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Upon returning to DiMella Shaffer in 2001, one of my tasks was to expand the higher education practice as a way to further diversify the firm’s work that had, since the 1989-1993 recession, seen dramatic growth in senior housing, with four of the six principals then actively working in that market sector. Since housing in all of its forms was the firm’s forte, we decided to enter the university market through the housing door. Fortunately, our strategy coincided with the boom in on-campus apartments, where we could bring our considerable experience to bear, and this new building at Westfield State University was the first in a series of student life projects that the firm would design over the next decade.

The Massachusetts State College Building Authority (MSCBA), established in 1963 to plan, design, construct, manage, and finance the residence halls and other student activity facilities on the nine state university campuses in the Commonwealth, was at this same time piloting an alternative delivery method to increase the quality and value of their projects. Executive Director Linda Snyder thought the Authority could provide higher quality design for the same money with a different delivery system than the typical winning low bid. To ensure timely completion of high-quality projects within the established funding limits, the Authority developed a unique public sector design and construction procurement process that includes the selection of the architect and construction manager as a team, based upon their successful completion of comparable projects. In contrast to design-build, separate contracts are held with the individual architectural and construction management firms.

Initially there were three residence hall projects in the pilot program—at Salem State, at Worcester State, and then a year later at Westfield State. We submitted on the first two and did not make the shortlist. For Westfield, we teamed with Cutler Associates from Worcester, with whom we had done a lot of work, and we thought their Worcester office location would be a benefit with subcontractors when we got into construction. We made the shortlist and after the interviews, two firms—DiMella Shaffer and another national firm, were asked to spend two weeks refining their design ideas for a small stipend.

We chose to spend most our time focusing on how the building could fit into the campus. The planning study had shown a u-shaped building that ended the campus green with the idea of “Westfield Walk” on the north side of buildings that lined the green. The walk went past the Dining Commons and awkwardly bumped around the auditorium of Wilson Hall. It was unclear to us if it was supposed to end at the new residence hall or go past it.

Proposed massing in the feasibility study by SEA Consultants.

We learned two things in the first interview: one, that the President wanted to eventually connect this campus to the athletic fields a short distance down Western Avenue to the east; and two, that he was concerned about the new building being too close to Courtney Hall, so much so that he broke our concept model in two during the interview and angled a piece of the building away from Courtney. While first thinking the angle made no sense, we quickly realized that it was the key that really bound the building into the campus plan (more on that idea below). The other component to consider on this site was Davis Hall. Built in the 1960s as the men’s residence hall, it was located remotely on the other side of a wooded grove, as if putting the men there meant they would not find the women living on the other parts of campus. This new building needed to draw Davis Hall into the campus proper and improve the socialization of the students living there.

Right: Campus plan (before). Left: Campus plan (after), including some future buildings as well.

Our goal became to design a multi-function building which we defined as a “building that will further as many aspects of the campus plan as possible without preventing a better idea from coming along later.” We sought to leave the end of the campus open for a future connection and to relocate the “Westfield Walk” to south (sunny side) of the quad so it could start at the Library/Student Center and eventually extend all the way to the athletic fields to the east. We wanted the building to have a compelling relationship to the campus and seem like it was always supposed to be there. I think it was this value-added thinking—along with the design and composite rendering (below) by Steve Keyser that made the building appear to already be on campus—that carried the day. When the President said, “I want that building for that amount of money,” I felt we were in good shape.

Rendering prepared for the second interview.

A few days later we were notified that we had won the commission. We were fortunate to have made some progress in the interview on the concept and had general agreement between the University and the MSCBA on the direction, because the delivery process would include early steel, site and foundation packages as well as the relocation of a steam line that ran through the site. As you can tell from this early rendering, we remained true to the original concept in the execution.CAMPUS BACKGROUNDWestfield opened with 400 students on its current site in 1956 after the town donated 26 acres for a new campus on Western Avenue. Its first three buildings seem as if designed independently of one another, and as growth occurred after the war, the campus grew through expediency rather than planning. Buildings were placed on the easiest site to build on and some of the buildings were planned with angles for no apparent reason. Their style has been commonly referred to as “Commonwealth Contemporary,” which captures a whole host of buildings across the Commonwealth that were constructed from the 1950s to the 1970s with brick exteriors, flat roofs and too small windows when the energy crisis influenced the building design. In addition, Courtney Hall was built in the 1980s in a classical style to try to import the character of a traditional campus. There was a genuine concern about how to improve the character of the campus, without such a drastic change as to cause incongruity within the existing campus environment described above.THE DESIGN SOLUTIONThe design solution really sprang from the campus plan. The building is situated on the campus where it could facilitate the extension and definition of the main quadrangle to the east and also complete the first segment of the new pedestrian Westfield Walk. The angled wing, courtesy of the President, follows the desire line between Davis Hall and the Dining Commons and also relates to the angle on Parenzo Hall facing the campus green.

