A Bold Statement

In the often-harsh inland California climate, a multilayered student union changes the core of the California State University, San Bernardino campus, creates usable outdoor spaces and addresses the interests of a diverse, growing student body.

When LPA designers started meeting with California State University, San Bernardino students to discuss an expansion of their student union, they were surprised by a consistent emotional response that went far beyond the usual discussions of campus life and academic challenges.

If not a chip on their shoulders, students strongly expressed that they felt underserved in comparison to other campuses in the system. Despite academic achievements and the university’s important role in the development of one of the fastest growing regions in the state, the Inland Empire, students felt they weren’t given the same resources as their counterparts in the CSU system.

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Interior spaces promote connections and provide dramatic views of the mountains.

“For us, it was really important to work with the students to design a building that closed the gaps and elevated their sense of pride in their university,” says LPA Design Director Franco Brown. “We wanted to change the perception of the campus.”

The result is the Santos Manuel Student Union, a three-story, 105,000-square-foot facility that makes a bold statement on the 58-year-old campus. With a cantilevered third floor, tall glazing and protected outdoor spaces, the facility creates a new hub of student life on campus, while responding to the region’s difficult climate and taking full advantage of views of the surrounding mountains. The new facility features a vibrant activity center on the ground floor, including a bowling alley, restaurants, a bookstore and pub; a double-height, 12,000-square-foot conference center and multi-use meeting space on the second floor; and a flexible array of spaces for student organizations on the cantilevered third floor, which creates a large, shaded plaza on the ground level.

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A tall glass-enclosed lobby creates a welcoming environment filled with natural light.

On a constrained, sloped site, the student union fits like a jigsaw puzzle piece into the evolving campus, with activated outdoor spaces and connections to the older student union and nearby Center for Global Innovation (CGI), a three-story, LEED Platinum building also designed by LPA. The student union expansion shifts the epicenter of campus life from a traditional quad to a promenade, the Coyote Walk, which links the new buildings to the rest of the school.

“I always say, when we bring potential and perspective students and a family to visit our campus, we don’t take them to the biology building or the chemical sciences building,” says Anthony Roberson, associate director of operations for CSUSB. “We bring them here first, to the student union, to show them this is where they’re going to build community outside of the classroom. This is where they are going to build those lifelong friendships and have the opportunity to see speakers from across the nation that will impact their lives.”

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The activities center includes a pub, social spaces and a bowling alley.

An Alternative Approach
The student union is the latest in a series of LPA-designed projects on the campus. The firm worked with students on the expansion of the original student union in the early 2000s and a 140,000-square-foot, three-story facility for the College of Education, as well as the Center for Global Innovation, completed in 2021.

“We were designing CGI at the same time as the student union,” says LPA Design Director Ozzie Tapia, who was a recent graduate when he worked on his first CSUSB project at LPA. “The idea was for these projects to help build a campus fabric and a new center for students on campus.”

The student union expansion was funded by student fees and developed through CSU’s alternative consultation process, which requires the student association to develop and approve specific recommendations for review by the university’s fee advisory committee. The project started with a feasibility study developed by LPA, and the student government, Associated Students, Inc., focused on learning more about students’ attitudes and needs.

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A grand staircase creates a natural circulation flow and provides spots for students to hang out.

“We wanted to be transparent through the whole process,” Roberson says. “Doing an alternative consultation gave our students the opportunity to be in those meetings and be a part of the project from the beginning to the end.”

Students were involved at every step. The detailed engagement process was designed to dig deeper and learn more about student needs and attitudes toward the campus. Students became ambassadors for the project, leading campus dialogue about the future facility. “All the engagement that we did early on was to learn and understand: What do students want?” says LPA Director of Programming Winston Bao.

Ultimately, students were being asked to raise their fees for a facility that would be completed long after most of them left the school. “We talked to them about leaving a legacy for future students,” Bao says. “That’s where leadership comes in. Students can have an impact on future generations at the university.”

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Louvered metal shade structures create usable outdoor spaces.

In addition to earning student support, designers faced an array of challenges with the site and climate. San Bernardino is blistering hot for large parts of the year, and the campus is often buffeted with strong Santa Ana desert winds coming through the nearby mountains. The high winds, which can reach 100 mph, periodically force the campus to shut down for safety reasons.

At the same time, the facility needed to address a long list of student needs that had been unaddressed for years. The campus offered few of the amenities, meeting spaces and usable outdoor spaces available on other CSU campuses. “Because the program is so large and the site is relatively tight, we could only build vertically,” Tapia says.

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The new building connects the student union to the Coyote Walk, the university’s central promenade.

