Expanding the Role of a Community College

On the Cypress College campus, a new science, engineering and math building and a Veterans Resource Center are engaging students in new ways and expanding the institution’s role in the community.

Opened in 1966 during a wave of community college construction, Cypress College in Orange County, California, features Brutalist-style buildings that gave the campus a unifying, almost futuristic look that remains more than a half-century later. Indicative of its time, the campus was designed around automobiles. Drivers could motor straight through the campus quad, while pedestrians were diverted to elevated walkways, with a surrounding layer of asphalt parking lots leaving few places to linger.

As part of a long-term transformation of the campus, LPA worked with Cypress educators, students and the community on two recent buildings — a Science, Engineering and Mathematics (SEM) building and a Veterans Resource Center (VRC). Both address the college’s expanding role and efforts to engage students in new ways and link with the community in a meaningful fashion.

“We wanted to really focus on the human experience because there’s fundamentally a cultural shift going on,” says LPA Associate Winston Bao.

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The three-story SEM building features large bioretention areas that treat stormwater runoff.

In an era when remote digital learning is on the rise, institutions have to do more to give students compelling reasons to attend in person. Colleges want their facilities to address the larger challenges facing their students and find paths to help them obtain their degrees on time.

“Students may be balancing school with work and family commitments, so we want to create environments with appealing amenities to support a come-and-stay culture,” Bao says. “The goal is to continue transitioning away from the traditional commuter campus where students get in their cars and leave right after class.”

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Amenities are designed to enhance students’ time on campus.

The three-story SEM building is the first new instructional space built on campus since 1976. The 106,000-square-foot facility replaces a surface parking lot and provides a final puzzle piece in a group of buildings surrounding the easternmost of two campus quads, including teaching laboratories, multidisciplinary classroom/lecture spaces and administrative offices.

The SEM building’s striking column-lined entry gives way to a large interior courtyard, surrounded by classrooms and labs for biology, chemistry, mathematics and physical science, each with operable glass walls.

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The 106,000-square-foot SEM building is the first new instructional space built on campus since 1976.

“We’ve basically turned the building inside out,” says LPA Project Architect Chad Edgley. “You’re not confined by the classroom. You can write on the glass wall, or the class can extend into the courtyard.”

The facility includes an immersive digital classroom (IDC), a flexible 100-seat theater and learning space with a domed ceiling used for video projections. In addition to serving as a planetarium for astronomy sessions, the IDC plays a wide variety of other roles, including projecting microscopic images and mathematical equations on the dome to aid learning. Another section of the building is dedicated to a crematorium to serve the college’s mortuary program.

The goal is to continue transitioning away from the traditional commuter campus where students get in their cars and leave right after class.

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Classes can extend into the large interior courtyard, with seating and outdoor learning areas integrated with the landscaping.

The project was designed and built with sustainability at the core of its design strategies. The SEM building will outperform California state energy requirements, while reducing water usage 50% beyond code. Large bioretention areas treating all of the building’s stormwater runoff were developed to function seamlessly with adjacent outdoor learning spaces. The façade, which is made from ultra-high-performance concrete (UHPC) rain screen panels, matches the look and feel of Cypress College’s existing Brutalist cast-in-place concrete buildings while significantly improving the thermal performance compared to previous campus structures.

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An immersive digital classroom with 100-seat theater and domed ceiling serves as a planetarium for astronomy students.

The SEM building is also designed to be both seismically resilient and conducive to laboratory conditions. To link the building’s two wings, LPA engineers designed a seismic ring diaphragm system at each floor, connected by horizontal trusses in the corridors and pedestrian bridges. The design maximizes structural stiffness while minimizing dampening to reduce the effects of floor vibration.

The SEM building also links to the new Veterans Resource Center, the centerpiece of the reimagined east quad. “When we interviewed for that project, the last image that I shared with the college was a picture of my two brothers, who both served in the military,” Bao recalls. “I then said, ‘Let’s build a home for our heroes.’” As part of the design process, designers spent time with student veterans at Cypress College to learn about their challenges returning to civilian life and how to create a destination for them to thrive.

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The new Veterans Resource Center has a patterned glass façade designed to balance openness and privacy for the users.

The VRC’s glass façade, designed to balance openness and privacy, is affixed with a fritted pattern that makes it easy to see out but is more opaque when viewed from outside. “It makes the building more of a safe haven,” Edgley says. A ceremonial lobby space including a marble donor wall gives way to series of support spaces for veterans: a computer lab, meeting and counseling rooms, a study lounge, kitchen and intimate courtyard. The VRC is an expansion of the larger and newly renovated Student Activities Center, a former indoor-swimming-pool building and locker rooms that now offers study space, game rooms, food pantry and meeting space for student government.

The building’s curved front exterior and a new bridge connect the VRC to a veterans memorial in the campus quad and flag-decorated tribute garden. The path over the water represents the journey and transition from active duty to civilian life. This reborn outdoor space is a place of tranquility and reflection.

The VRC is becoming a centerpiece of our campus. If we can start inviting our community to visit, as well as encourage our campus community to embrace the space, that’s good for everybody.

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The renovation of the existing quad and water feature by the LPA landscape team added a new bridge and tribute garden completely transforming the space.

The VRC has already changed campus life and is a popular venue for community events.

The VRC is “becoming a centerpiece of our campus,” says Cypress College President JoAnna Schilling. “If we can start inviting our community to visit, as well as encourage our campus community to embrace the space, that’s good for everybody.”

Both buildings are already favorite spots on campus, she says. The new facilities fit into the existing campus, while providing new benefits to attract students. They’ve also become a source of pride in the community, she says.

“Our community members are proud that this exists in their community,” Dr. Schilling says. “Because it was built with bond funding and voter support, it’s really important that our voters feel like they created something that is also going to be available for them to enjoy.