Text description provided by the architects. This small Student Center is a hub and hinge for The Wheeler School’s urban campus in Providence, RI. The campus is constrained by its property size, limited green space, and location within an historic neighborhood. Composed of solid, institutional brick buildings and converted residential structures, the campus faces inward, with its back turned to the community. The Nulman Lewis Student Center sets a different course: transparent, welcoming, and decidedly contemporary. It is the new arrival portal, facing and welcoming the community. The setting and neighborhood may have assumed that a traditional building would be the only appropriate answer for its context, but this building looks forward, advancing contemporary design expression within an historic context.
Programs for student centers can be expansive and expensive. With only a 5,000 sqf footprint, this modest connective building has helped make adjacent spaces more useful to the school program. The selected site, a former maintenance and dumpster area, now strengthens a campus edge, and creates a connection to the enlarged campus courtyard. The new building links two historic buildings, the Alumni House and Student Union, and provides easy passage along a new campus spine. Every school day, over 1,000 students enter this structure, and from there, they find the adjacent renovated café, lockers, classrooms, and information center — and each other. Staff and students, faculty and parents, have made this their small and visible hearth, with views into the campus, and to the historic neighborhood beyond.
Clad with a distinctive horizontal glass and zinc panel curtain wall system, this building combines visibility and opacity. Its massing relates to the residential scale of the adjacent historic neighborhood, and responds to the architectural organization and horizontal datum of its companion buildings. On the interior, the building’s cast-in-place concrete structure is left exposed as a continuous and durable finish for walls and floors. Through this intentionally simple and less “finished” design, students see how the building was put together. A steel stair with glass balustrades connects the levels of three buildings. As part of the landscape and site design, a stepped concrete plinth on the campus side of the new building provides a place for gathering.
Committed to sustainability, the project includes a green roof, absorbing rainwater, reducing the impact on the storm water system, and keeping the building interior cooler. Other sustainable features include a daylight harvesting lighting system with light sensors; high efficiency mechanical systems; a curtain wall envelope with high efficiency glass that responds to window orientation and solar gain; deep horizontal window mullion profiles for shading direct sunlight; and solitube skylights in classrooms and corridors. Many of the materials used in the building have recycled content— classroom counter tops are 100% post-consumer cardboard; acoustical ceiling tiles contain approximately 70% recycled material; and all new carpet is 25% recycled content on a 100% sustainable backing system. This building has become a teaching tool for issues of environment and responsible use of materials and waste.