College Avenue Commons: A monument to innovation and construction
The stairway is really two sets of stairs, divided by a descending water wall and floating over a reflecting pool. It climbs from the sidewalk to the third-floor mixing chamber, the educational heart of the building.
The stairs are made of concrete, the most ubiquitous of construction materials, each tread and riser painstakingly poured and finished by hand, the undersides a series of geometric shapes, the sides polished to a glossy granite-like sheen.
It is a monument to excellence in craftsmanship, innovation, sustainability and efficiency. Brought to life by alumnus Jess Smith, the stairway also is a testament to gratitude, individual achievement and beauty.
“It is a work of art,” said Tim Goyette, alumnus and senior project manager at Okland Construction.
A work of art that almost didn’t happen.
* * *
College Avenue Commons is the new home of the Del E. Webb School of Construction, part of the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, one of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University. The building, which sits on the southwest corner of Sixth Street and College Avenue, was designed by Gensler and Architekton, and built by Okland Construction.
It is the first classroom building ASU has built north of University Avenue, a sign of the university’s continued growth and expansion. It also is the university’s first mixed-use space, housing classrooms, faculty offices and retail space.
The ground floor includes the Sun Devil Marketplace, which carries ASU clothing and gifts, computers and accessories, and the Grab-And-Go market, with snacks and supplies. Pitchforks & Corks, a coffee-and-wine bar overlooks College Avenue from the second floor.
The building also is home to the Future Sun Devil Welcome Center, which operates the Experience ASU visit program, run through Admission Services. About 10,000 high school and community college students considering ASU will begin their tours of campus in the center’s new 200-seat auditorium.
The building, with its urban-edge cantilevered façade, anchors ASU’s presence on College Avenue, an extension of College Mall on campus, and serves as the northern gateway to Tempe.
The project was so important to Tempe that ASU, in cooperation with the city, redesigned the street, eliminating the curbs, connecting it to the building’s outdoor spaces, lawns, patios and balconies and creating a gathering place for game-day parties and graduation celebrations, a place where town and gown can mingle. The adaptive re-use of the Art Annex across College Avenue, east of the building, houses two destination restaurants, Postino and Snooze, also part of the plan.
“All great cities and institutions have great squares and plazas,” said Rachel Rasmussen, an alumna and associate at Architekton, one of the building’s two architecture firms. “We wanted to plan the street and building together.”
For a building with such import, College Avenue Commons had very humble beginnings.
John Meredith, an alumnus and architect in ASU’s Office of the University Architect, explained that university buildings are based first on practical needs. This building, originally given the nondescript name Block 12, was envisioned as administrative offices, and costs calculated accordingly: $54.5 million.
“We basically had a budget for a six-story stucco box,” Meredith said.
Upon reflection of the role the building would play in the university landscape, it was given more high-profile tenants and a much broader mission.
Unfortunately, its budget did not increase.
* * *
In another building, the stairs, part of the fire escape plan, might have been stuck in a dark shaft on one of the back corners of the building. But, as the plan for the building developed, and the significance of the plaza and streetscape grew, the stairs became more important. Brought front and center, inviting students to skip the elevator, they are an example of “active architecture” that encourages people to move.
“It started as a relatively simple stairway, but we realized that it was an important portal to the building and also important as a piece of art,” said Morgan Olsen, ASU’s executive vice president, treasurer and chief financial officer. “I told Okland and the designers, ‘I don’t want this to be a plain old concrete stairway. It has to be really attractive, really awesome. I don’t know what it looks like. You come up with ideas. We’ll know it when we see it.”
Smith said that, when the architects’ 3-D sketch of the floating stairway first surfaced, there were snickers of skepticism on the construction team, disbelief that something so complex and ethereal could be created in the time and budget allowed.
But Smith, who was the project superintendent, became obsessed, the stairway occupying his last thoughts in the evening and his first in the morning, his mind running through a million ways to make it happen.
“It became this hot item on the job,” Smith said. “No one thought we could do it.”
Goyette, Smith’s best friend for 16 years, and Tyler Smith (’09) the project manager, told Smith they wouldn’t have time to build the stairs. They told him they were going to order a fiberglass form, which would blunt the stairway’s aesthetics, rounding all the sharp edges. Less detail, less art, less time.
“There is a huge difference among project managers,” Smith said. “Tim and Tyler are not just great managers, but true builders. Had an ordinary project manager told me he was getting a plastic form, I would have laughed at him. I took it seriously from Tim and Tyler because their skills as builders qualified them to have a very valid concern.”