“Westfield Walk” with New Hall on the right and the Library/Student Center in the distance.

The building design is structured around four- and six-person apartments combined into a linear building that forms the walls of an enclosed quadrangle space and also defines the extension of Westfield Walk.  Punctuated by angled living room bay windows that break the cornice line, the building presents a powerful and simple wall to this important campus space (see above).  Where the exterior wall is articulated, either carved into or pulled apart, light colored stone is used as an accent and reflects light into adjacent spaces. The public functions of the building that are open to the whole college are located on the ground floor of the angled wing. The nexus of the two wings of the building form an entry plaza fronting on the main campus green, reducing the apparent distance to both the New Hall and Davis Hall. The residence hall is entered at the tip of the “L” and the connecting bridge takes you over the exterior student path to apartments above the campus-wide common spaces. In this way, security access and campus desire lines are respected and reinforced. This angled wing is also held to three stories so that rooms in the four-story L-shaped wing can view over it to the mountains beyond. Study lounges occupy jogs in the building form, letting light into the corridors and breaking the building into social groups of 30 to 40 students. By adding an extra stair at the plan midpoint, each part can be used independently in the summer and still meet life safety egress requirements. For example, a summer camp could be housed in one wing while summer renewal is going on in another wing.

A series of lounges and study rooms make up a four-story tower that serves as an icon on the main campus space and also provides views of the mountains in the distance.

The long leg of the “L” is offset 10 feet near its midpoint and connected by a transparent vestibule that allows views into the quad and accommodates a future perpendicular circulation path through the building. This articulation provides a side-lit wall to the corridor in each leg, significantly reducing their perceived length. Similarly, the exterior brick beltline is lowered by a floor at this point, introducing a clerestory floor of pewter-colored panels, effectively reducing the vertical scale. Aligning with the projecting common room of Davis Hall, the building’s L-shaped wing encloses a triangular-shaped quadrangle that provides outdoor recreation space and facilitates the physical engagement of Davis Hall with the rest of the campus. The angled wing of the new building, set along the “desire line” of student circulation from Davis to the Dining Commons, relates to other campus geometries, thereby cementing the building’s relationship to the campus plan. The light colored exterior wall reflects light into the north facing courtyard that, according to the Residence Director, is host to a wiffle ball game any time it is over 40 degrees outside. When walking through the building with Linda Snyder at the opening, she commented to me that “this building has done more for this campus than any building we have built to date.” I knew then that our campus planning and value-added approaches were the right ones. The finished building would ultimately define a segment of the Westfield Walk, create a new quadrangle, put a plaza gathering space with food service on the walk, and integrate Davis Hall into the campus, while providing 410 apartment style beds to help keep upperclassmen on campus. We developed other innovations over the course of the project in response to programming concerns, such as a 3 fixture accessible bathroom in each wing of the building for visitors and families, since all the other facilities are behind secure apartment doors. Resident assistants occupy single rooms within apartment suites, but in order to maintain the privacy of those seeking counsel, we located them in places where they had a separate door to the corridor.

This new residence hall received an award from the Boston Society of Architects that was accompanied with an institutional statement by our client that captured their sentiments about the completed work.“The thoughtful placement of this building on the campus, the high quality of its building materials, and its careful detailing all contribute to an extraordinary work of architecture. The configuration of the building, which creates new casual and programmed outdoor areas, and the quality common and private living spaces establish a building that supports and enhances a strong sense of community, which directly benefits the mission and purpose of Westfield State College.”

– Ed Adelman, Executive Director, Massachusetts State College Building AuthorityA satisfied client and the recognition of our peers put us on the right track to grow the higher education practice. In the next ten years, we designed and built over 8,000 student beds, many for this same client with whom we worked early in the firm’s history at Framingham State. It is very satisfying that this commission could circle back and recall our earlier efforts and also move us forward with a new generation of ideas.