Designed to Share: Oregon Academic Facility Pioneers New Approach

Southern Oregon University (SOU) and Rogue Community College (RCC) recently began construction on a new 68,700-sq.-ft, co-located academic building in downtown Medford, OR. The new building, scheduled for completion in the fall of 2008, will allow SOU and RCC to deliver a combined level of services that neither institution could achieve on its own.

As the first new construction project jointly owned and operated by an Oregon community college and a public university, the planning process for this facility pioneered a new approach — one that would reflect a shared mission while accommodating SOU and RCC’s different cultures, funding sources and strategies for educational delivery.

“By working together, we can make education more accessible. RCC and SOU share a common goal of creating a culture of student success, which will integrate services, articulate programs, and connect university and community college faculty to help more students achieve their educational goals,” said Barbara Scott, associate provost for Extended Programs, Southern Oregon University.

Vision

The working vision for the SOU-RCC Higher Education Center in Medford balanced three key aspects.

  • Academic Synergy and Efficiency — Increases services for students, enhances connectivity between the programs, and provides for interaction between the faculties.
  • Financial Efficiency — Allows both institutions to realize more of their desired programs with fewer resources, eliminates duplication of base building infrastructure, and increases the efficiency of use for shared functions.
  • Integration within the Business Community — Optimizes service by combining resources, coordinates work with business partners, and provides a shared location for training, internships, and research.

“We needed to start with a conceptual framework of what the two institutions believed about the education that will happen in the building. We had to agree what programmatically would happen in the building and where to build on our individual and combined strengths,” said Cheryl Markwell, associate dean at Rogue Community College.

Participants looked at RCC’s historically strong offerings for lower division education and found ways for students to transfer courses within the facility to build various bachelor’s degrees. Since neither institution had a budget for new programs, it worked well for SOU to offer lower division classes towards degrees in areas such as Communications that RCC cannot afford to add. In high-demand classes, such as English or math, faculty from both schools can combine efforts to meet the need.

By starting with existing joint successes, like the Business Degree Completion Program, SOU and RCC were able to show how well they were already working together to help students succeed. Demonstrating successful collaborations already in place enabled those who were a bit skeptical to see how much better it would work for students to access both institutions in the same facility.

Dr. Vicki T. Purslow, director of SOU’s Medford Campus, explained,“The beauty of this new model is that faculty from both institutions will be side by side — in the same room or right next door to each other — and grouped by discipline. We are being very intentional on all fronts in adding to the cohesiveness of programs because we believe that will better serve both students and faculty.”

Challenges

One of the first challenges was the ability of each institution to secure funding for the new facility. While state-funded capital construction is common in the Oregon University System (OUS), construction projects for Oregon’s community colleges are generally funded with local capital bond levies. SOU and RCC both put forward a capital construction request for state funds to build a joint facility in downtown Medford.“When the Oregon legislature awarded funding for the new facility, it was the first time the state agreed to issue bonds for community college construction,” said Lynda Warren, RCC’s CFO/dean of Student and College Services.

The funding partnership extends well beyond sharing the facility’s design and construction costs. “We are really looking at each other’s purchasing agreements in order for both institutions to get more for our money,” said Purslow. “We actively compare things we will contract out to see who will get the better deal for services and equipment with an eye towards leveraging the power of both institutions.”

The large number of people involved in the process has provided ongoing communication challenges. While working with a single institution typically involves many people, this project demonstrates that working with two institutions may not simply result in twice as many people in the process — the number of people involved can grow exponentially.

The process engaged faculty and staff from both institutions, planners from the city and the Medford Urban Renewal Agency (MURA), community members, and the mayor of Medford. Workshops were critical to breaking down potential barriers, establishing mutual goals for the project, and bringing on board the right cross-section of faculty and staff. A Joint Facility Advisory Council with key representatives from each institution functioned as a board of directors, filtering through the myriad of perspectives to make the best shared decisions.

Participants in the workshops developed the following shared goals.

  • Eliminate perceived barrier between SOU and RCC
  • Generate students
  • Facilitate student transfer
  • Provide innovative curriculum
  • Develop effective, desirable classroom space
  • Provide learner-centered classroom space
  • Increase classroom and office space
  • Consolidate services
  • Promote Diversity
  • Offer the building as a model of sustainability
  • Build community in downtown Medford

While the institutions share many common goals, the participants sometimes used different language to communicate their ideas, resulting in communication barriers. According to Purslow, “When the wording began to make people nervous, we learned to continue talking, explaining, and asking for clarification. When we got past parsing language and began talking about what each group meant, we realized that most of the time we were completely on the same page.”

Design Strategies

The original mandate from both institutions was that, first and foremost, the new facility be designed to serve students. From an architectural perspective, the entire building was designed from the inside out. Once the classroom modules were set up, the team moved on to proportion and design of the building’s exterior.

To optimize scheduling and use, it was critical that every single classroom be identical. The classrooms are rectangular instead of square. Each classroom has two major “teaching walls,” flexible furniture, and an integrated technology teaching module. Special attention was given to acoustics and the quality of lighting, including daylighting and shading strategies. Because every classroom is exactly the same and has built-in flexibility, an instructor can easily move between classrooms without any need to modify the way in which they teach — the room adapts to the teacher.

As important as the classroom design was to every decision made, the building could not afford to be a warehouse for learning, devoid of character. To be successful, the building had to be comfortable and engaging. SERA Architects’ design team created a central atrium to create a sense of place inside the building, connect all three floors visually, and immediately orient users.

The building’s two faculty office suites were designed to be identical, with offices clustered around a central secretarial unit. The goal is to create an environment for RCC and SOU faculty to work together, get to know each other, and share resources. Faculty members who have taught at both institutions, as well as students who have transferred from RCC to SOU, are participating in ongoing dialogue on ways to blend the cultures and create an environment conducive to collaborative relationships.

When it opens in 2008, the joint SOU-RCC Higher Education Center in Medford will be the tangible result of a cooperative process, allowing flexibility and compromise in the development of shared physical space. The facility will add up to more than the sum of its parts as it brings to the state of Oregon a new model for leveraging resources to better serve students, faculty, and the surrounding community.

Gregg D. Sanders is a senior project manager for SERA Architects, an architecture, interior design, planning, and urban design firm based in Portland, OR. He can be reached at 503/445-7372 or via e-mail at greggs@serapdx.com.

SIDEBAR

Environmental Stewardship

An early goal for the new joint RCC-SOU Medford educational facility was to serve as a model of environmental stewardship. To that end, the project’s Joint Facility Advisory Council decided to pursue a minimum Leadership in Environmental Design (LEED) Silver certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. The design team worked with faculty, staff, and students, as well as community members, to establish the green priorities for the project through an eco-charrette held on campus. The new building will incorporate the following sustainability and green building strategies.

  • On-site stormwater management
  • Placement adjacent to public transit, with showers provided for bike commuters
  • Design to reduce urban “heat island” effect
  • Water-efficient landscaping, usage reduced by 50 percent
  • Water use in building reduced by 20 percent
  • Energy efficiency 30 percent greater than code
  • Daylighting strategies throughout, especially in the classrooms
  • Advanced commissioning
  • Materials selected for recycled content and regional sourcing
  • Interiors designed to promote healthy indoor air quality
  • First LEED-certified project in southern Oregon with a target of Silver certification

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