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August 25, 2016

‘Dark,’ ‘maze-like’ student union gets a big makeover

  • Construction begins this fall to renovate Eastern Washington University’s confusing Pence Union Building.


    Called one of the 20 “most appalling excuses for architecture on college campuses” by MSNBC, the Pence Union Building at Eastern Washington University has been described by students as “dark,” “confusing” and “maze-like,” and well in need of an upgrade.

    The Seattle and Boston offices of Perkins+Will set out to transform the aged and irrelevant student union into a state-of-the-art, light-filled and amenity-rich space, creating a home away from home for students at EWU.

    The Pence Union Building (PUB) redesign uses the existing footprint of the original 120,000-square-foot building, built in 1968. The renovation focuses on the areas of highest need and maximum benefit as identified by the students themselves, including safety, sustainability, wayfinding and a well-lit open floor plan.

    Contemporary redesign

    The PUB’s original architecture was based on trends from prevailing student union models of its time, with cast concrete and brick walls, small windows and discrete, private areas to accommodate small groups of students.

    Images by Studio 216 [enlarge]
    A plaza and expansive glass entry will welcome students.

    The redesign turns the 1968 approach on its heels and creates an easy-to-navigate, open-concept layout that is infused with natural light and supports a rich array of spaces in which students can interact, work, eat, study, lounge and socialize. Just a few highlights of the new PUB design include:

    • A spacious and natural light-filled atrium with central staircases that provide wide, safe steps for a range of seating options and plenty of outlets for laptops and electronics.

    • A modernized multipurpose room with a small stage, sound equipment and acoustical fixtures for music performances and speaking engagements.

    • New Associated Students of Eastern Washington University offices with open workspaces and areas for collaboration.

    • Student club suites, student conference rooms and other student services that are visible from the central atrium to encourage students to connect and engage with one another.

    • A computer lab/lounge and media mini-lab supporting student printing, computer and audiovisual needs.

    • A new green roof with an artistic array of local, drought-resistant plants and shrubs.

    • A game room with pool, foosball, pingpong and plug-and-play video gaming stations.

    • An open market with grab-and-go groceries and healthy food options.

    • A spacious dining area that wraps the atrium with a variety of eating and lounge seating options.

    Less fortress-like

    Food service was not part of the original facility in 1968, so in 1994 a second building was added to provide dining options for students. But while the two buildings were joined and the entrance to the union was reconfigured, no significant renovations were made. The result was a mishmash of two buildings from different architectural eras coming together with little aesthetic unity inside or out.

    A grand staircase will connect the east and west entries and provide seating.

    Perkins+Will decided to use this mishmash as an advantage, both in the creative approach to the redesign and as a cost-saving strategy for the client.

    The design keeps the floors and walls of the two buildings intact and essentially “cuts a hole” in the middle of both, filling the space with a huge atrium. This allowed for more than 50 percent of the structure to be saved, bringing the cost per square foot down from more than $350 per square foot (for comparable student unions) to $250 per square foot.

    In addition to saving the client money, the design of the atrium is intended to break up the fortress-like effect of the existing building and infuse it with natural light.

    New staircase

    Located at the epicenter of a high-traffic area, the newly redesigned PUB also addresses pedestrian safety concerns via a highly visible front door at both ends of the building.

    This main corridor will get lots of daylight, opening up the building and connecting student activities on different floors.

    A new staircase serves as a gateway for students passing from the academic end of campus to the residential halls on the other side. Welcoming, pedestrian-friendly plazas feature outdoor seating locations for meeting friends or enjoying a quick meal. Visitors will have sight lines through the building to the wide array of activities and programs inside.

    The redesigned commuter lounge offers a comfortable, fun space for students to hang out, study and wait for the bus. It has overstuffed chairs for lounging, individual tables for plug-in computer stations and a large coffee bar that allows students to grab a beverage or quick snack. This lounge will also provide a much-needed late night venue for food and recreation.

    With construction of the redesigned PUB kicking off this fall, it is slated for completion in spring 2018 when it will open its modern-day doors to students at EWU.

    Anthony Gianopoulos is principal and director of operations with the Seattle office of global design and architecture firm Perkins+Will.

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