COTE TOP TEN WINNERS
The city of new orleans and one of its most important institutions, Tulane University, needed a break. After the devastating impact of Katrina in 2005, both the city and the campus were horribly wounded. Heartening evidence of the beginnings of a recovery arrived in early 2007 with the completion of the Lavin-Bernick Center for University Life. After the building was opened to Tulane students and visitors last year, it became an important symbol of hope for the entire community.
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The building, a hub of campus activity, had been under construction when the hurricane hit, but suffered no significant structural damage, due in part to storm-resistant glazing systems that had been specified by the project team led by Vincent James Associates Architects (VJAA). Construction restarted two months later.
The 111,000-square-foot original building, built in 1959 and modified over time, was compartmentalized, sealed up, and heavily conditioned. Given this situation, building a new facility seemed the better choice; yet the decision to use parts of the existing concrete structure ended up to be a good one, saving both money—estimated at $8 million—and the embodied energy resulting from the production of new concrete. The redesign added approximately 40,000 square feet and extended the useful interior spaces by linking them to large outdoor spaces, porches, and terraces. Glass replaced the blank masonry facades of the original building to increase natural light in the interior. The window walls are protected from solar heat gain by a variegated louver shading system. Other shading devices include trellises, plant scrims, trees, and umbrellas.
A dual-mode cooling strategy enhances the inside/outside experience. In summer heat, the building can be conditioned in a relatively conventional or “closed mode” way, while in fall, winter, and spring—as weather permits—the building can be used in “open mode,” in which the interior climate mixes more freely with the exterior. Moving air (supplied by fans) cool/dry radiant surfaces, microporous air-cooled metal ceilings, chilled water walls, and stack-effect ventilation through the skylights reduce the periods of conventional cooling by 42 percent in the perimeter areas and contribute to thermal comfort.
According to COTE juror Gail Brager, “This building challenges the norms of the South’s addiction to air-conditioning. It is a rarity in a hot-humid climate, large, mixed-mode building utilizes natural ventilation and radiant cooling in a seamless, layered integration of envelope and system design.”
The building has proven to be an amazingly uplifting presence. “There’s a sense of lightness and delicacy about it,” says Jennifer Yoos, a principal at VJAA.“You feel as though you are on a meandering path through the spaces, and the boundaries of the building disappear.”
This experience is quite purposeful, achieved by emulating the subtle and beautiful ways traditional New Orleans buildings respond to the environment, social spaces, and aesthetics of the city without directly copying the stylistic characteristics. The most important vernacular concepts—balconies, trellises, and courtyards—translate into layered facades, louvers, overhangs, and terraces. “We saw the environmental porosity of the building’s facades and roofs as essential to achieving a vital center for student life,” states VJAA project architect Vincent James. “Ultimately, we felt that if we employed environmental ideas derived from our study of New Orleans, we could design a fully contemporary building that also resonated with the traditional architecture of the city.”
Particularly innovative is the building’s approach to daylighting. Extensive exterior glazing is supplemented by three central light wells, which also act as solar-operated vents to exhaust hot air while bringing natural light deep into the building’s core. Although the area of the building has increased by only 33 percent, the daylighted area has more than doubled. Lightwells at the garden level, designed to illuminate the previously unused basement, are constructed of porous gabion surfaces with low-maintenance monkey grass to address extremes of drought and flooding. Water-retaining walls above the 100-year flood-line encircle the lightwells.
A system of louvers, so characteristic of Southern architecture, is both aesthetically pleasing and functional, articulating the building’s style while capturing the mood of the city. “One of the things we find very romantic about New Orleans,” says Yoos, “is the foggy mist punctuated by intensely bright, surprising color. You see it at Mardi Gras. The louvers appear gray from a distance but the undersides are coated with intense daylight colors—yellow and orange—creating a sense of joy and ambiguity.”
Like the streets of the French Quarter, the boundaries between inside and outside blur at the Lavin-Bernick Center. Air and light fill the building, connecting the people to the place with a real and palpable optimism.
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