Residence Halls

Constructing Community

Today, college students expect more than the utilitarian concrete block dorms of yesteryear. While technology may allow them to learn and study anywhere, communal spaces that provide a variety of inviting places to study, hang out and make friends are essential — all the better if they are crafted from natural materials for an ecologically conscious generation — such as the University of Arkansas’s new residential facility, Adohi Hall. “This is the way we think about residence halls today,” says Andrea Leers, a principal at Boston’s Leers Weinzapfel Associates, which co-designed the project with Fayetteville’s Modus Studio and St. Louis firm Mackey Mitchell. “Today they’re becoming their own complete communities.”

timber building 

Photo © Timothy Hursley

Mass Timber, Mass Appeal

The $79-million project also represents what is perhaps the building industry’s biggest nationwide trend: the proliferation of mass timber buildings as a more sustainable and desirable alternative to steel and concrete structures. Though Adohi Hall is a large, 202,000-square-foot, five-story residence hall housing more than 700 students, its timber framing and interior cladding make the building inherently green. Currently the nation’s largest CLT (cross-laminated timber) structure, the project also represents an opportunity to connect with and potentially revive its largely forest-covered state’s timber industry. “The university was interested in timber as an economic driver for Arkansas, so it was kind of a confluence,” says Leers.

timber building

Photo © Timothy Hursley

Building Adohi Hall out of cross-laminated timber — an engineered product (imagine plywood, but made with layers of 2x4 lumber) that first became popular in Europe and is stronger and more fire-resistant than traditional wood — allowed for a streamlined construction process. Framing with CLT makes building more like erecting a prefabricated structure. Whole segments of walls and flooring arrive at a construction site ready to be bolted into place. “The contractors could see how fast this went up compared to concrete and steel. There were often fewer than 10 people with a crane just lifting the panels up and into place,” explains Leers Weinzapfel Principal Tom Chung. “And there’s so little waste. On a concrete and steel building, you would see dumpsters and dumpsters. With this building, there were far fewer.”

The motivation to build Adohi with mass timber was also based on wood’s psychological impact. “For me, the transformation here is the power and impact this approach can have on students every day,” says Modus Studio Principal Chris Baribeau, noting how the building is not only framed with cross-laminated timber, as seen in its exposed wood ceilings and columns, but also that its interior spaces are clad with native Arkansas cypress. “The wood you get throughout the interiors here just evokes an emotional, sensory response,” Baribeau adds. “You want to touch it, you want to feel it.”

Building + Landscape

Occupying a long, partially wooded strip of land and taking its name from the Cherokee word meaning “woods,” Adohi Hall is situated downhill from the university’s main quad and buildings. Once a student here, Baribeau recalls rarely coming to this corner of campus. “If we were going to invite students to make this journey [down the hill], it needed to be special,” he explains. The university concurred, viewing this potential challenge as an opportunity for a compelling new anchor. “We wanted the building to ground that entrance into campus and become a gateway,” explains Florence Johnson, the university’s assistant vice chancellor for student housing.

timber building 

Photo © Timothy Hursley

The design collaborative, including Philadelphia landscape architecture firm OLIN, endeavored to integrate building and site, which began by retaining a grove of mature white oak trees. “It’s the idea of moving through the forest and arriving at a cabin in the woods,” Baribeau says of the design concept. “We saw an opportunity to really weave the landscape through the form of the building so they became one entity.”

Created as part of the design collaborative’s broader master plan for the southwestern corner of campus, the residence hall takes a serpentine form, broken down into five interconnected segments. “It allowed all the spaces, from dorm rooms to public spaces, to have great proximity to natural light,” explains Chung.

The integration of building and landscape ties to a broader sustainable design strategy that is expected to earn Adohi Hall LEED certification with the U.S. Green Building Council. A partial green roof and ground-based landscape features help filter rainwater. A highly efficient building envelope and mechanical system mean that the project is estimated to be 30 to 40 percent more energy efficient than a structure designed to code. An energy-recovery wheel, for example, captures heat from return-air and uses it to heat ventilated incoming fresh air. Even the warm water from showers is being harnessed as it goes down the drain, thanks to copper coils that capture heat for use in warming additional water.

timber building 

Photo © Timothy Hursley

All About Community

The building’s metal-clad upper floors, devoted to living spaces, sit above glass-clad communal spaces on the ground floor that come in a variety of sizes and atmospheres.

The northernmost point features a key entry known as the “front porch.” The central ground-floor passage’s midpoint comprises a main gathering area known as the “cabin” that includes a community kitchen, lounges and a quiet hearth area. The lower courtyard contains a series of creative studio and rehearsal spaces for performing arts and music students. “These spaces are different sizes and draw different personalities,” explains Mackey Mitchell Architects Principal Kyle Wagner. “Some people like to be in the biggest, loudest room. Other people want to curl up in a corner by the fire. But they’re still doing it in a public area so they have the opportunity to mingle and meet new people. That change in scale gives flexibility, but it also caters to a variety of personalities.”

Having a variety of types of public spaces in which to work and play is also reflective of how the American workplace has changed, the students’ next step. “I think you see it in large companies and small,” Johnson says. “People want places to see and be seen and feel connected, but they also want enough privacy to get their work done.”

Adohi Hall offers a mix of room types, all designed around the idea of student interaction. “We used to see universities putting students in suites and apartments, because that’s what they were demanding, but they weren’t making as many friends,” Wagner adds. “At Adohi, it was a priority to promote a strong sense of community and places to interact. It’s a residence hall, so it’s mostly bedrooms and units, but the unit mix is important.”

timber building 

Photo © Timothy Hursley

One popular unit arrangement, known as a pod, places four to six dual-occupancy rooms around a shared living area. There is also a separate lounge on each floor. “This is the mixing area where people can start to get to know each other,” Wagner explains. “We purposely put it near the stair and elevator, where people are standing and moving every day. We’re not thinking about Adohi as just a dorm or as a place to sleep. We’re trying to understand how it impacts the entire student experience. It builds exponentially: first you meet your roommate, then the people who live close to you, then your floor, then the other floor.”

Ultimately, student life is about change, yet Adohi Hall stands to be a continuing attractor for the university’s students, not only because it gives residents plenty of space to live, work and play, but also for its appealing atmosphere that makes a bold sustainable statement, bettering the planet as a result. “When we take people on tours, you can see people touching, feeling and even smelling the wood,” Leers adds. “It appeals to all the senses.”

And best of all, the building is a hit with students. “The wood provides a much different environment when you walk into the building,” says Johnson. “Students enjoy the ambiance.”

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2020 issue of Spaces4Learning.

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