Smith knew it was a shortcut that almost no one would notice, no one except those in the construction industry who would visit, those who would teach in the building, those who would come behind and walk up these stairs to learn their craft in the decades to come.
“We’re not afraid to tell each other what we think,” Smith said of Goyette. “I told him I wasn’t going through this much mental gymnastics for us to buy some fiberglass form. I knew, then, that I had to show them I could build it.”
It became a personal challenge for Smith, whose father, a carpenter, put him to work in the summers framing, trimming and stripping concrete forms. When asked in elementary school to draw a picture of what he wanted to be when he grew up, Smith drew himself with a set of sawhorses and a saw.
“Jess has always been a kind of artist,” Goyette said. “He’s a weird kind of guy for construction. He’s the best concrete guy I’ve ever seen.”
Smith plowed ahead, but figured Goyette was ordering a fiberglass form as a backup.
* * *
As the home of ASU’s construction school, College Avenue Commons was envisioned as a teaching building.
From the first meetings about its design, the faculty, architects and builders, were committed to making it part of the Del E. Webb School curriculum.
The heating, cooling and water systems would be exposed so students could see how they were installed. There would be slide-out barn doors that reveal “behind-the-wall” models of the framing, wiring and insulation. The angle-iron trusses supporting the building’s skin would be visible through the windows. Sensors in the skin would send real-time data to analyze the building’s environmental performance. QR codes would be posted throughout the building and lead to detailed construction information. And the cast-in-place concrete deck slabs that form the floors would be heavily ground and polished, revealing the aggregate in the concrete mix.
“The third floor became a 3-D model for the fourth and fifth floors, with the systems on each level being more exposed,” Goyette said. “We used it as a mock-up and picked apart things we didn’t like.
“The conduit is some of the cleanest you’ll ever see. The tradesmen took such care with it. They knew future builders were going to school there, and they took so much pride in their work.
“One thing construction takes is experience, and now professors can go point at things, like the conduit, the fire-sprinkler pipe, the domestic-water pipe, and the students will remember what it looks like and how to do it.”
Even the desks have exposed support systems. The seating has sharp-angled design. And side tables are made from pieces of steel I-beams.
“We will be able to use the building as part of the curriculum, watching the heating and cooling systems at work, monitoring water usage, and peering through exposed walls to show students how they were built,” said G. Edward Gibson Jr., professor and director of the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment. “It is a unique and exciting piece of construction.”
* * *
Smith went to the Okland carpentry shop and began working on a wooden frame that would produce the stylized bottom of the stair tread, keeping the edges sharp, the corners square.
It was an intricate form, made with the two most basic construction tools: a hammer and a circular saw.
“If you saw the finished form, you’d think we used a lot of sophisticated tools, table saws, chop saws, but it was just a nice, high-tooth-count saw, and some jigs and cutting guides. We didn’t use a pneumatic nailer. It was all pounded by hand.
“I finally figured out all the angles, how to create the miters. I took a picture and sent it to Tim. I said, ‘No problem. We can build it.’ He cautiously said, ‘OK.’ ”
Even with the “OK,” the doubt and questioning didn’t stop.
“Trust me, there were a lot of conversations about how there was no budget, why was it taking so long,” Smith said. “I just wanted a set of earplugs.”
His next step? Figuring out how to produce 84 of the forms.
* * *
The primary focus of College Avenue Commons is teaching, and its classrooms are the most sophisticated on campus.
“Each faculty member teaches in a unique way,” Rasmussen said. “So the classrooms are extremely flexible to accommodate a variety of styles.”
Nearly all are set up in pods, where students can work in teams around suspended screens. The instructor can display a presentation on the main screen, or on all the screens. Or the work on a student’s laptop can be shown on the team’s screen, or on the main screen.
The mechanical, electrical, plumbing (MEP) classroom has high, wooden tables where plans can be unrolled and a digital screen that will lay flat and is big enough to show digital plans. Lectures can be recorded for use in online courses.
The materials classroom has a sink to mix concrete.
The Building Information Modeling (BIM) lab has a pod setup and a touch-screen display for the instructor. It is where students learn the software that allows architects and builders to create three-dimensional models of a building’s systems and overlay them to find conflicts between systems.