The final design stacks activities, in part to respond to different acoustic zones. The pub, bowling alley, social spaces and bookstore are on the ground floor. The conference rooms and meeting rooms on the second floor are connected to the ground floor by a towering, glass-enclosed lobby, which fills the spaces with natural light and puts the activities on display. The third floor offers a variety of offices and meeting spaces for a broad spectrum of groups and organizations, with cross-cultural common areas arranged in the cantilevered overhang, presenting broad views of the campus and mountains.

“The top floor is almost like a mini-UN,” Bao says. “It’s a place where diversity is celebrated.”

Outdoor spaces are activated throughout the site, including an elevated plaza that sits above the bookstore and connects to the conference center. Amphitheater seating was added to the sloped site; a covered area adjacent to the pub includes a conversation pit with video screens and gaming, creating a natural gathering spot. The university invested in a robust site furnishings program, including moveable furniture and custom recliners near the food court.

Shielding outdoor spaces from the often-harsh climate was a top priority. “It helped to be able to work with the architects from the start of the project to site the building to protect outdoor spaces from the wind,” says LPA Director of Landscape Architecture Rich Bienvenu. “The wind analysis also helped us choose trees to use as buffers.”

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The new facility fits into the constrained topology, and its orientation protects the building from the wind and sun.

On the elevated plaza, louvered metal structures were built to provide shelter from the sun and winds. “The students kept telling us, ‘shade, shade, shade and shade,’” Bienvenu says.

The LEED Gold facility’s design responds to the elements in different ways to reduce energy use and create healthier environments. The structure’s orientation to the sun and strategic self-shading features help reduce energy use in the building by 78% reduction from the AIA 2030 Commitment baseline. Approximately 25% of the building’s energy consumption is offset by ground-mounted photovoltaic systems. The facility is also designed to allow for additional photovoltaic systems on the roof to further reduce net energy use.

The Resilient Facility

The design earned the approval of students in 2019, with little opposition. “I think we set a record,” Roberson says. But the COVID pandemic threw off plans, sparking unprecedented material shortages and price inflation. Details of the design evolved through the continued process, as designers worked with student leaders to streamline costs while maintaining the integrity of the project’s goals.

“What I liked about the process, it was very transparent,” Roberson says. “It was very hands-on. It was a team environment.”

We wanted to be transparent through the whole process. Doing an alternative consultation gave our students the opportunity to be in those meetings and be a part of the project from the beginning to the end.

Ultimately, the building was delivered for the 2022 school year, and it quickly became an integral part of campus life. On any given day, the center is alive with activity. Students have found the building’s nooks and crannies, the secluded spots with broad mountain views. The shade structures have been embraced. The conversation pit outside the pub is a popular hangout. Tall “spirit letters” in front of the facility are a popular Instagram spot.

The third floor has brought together the array of university groups, in a space that encourages equity and cross-group discussions. Spaces are connected by a central passage that links all the groups, along with conference rooms and meetings spaces that accent the spectacular views.

“Everything is very wide open and welcoming and inviting,” Roberson says. “It gives us the opportunity to see culture come together and have those conversations and build community.”

The new center is already succeeding on many levels, he says. Engagement has been “phenomenal.” Students are finding uses for the spaces, and the convention center is attracting events from the community. Perhaps as important, the building has instilled that sense of pride among students on campus, the recognition that they are part of a first-class campus.

“You can see the sparkle in our students’ eyes when they walk through the facility and say, oh, this is our new living room on campus,” Roberson says. “We put things on paper and we had this plan, and to see everything come to fruition is just truly amazing.”


The Structural Solution

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In an active seismic zone, the structural design for the new CSUSB Student Union supports open, high-ceiling floor plans and a third-level overhang that creates a large, shaded plaza.

“We had to look at a structure that could provide a lot of openness but also provide all the needed lateral rigidity,” says LPA structural engineer John Wilson. Moment frames bolstered by MiTek’s SidePlate connection designs provided the necessary lateral resistance, while maintaining open sightlines and reducing the need for oversize columns. The design allows for double-height, column-free second-floor meeting spaces that support office space on the third floor.

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The third-level overhang is bolstered by two sets of V-shaped columns that give the facility its most distinctive feature. These steel columns provide support for the third floor while avoiding vertical columns in the covered outdoor space. Since the V-columns do not provide lateral resistance, a horizontal truss was provided in the plane of the third floor to transfer the lateral forces back to the structure’s main system. “We were able to work closely with the architect and our landscape team to find a solution that would be visually interesting and connect with the Coyote Walk,” Wilson says.