committed to making it part of the Del E. Webb School curriculum. The heating, cooling and water systems are exposed so students can see how they were installed. There are slide-out barn doors that reveal “behind-the-wall” models of the framing, wiring and insulation. The angle-iron trusses supporting the building’s skin are visible through the windows. Sensors in the skin send real-time data to analyze the building’s environmental performance. And the cast-in-place concrete deck slabs that form the floors are heavily ground and polished, revealing the aggregate in the concrete mix. Even the desks have exposed support systems. The seating has sharp-angled design, and side tables are made from pieces of steel I-beams.


The highly collaborative environment at College Avenue Commons successfully supports a new campus community, attracting a diverse variety of staff, students and local citizens. Through programmatic diversity and an eclectic mix of users, the building opens new avenues of learning and embeds the campus into the urban fabric of the city. Located on a prominent corner in Tempe and an important part of ASU’s pedestrian-oriented master plan, the facility is positioned along the route to Sun Devil Stadium and is easily accessible by public transportation. Bike and skateboard racks are also located throughout the site, further encouraging car-free transport.

During the development of the master plan of the facility and surrounding area, the design team encouraged program linkage to the street activity outside. This concept was developed even further with the proposal that College Avenue, the street fronting the building, close during ASU football home games. This makes College Avenue Commons the epicenter of activity on game days and draws more people into the space and the surrounding area.

Many of the building components are open to all. Devils Mart Grab ‘N’ Go market offers quick meals and snacks. The adjoining shaded outdoor space is appealing to those passing by as a great place to have lunch or catch up with friends. Sun Devil Marketplace, located on the first two floors, features a community room that prominently floats within the double-height space. This multipurpose room is equipped with technology and available to be booked by anyone — students, faculty and community members alike — making it a desirable spot to host meetings and events. With full-height glazing and its highly visible location, this community room exemplifies College Avenue Commons as a building for all, embodying the university’s commitment to being a good neighbor and community member.

Student store


STOP AND SHOP. The ground floor of College Avenue Commons includes the Sun Devil Marketplace, which carries ASU clothing and gifts, computers and accessories, and the Grab-And-Go market, with snacks and supplies. Pitchforks & Corks, a coffee-and-wine bar, overlooks College Avenue from the second floor, which also features an adaptable community room. The Sun Devil Marketplace rethinks the traditional campus store, creating a welcoming environment for students, faculty and the community.


The budget was a key factor in the success of this project. It required the design team, user groups and stakeholders to creatively look at the building, stretching each dollar to craft an outcome better than any group could have expected. The building faced more than a few skeptics, as the traditional model would never have placed all of these programs into a single facility, but the resulting building puts all doubt to rest. The synergy is palpable and the building has taken on a life of its own.

In addition to satisfying budgetary requirements, College Avenue Commons was recently awarded LEED Gold certification, supporting the ambitious and ongoing sustainability goals of ASU. Assuring that the building continues to be relevant as the university evolves, the programs inside are designed to be future-proof. The building employs an efficient structural grid and offset core allowing for a flexible, columnfree framework that fits the various large program components, but also allowing those programs to change.

Displays at student store


How the facility evolves over time will be the true indicator of success, but for now College Avenue Commons continues to be considered a remarkable achievement by students and faculty at ASU. The project exemplifies the power of collaboration and creativity, showcasing how challenges, such as budget and a varied mix of users, can end up positively contributing to a project — in this case adding to the overall dynamism of the building.

Acting as a community beacon, the engaging areas created in and around College Avenue Commons prove that hybrid campus buildings, through careful programming and thoughtful planning, can not only work, but also are truly the wave of the future.

This article originally appeared in the issue of .