Sunday, March 31, 2013

Featured: Lee III, Clemson University

In lieu of a normal "This Week in Architecture" there is a bit of something special this week. On Clemson University's campus, where I currently attend finishing up my B.A. in Architecture, sits the latest extension of Lee Hall, which houses the Art and Architecture departments. Dubbed Lee III, the Thomas Phifer designed building is LEED Silver rated and houses all the years of landscape architecture students, in addition to the grad students in the architecture program.

Lee III was recently featured on ArchDaily, and I'd like to just give a little bit of insight to what the building is really like, having spent a good amount of time there. Before you read my comments, I think it might help to take a moment and read the article here first.

While Lee III is presented as a cutting edge building, it seems to fail in many of the most basic of functions. There's no doubt that the building looks cool. Mezzanines above the ground floor level overlook many of the student work spaces and the columns look like trees spreading their branches to hold up the green roof.

On the outside, the vast amount of windows let in lots of natural light, and as an admirer of glass design myself, is pleasing to the eye. The tensioned cables that aid in structure are pretty cool too.

But here's where things start getting a little messy in my opinion. Because the majority of buildings on campus are brick, a giant hanging curtain wall was slapped onto the west side of the building. I think that despite past precedents, the building could be a standalone symbol of innovation and progression on campus, while in fact tradition overruled that notion.

There were many things that were intended to happen with the building to help keep it as close to net-energy zero as possible. One such thing involved automatic windows that opened and closed, adjusting to temperature to make the building self-climated-controlled. Unfortunately, these windows don't actually work, and may not even exist. Lee III is known for being downright frigid, despite the floor supposedly being heated via a radiant heat system.

In terms of workspaces, the desks that they chose to use, while offering extra storage spaces through cubbies and cabinets, fail to allow the most necessary thing onto the desk itself, that being light. The skylights simply don't let in enough light, and since the auxiliary lights are left for the most part off during the day, there is always a shadow line right down the middle of your desk, in addition to it already being relatively dark inside the general building. A short walk around the studio spaces will prove this point, as almost every student has one or even two adjustable arm lights clipped to the desk, because it's very hard to work when you can't see things properly.

But all of these issues are dwarfed by the most major issue in my eyes, and that is sound. In a building built entirely of steel and concrete, there is nothing that dampens the sound. I've had reviews in a space they call "the Wedge", an angled space with walls you can pin up on, and if you're not in the front row, you can't hear a single thing the presenter is saying. Basically, when speaking softly all you hear is echoed mumbles and muddy tones, and when speaking loudly, you are heard from across the entire building. This means that even small side conversations and studio discussions bound all around the room, making the entire building, overall, loud. For a major where many students prefer quiet to concentrate and focus, this is a huge issue.

But of course, those things are just my take on it. I still think it's a cool building, and appreciate Clemson's interest in designing sustainably. That being said, it would behoove Clemson and other universities to really survey students and ask what things they value most in their studio experience, and help tailor design to those needs.


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