“It is the most complicated classroom,” said Allan Chasey, associate professor and program chair of the Del E. Webb School of Construction. “We wanted to see how far we could push the technology to replicate real working conditions. We can share material instructor-to-student, and student-to-student. We can even simulate collaborating long distance, like between Los Angeles and New York.”
Chasey said that, at every conference he attends, industry representatives ask how ASU is teaching BIM technology, and when he tells them, they say it is exactly right.
“Students tell me that’s what recruiters are asking about,” Chasey said. “It’s the tool they’re using in the field.”
Working on College Avenue Commons convinced one of Chasey’s students.
“Ryan Whitt (assistant project manager for Okland) was in my 453 BIM class and was about as obstinate a student as I’ve had,” Chasey said. “He said, ‘I’ll never use this.’ But he worked on this building, and he came back and talked to the class and said, ‘I use this every day. It is the way we build buildings. If you learn one thing, learn this.’ All major companies have BIM departments. It is the fundamental way they do business.”
Contractors who’ve visited the new building tell Chasey that they’re going to remodel their offices to replicate the classroom design.
The BIM files, usually tossed in the digital closet once a project is finished, will live on for College Avenue Commons, being used in the classroom as a real-life reference for students.
“We added more than usual to them,” Goyette said. “They include the smaller conduits in the wall, all the rebar in every concrete column. Usually customers don’t want it, but the school definitely wants it.”
* * *
Smith enlisted two other carpenters, Wesley Blue Eyes and Ryan Pfeffer, and started working on a full mock up, figuring out the most efficient way to cut and assemble the pieces.
“There were 84 treads,” he said. “We had to come up with a system. We took about a week to build eight risers. The first day we barely finished one. Then we tweaked the system so we could go faster.
“The second day we did two, the third day, four. We kept fine-tuning. No one had ever built something like this before.”
They did a sample pour, and stripped off the forms.
“The bottom was the coolest thing I’d ever seen,” Smith said. “We didn’t touch it. But the sides looked kind of like the finish on the sidewalk, bubble holes and all. It seemed like a mismatch. Even precast concrete benches built in a factory under perfect conditions get air bubbles.
“We decided to polish the sides and see what it looked like. We tried polishing, sand blasting, acid etching, every architectural finish in every combination. I didn’t want to get the thing built, and at the end of the day say, ‘We should have tried this.’ ”
The collective intelligence loved the polished sides, so they decided to use a grinder and polisher with increasingly fine grit wheels and fill any air bubbles with color-matched epoxy.
“Here’s the thing,” Smith said. “When you do these architectural pieces, you’re usually doing them off to the side, out of the way. This staircase was the critical path to finishing the building on time. There were a lot of people working on it. And there was the metal portion for the water, and I knew they weren’t building it without measuring on site.
“We had to get it done, and fast.”
Then, on one of the numerous VIP tours of the construction site, Olsen pulled Smith aside and said, “This stairway has got to be perfect.”
Olsen remembers telling Smith, “This needs to be your best work. When you’re done, I want it to be something you are proud of. I want you to be as proud of this as anything you’ve ever done in your work.”
“OK,” Smith thought. “I didn’t know you knew who I was so, sure, I’ll make sure it is perfect. I wasn’t feeling any pressure anyway.”
The stairway and fountain became known as “Dr. Olsen’s Art Piece.”
* * *
Olsen, whose office was nearby, would often wander through the construction site to check on progress and offer suggestions.
“One of the things I think I’m known as is a stickler for aesthetics and appearance, and that’s describing it kindly,” Olsen said. “I would come in, in the morning, when it was still cool out, and go take a look at how things were going. I would respectfully ask about something I had a question about. At the end of the day, I could see how much pride the construction manager and subs took. They knew it would be used by students learning to build.”
To do all the things the design team wanted for the building, they would have to come up with major efficiencies, in materials, in processes, and in time.
“The nature of higher education construction is that, no matter how many delays you face, the students still show up on time,” Meredith said. “If we had given Okland the original construction duration, we never would have been ready for classes.”
They crunched numbers and schedules.
They wanted a second skin to shade the glass, but it was too expensive.
“Okland took commodity-grade sheet metal and fabricated it,” Meredith said. “It saved millions.”
They wanted additional insulation on the walls.
“They used insulated sheet board in a way it had never been used,” Meredith said. “They worked with DOW Chemical to figure out new installation methods.”
They wanted economical but beautiful finishes that celebrated construction.
They used iron trusses and fabricated aluminum, off-the-shelf stuff that would be used to build warehouses and out-of-the-box thinking.
