What Lies Beneath

underground real estate 


Colleges and universities looking to make the very ost of their campus space are succeeding from the ground up. Underground, too.

That is, basements, lower levels and partially or fully below-grade spaces and their variations are not just for mechanicals, storage or parking, although these are common and important uses.

Indeed, campuses facing a general space crunch today “don’t have the luxury of underutilizing space,” says Sarah Freidel, a planning and strategies consultant at Perkins+Will. That being said, there are many uses already — and plenty of options — for tomorrow’s basement or lower-level renovations and construction projects. As with occupied space anywhere in a campus building, a basement’s interior design is key. And in Friedel’s view, the way to go with a basement is to “bring it out and celebrate it.”


For example, opening up the ground below can turn a project in a tight campus space into a design statement, such as the University of San Francisco’s John Lo Schiavo, S.J. Center for Science and Innovation. Designed by NBBJ, the center was built into a campus slope and features sunken plazas outside and an array of functions inside.

Likewise, lower levels can provide other kinds of coveted locations close to class for students and staff, as at the University of Virginia, which has long used such space for offices, study rooms and lounges, as well as student rooms.

underground real estate 


“We use every square inch that we can figure out how to use,” is how Paul Rinaldi describes the approach at Boston University, where he is assistant vice president for space planning. The urban campus has a full array of functions in its basements, he says, including classrooms, lounges, offices and a recently remodeled 120-seat lecture hall with lecture capture and projection technology. The interior design approach is no different whatever floor a space occupies: thoughtful attention to detail.

Elsewhere, Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, OH, uses basements for some laboratories, classrooms, spaces for staff, offices and a campus radio station, says Eugene Matthews, director of facilities services. Ed Taylor, president of Technical Assurance, which worked on a related project at Case Western, says of basement spaces generally: “It’s not all just for a boiler. Occupied space below ground, for whatever use, is about performance,” and that applies to all structural aspects, systems and components, waterproofing and drainage. Once that is squared away, options open up for attractive spaces.

One such place is the lower level of the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh’s newly constructed Horizon Village student residence, where areas include music practice rooms, an office for resident advisors, bicycle storage, laundry facilities with an abutting student lounge.

underground real estate 



In a different scenario, underground tunnel walkways have long been used to connect buildings, providing convenient ways to get around campuses, as well as shelter from cold weather. A four-mile network of such walkways, for example, connects almost every building on the campus of Concordia University in Mequon, WI. The underground space is reportedly a selling point: as in not having to bundle up in winter clothes to get to classes.

Wright State University also has tunnels. Nearly two miles of tunnels (10,436 feet) snake their way beneath Wright State’s Dayton, OH, campus, linking 20 of 22 buildings in the academic section of campus.

That dynamic was also part of the recent construction of the School of Business building at the University at Albany–SUNY (seen on pages 18 and 20), where, as described by designer Perkins+Will, an important basement, or first level, area ties a major entry point to campus, a bus stop, to an underground network of tunnels to campus buildings. Thus, the business school’s first level serves as a connector to the main part of campus, but is also an attractive gathering spot — there’s a sunny café with an outdoor plaza excavated out from grade, says Freidel.

underground real estate 


Inside, the designer used environmentally friendly carpet tiles in classrooms and other spaces where, Freidel says, “durability for high traffic was key, as was ease in replacing individual tiles.” That meant not only the lower level, but throughout the entire building. It was just one design facet that speaks to a key approach when designing lower-level spaces and those above: the importance of “visual consistency,” is how Freidel describes it, the same color palette and interior concepts for basements as for the rest of a building. And why not? “There’s no reason why a basement should be experienced any differently than another space on campus,” she explains.

Other design elements followed that lead, such as the aforementioned café, which has a resin matrix terrazzo floor. The flooring’s light tone blends smoothly, through a glass wall, with the stone of the outdoor plaza. Nearby, one first-level classroom has subtly patterned carpet tiles in a dark tone situated beneath moveable tables, all bathed in overhead light as well as daylight through tall windows.


Freidel explains that in addition to height and space, light “was an important design goal for the whole building, but those effects are especially important for the lower level. When possible, pendants were used, for example in the café, to reinforce verticality. In classroom spaces, combinations of recessed and surface mounted fixtures were used in clean, linear formations.” On another point, the lower level’s lighting, the PVC-free carpet and furniture are environmentally friendly, explains Joan Blumenfeld, interior design principal at Perkins+Will.

Elsewhere, a remodeling project of two basement levels is underway at the Ekeley Sciences building at the University of Colorado Boulder that, according to Wayne Northcutt, the university’s architect and facilities planner, will keep 55 percent of the 18,900-gross-square-foot lowest level for mechanical equipment, with the rest housing small-group spaces with flexible furniture groups. The 27,400-gross-square-foot upper basement level, for chemistry lab instruction, will be renovated and modernized with code upgrades, new finishes, more classroom technology, more energy efficient systems, and design-wise, “an economy of finishes that includes metal casework, epoxy resin countertops and chemical-resistant plastic laminate shelving,” Northcutt adds.

underground real estate 



A related example, while not a basement per se, recently created the Athletic Student Life Complex, a diverse, 46,364-gross-square-foot facility beneath the west grandstands of the football stadium at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln (before and after seen on page 22). Mike Daily, associate principal of BVH Architects, which designed the project, describes challenges along the way, including “many unforeseen and unexpected conditions … such as structural cross-bracing in an existing wall we were intending to demolish,” as well as waterproofing, insulating and creating space for air handling and distribution. The end result: an inviting place with areas in soft tones and dashes of bright Huskers red, carpet and upholstered furniture deployed through a diverse, bustling space created under a 90-year-old set of grandstands.

Back in Albany, students now gather and pass through the new business school building’s first-level space. It’s a welcoming, efficient area, and an example of how decision makers are making the most of what’s below. As Freidel adds, “There’s a lot for us to work with down there.”

Some Tips About Basement and Lower Level Spaces

  • Remember that it can be costly and complicated to go back in and repair enclosures and systems of such spaces after the fact. To avoid such issues, “you have one shot to get it right,” says Ed Taylor of Technical Assurance.
  • Bear in mind that while “basements don’t need to be everything, there are plenty of needs on campuses that can be met by the capabilities of a basement,” says Perkins+Wills’ Freidel.
  • Be consistent: treat the interior design of an occupied basement or lower level as you would any other occupied space.

This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of College Planning & Management.

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