A Master Class in More Sustainable Living-Learning Environments

Long discontinues student housing building with large wooden ranger tower lit up at night with sunset in background, appears as a row of many rowhouses

Centennial Hall – SUNY Environmental Science & Forestry School

Designed & Managed by ROCKiT Founder Brian DiPietro while at WTW Architects in Partnership with HKK Architects

The Project:

When SUNY-ESF began the design of their first-ever residence hall, they wanted a highly sustainable building that included living learning above and beyond the traditional sense, while also working an extreme site – one that was less than ninety feet wide, over 900 feet long, and next to a national historic landmark. And it would serve as the face of the school.

When WTW and EdR Trust were hired by SUNY-ESF to develop their first residence hall, the college initially wanted a “different” architect for their 800-foot-long building. They weren’t happy with what they called a “six-hundred-foot-long brick wall”, and they also needed more rooms in the design. Brian was brought in and came up with a truly unique and highly sustainable design, along with providing the leadership to guide the college through designing its first residence hall.
The wood-framed, modular constructed building appears as a series of smaller buildings along the road, with the main entry and lounge spaces serving as a break at its midpoint. A heavy timber tower with a wooden trellis extends out from it serves as the entrance’s focal point, against the backdrop of bright yellow metal panel and glass. The wing closer to campus is composed of shared suites for the lower classmen, and the farther wing is apartments for upperclassmen, with varying window locations, shapes, and sizes, clad in a mix of concrete block and metal panel, with wood timber accents.

From the Owner:

“From the onset your team worked hand in hand with the entire College design team to create a truly remarkable facility.  Your knowledge of student life best practices and understanding of residential trends was instrumental in the development of the unique program for this project – one that provides living options for all levels of students.”

– Brenda Greenfield, Executive Director, Environmental Science & Forestry College Foundation, Inc.

The Story Behind the Design:

The innovative design of Centennial Hall is much like the look of the building; a conglomeration of factors all of which were pieced together into a tapestry of a building – which helped with one of the biggest challenges facing the building – how do you make an eight-hundred-foot-long building look residential?

series of disconnected smaller student housing buildings along a walkway with a large tower in the distance set against the backdrop of a beautiful sunset
The initial design concept for the project comes from nature; the school’s programs inspired the design to look to nature for its inspiration, which comes in the form of plant life and cell organization. The division of the units into “pods” and “connectors” or “leaves” and “branches” provide the basic architectural vocabulary for the building. Living rooms and common spaces are located in the “branches”, and are expressed as the darker recessed areas of the building with more glass, and bedrooms serve as the pods or leaves in the more solid projections. This gives the building it’s dynamic shape, which also helps break down the scale of the building. As you walk along the building, it appears more like several smaller single-family homes lined up along the street, than one enormous building. This both reflects the site’s history (previously sixteen rowhouses were located here) and provides a facade that is respectful of the historic Frederick Law Olmstead designed cemetery bordering the site to the south.
This building organization was designed for long term sustainability – the most sustainable buildings are those that last over a hundred years. Originally designed to be block and plank, the size and spacing of the building pods is on a module that supports a structural design that would have allowed for the building to be converted to properly sized classrooms in the future as needed. However, the project eventually went with modular wood framed construction – which still benefits from the modular design.
The heavy timber tower at the building’s main entry serves many purposes and is a great symbol of both the project and school. The heavy timber construction resonates with the schools building and materials engineering majors, and commitment to nature. Its emblematic of the fact that SUNY ESF is the only institution to offer a degree for forest rangers. And it serves as a beacon of light, both literally and metaphorically, for the living learning facets of the building.
Inside the building, every effort is made to make this a true living learning environment for the occupants. Before it became a modular project, the block and plank design was to allow for exposed mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems throughout the building – over 50% of the school’s students major in building or construction engineering, and they study these systems daily. It only makes sense to let them see these systems in action where they live, a true 24/7 living learning environment. After the project changed to modular construction, the main common areas (in the yellow metal panel areas) were left as steel and concrete, to allow for the exposure of building systems as a teaching element. Professors were involved in the design, informing decisions on material selection and even incorporated the building’s design and construction into the class curriculums.
This approach to incorporating living learning in all aspects of the building design also applies to the sustainability of the project. Many features of the design were in conflict with, or in absence of LEED standards. For example, the random sizes/shapes, and shifting of the windows are an effort to maximize daylighting and views from the windows based on solar studies and maximize furniture arrangements for students. Linoleum is used for flooring, because it’s all natural – made from linseed oil. Concrete block is used instead of brick, because according to the professors involved, there is less embodied energy that goes into the production of concrete block than brick (think about how brick needs to be fired in a kiln/oven to harden – that takes a lot of energy).
Operationally, SUNY ESF holds monthly energy and water saving challenges for its residences, with building monitoring displaying how much energy the buildings saves and hold a pizza party for the winning floor. The school did not cater to LEED, nor did it buy easy or free points; it was a truly sustainable design in their eyes. And not only did it achieve LEED Gold when they were finally convinced to apply for LEED for marketing purposes, they were one point shy of being the first LEED Platinum multifamily project in the US. That’s sustainability, and it’s great to be part of such a great story!

Centennial Hall – SUNY Environmental Science & Forestry

  • Owner: SUNY Environmental Science & Forestry Foundation
  • Developer: EdR Trust (now part of Greystar)
  • Contractor: Hueber-Breuer Construction
  • Architect(s): WTW Architects (Design)/HKK Architects (Record)
  • Project Architect: Brian DiPietro
  • Project Manager: Brian DiPietro (WTW)/Jackie Goodwin (HKK)
  • Delivery Method: GMP
  • Construction Type: Modular (wood), Steel Framed
  • Project Size: 454 Beds/ 131,000 SF
  • Construction Cost: $27.5M
  • Completion: Fall 2011
  • Sustainability Rating: LEED Gold
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