They wanted walls you could write on in the hallways for impromptu meetings. Instead of expensive whiteboard, they used economical enameled metal.
They wanted to monitor the building’s performance, with sensors inside and out, feeding data to the school and to the main ASU facilities group. And they wanted everything wired for Wi-Fi throughout the building.
“The level of technology is well beyond anything ASU has done before,” Meredith said. “The bandwidth is amazing. We’ve never had this much in a building. Every faculty member, student and visitor can be on their laptop, iPad and iPhone at the same time and not run out of bandwidth.”
They wanted a 200-seat auditorium for prospective students, but the cost of building it to support the upper floors was prohibitive. They pulled it out of the design and built a two-story attached structure, then added a patio on top. ASU President Michael M. Crow already has reserved the patio for game-day parties.
All the innovation wasn’t just to save money, or preserve ego. It had an educational mission.
“Past thinking is that industry is ahead of academia, and that students graduate and have to be trained by the company that hires them,” Meredith said. “Edd Gibson and his team want the students to be ahead of industry, rather than catching up, so they bring skills to the company they join, technology the company has not yet adopted.”
* * *
With a workable mock-up, Smith needed to build the intricate forms on site, one for each of the 84 steps, and support them with a structure that would hold the weight of the wet concrete.
“We basically built a platform for the framework to sit on,” Smith said. “It was like building a piece of millwork in place, but something you could almost drive a truck over.”
And, despite being able to hold a Mack Truck, the forms needed to be easily disassembled, or stripped, at least in part, to get to the surfaces to finish them before they were completely set.
“One of the problems with pouring concrete is gravity,” Smith said. “With stairs, you start pouring at the top and vibrating the mixture. It wants to slide downhill, and as it does, it catches air. When that air tries to escape, it forms bubbles on the form face. If you’re stripping and finishing it, you never see them. But if not, they’re a problem.”
The forms also have to hold the weight of the workers.
“You get 20 people and their tools running up and down, and if the forms aren’t stable enough, things start to bulge.”
This staircase would have as-cast risers, the vertical space between the treads, so air bubbles would be an issue.
“We figured out a way to build dams for every riser, place the concrete into each riser, and once we were downhill far enough, pull the dams out and revibrate the faces to get rid of the bubbles.”
It was another innovation, each dam being built by the ironworkers on site. They had to be easy to install and strip, and be streamlined enough that the finishers could get in and work on the surface of the treads. They had to hold the weight of the workers standing on them. The proprietary design was a success, creating a smooth riser, a finished tread, and a perfect line in the corner.
“I don’t know of another set of stairs formed this way,” Smith said. “The steel piece was manufactured on site, and it killed about four birds with one stone.”
They started to build.
“The last couple of weeks were pretty hectic,” Smith said. “We worked seven days a week, 12 to 14 hours a day. Every day, we went over it with a fine-tooth comb, looking at every piece of rebar, every cover, miter joint and nail hole.
“We over-engineered it, not sparing any expense in anything we could control,” Smith said. “We knew we had one shot at it. There was no fixing it if it went bad. We knew we would have to tear it out and start over.”
Olsen’s words were ringing in Smith’s ears. It had to be perfect.
* * *
The building is a model of sustainability, both passive and active, with an east-west orientation that leaves the north side shaded most of the time. Its cantilevered façade extends over College Avenue, shading the walkway below from the desert sun. Small urban plazas on the perimeter create cooling microenvironments.
The building was constructed with low-emission materials, and nearly 92 percent of the waste from the construction process was recycled.
The exterior skin, or attached metal shade structure along the north side of the building, protects the glass while preserving the view and letting light into the building. Some of the windows in the classrooms are at floor level to harvest the most daylight.
“Research shows a 26 percent improvement in grades when students are exposed to daylight in the classroom,” Rasmussen said.
LED lighting in the rest of the building automatically adjusts according to need. Chilled-beam construction, used for the first time on the ASU campus, pumps cold water through beams to help cool one of the classrooms.
Systems on the roof harvest rainfall, and solar panels can be installed in the future.
And, for the first time, monitoring systems with sensors installed inside and out provide data on the performance of the building and its sustainable features.
ASU is seeking a LEED–Gold certification for the building, the second-highest possible rating.
* * *
There is really no way to know for sure how long a concrete pour will take, nor how long workers will have to finish the surfaces before it sets completely.
“There are so many variables, environmental conditions, humidity, temperature, wind, and placement of the pour, what happened with the aggregate at the batch plant, human error,” Smith said. “It can set in 1½ hours, or as quickly as 45 minutes, or as long as three hours.
“If you could predict the exact time, a lot of concrete guys would live longer.
Staircase pours are particularly difficult. You have a set amount of time, you need enough hands, but you’re working in tight quarters.
“We looked at what we typically get on a set of stairs, figured how many treads we had, and decided each finisher could finish six treads.”
The closer they got to the pour, the more complicated the equation, the more people got interested.
“Everyone wanted to give input,” Smith said. “We would have these meetings where we pretty much pulled all the resources we had, got in a room and talked out the plan. We made a few changes here and there.”
They decided that, because of the amount of rebar in the form, they would need smaller aggregate so there would be no pockets.
“We needed a flowable mix with high strength,” Smith said.
They were ready.
* * *
The Commons has many front doors, designed to maximize pedestrian activity on the ground floor. The large hallways are flanked at each end with floor-to-ceiling windows that increase light, and there are “sticky spaces” scattered throughout the building, where people meet, greet and hang out.
“We wanted students to stay and collaborate between classes, which creates better outcomes in retention and grades,” Rasmussen said. “Faculty and students can move through the space, start conversations and create innovation through that accidental interaction.”
The three-story “mixing chamber,” with stadium benches and soft seating, is the center of activity, serving as a place for meetings and presentations, and for informal hang-outs and study space. It is designed so a professor with an office on the fifth floor, and a graduate student working on the third floor can meet in the middle and talk.
Soft seating is sprinkled throughout the building. There are meeting rooms for student organizations, group office for graduate students, and multiple conference rooms.
Many of the classrooms and conference rooms have glass fronts that allow people walking by to see the activity inside.
* * *
The concrete pour happened in the middle of the night.
“We spent a couple of days watching the sun, figuring out when the stairway was in shade, and decided that there would be about 2½ hours of direct sunlight on part of the it,” Smith said. “We were within about a week of when we could have poured during business hours, but we couldn’t wait.
“And we didn’t want to take any risks, so we did it at night.”
They started at 1 a.m. By 2:30, they were done. The concrete was in place, curing.
There was little time for reflection. Dr. Olsen’s Art Piece wasn’t finished.
“Nobody was putting their feet up on the desk and relaxing,” Smith said. “About two minutes after we finished the stairs, we said, ‘We’ve got a fountain to build.’
“It kind of gets lost in the picture, but the podium the stairs sit on was not easy either. It is mostly underwater and covered with tile, so people don’t notice.
“And no one walking up the stairs understands the detail that went into the metal work in the fountain and the tiniest details that Bernie’s Brass put into the hand rails.”
Olsen knows. He suggested that the tension wires that run along the sides with the railings be decorative chrome with artistic knots, the finishing touch that Olsen says makes the staircase look like a jewel.
* * *
In the end, the building is a shining example of efficiency, sustainability and innovation.
“It is so much better than the budget said it should be,” Meredith said. “The thinking is that making a building more sustainable costs extra. College Avenue Commons proved that’s not true. We’re using the lessons learned for constructing the new ASU law school building downtown. It will have shaded windows and chilled beams throughout. That wouldn’t have happened without College Avenue Commons.”
Meredith went to the building one day to see the reaction to the staircase.
“None of the students were taking the elevator,” he said. “They all were walking up.”
* * *
Smith said he and Goyette, who also worked on the ASU Health Services building, have talked a lot about the legacy they’re leaving.
“His kids may go to ASU,” Smith said. “I have three sons. Some of my kids might end up going there. Someday, someone might say, ‘My dad, or grandpa, built that.’ It is a point of pride and something we talked about all the time.”
Smith didn’t get to attend the dedication because he’s working on wind turbines in Iowa, but said a lot of people, including Olsen, told him how perfectly the stairs turned out.
“Jess, the architects and builders, deserve all the credit for the beautiful stairway and water features,” Olsen said. “They did all the work, did it well, and deserve the recognition.”
Smith said he felt extremely lucky to be involved in the project, and that it ruined him for other buildings.
“I don’t know if I want to build another building,” Smith said. “This one was so much fun. I had a blast. I don’t think I want to do it again unless we build something like that.”
Goyette said he has a picture of the staircase on his wall.
“We joke about it,” Goyette said. “It was over budget, over schedule, but it is amazing. It will be what’s on the cover of all the magazines.”