From Office to Biophilic Student Center

Designers work with educators to transform a 1980s office park building into a wellness-focused center for student life on Chapman University’s Rinker Health Science Campus.

On the site of an aging industrial and office park, Chapman University’s growing Rinker Health Science Campus was thriving after its launch in 2013, attracting graduate students and establishing its presence in a neighborhood of biotech companies.

But the young campus was a food and social desert. There were no healthy dining options. No place for the unique culture of graduate students to hang out or study. A good cup of coffee was out of the question.

“The campus community needed a center to build community outside of the classrooms, labs and offices,” says Collette Creppell, Chapman’s Vice President of Campus Planning and Design.

An integrated design team worked with Chapman educators and students to transform an unoccupied abandoned two-story brick office building — surrounded by parking, with black windows and low ceilings — into the Campus Center at Rinker, the new heart of student life on the Irvine, California, campus. The design opens the nondescript, 45,000-square-foot building to the campus, highlighting spectacular mountain views and activating an array of outdoor spaces. The new center offers comfortable, flexible environments to serve diverse needs identified by students, including food service, retail and wellness services specifically designed to support graduate students.

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A seamless transition was created between indoor and outdoor social spaces.

“It’s the living room of the campus,” says LPA Design Director Winston Bao. “Every community needs a place where people can gather and be together.”

The center was the first building developed around the university’s Framework and Vision Plan, which outlines principles for converting the outdated office park into an “interconnected campus that promotes wellness.” The plan focuses on creating a true pedestrian- and community-oriented campus for behavioral and health sciences, with direct connections to the local biotech and health care industry.

“The Campus Center was our first inspired step into true campus placemaking,” Creppell says.

Priorities for the center were developed through interactive workshops with educators and students, exploring their challenges on and off campus. Open-house envisioning events and firsthand focus group meetings with stakeholders were just concluding when COVID hit, sending the process into months of virtual planning meetings.

“The students love the Campus Center. They love that they do not need to leave campus for food and coffee, and they have such a variety of spaces in which they are comfortable, productive and happy.” — Collette Creppell, Chapman’s Vice President of Campus Planning and Design

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The entry experience was choreographed around the biophilic concept of “prospect,” with people moving from a relatively low space before transitioning into the two-story atrium.

“One of the best moments was coming into the LPA offices after the isolation of COVID, masked but so happy to be there in person, and having a multi-hour design session with the team,” Creppell says. “The fact that we were together, talking about the shared vision for the campus center, was a wonderful moment.”

The center was developed around an ethos of preservation and “doing more with less.” The design saves the bones of the original building, while completely re-imagining and adapting it for the university’s changing needs. The campus-facing facade of the dark, L-shaped structure was replaced with movable glass partitions, establishing a new entrance to the campus center, as well as an indoor-outdoor student lounge that serves as the building’s “front porch.” Clear, low-E insulated windows modernized the building and introduced natural light into the interior. At the south entrance, a two-story atrium supported by laminated wood columns and a new skylight was cut into the first floor, flooding the space with light and creating a dramatic visual icon for the campus, easily seen from the street and evoking dappled light through forest trees.

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Flexible spaces were designed to support a variety of social and academic activities in the campus’ new “living room.”

“We designed the student spaces around this large, open volume,” says Senior Project Interior Designer Alice Kim. “It sets the tone for the entire building.”

Throughout the Fitwel-certified center, spaces are designed to support the well-being of a diverse student body. Lounge and open study spaces around the atrium provide access to natural light and campus views. Private study rooms offer a counterbalance to adjacent active spaces. A wellness center on the second floor includes counseling services and spaces for yoga, meditation and reflection. Furnishings were planned to support a variety of daily activities and special events.

“It’s really creating choice for students and empowering them with agency to engage, interact and experience this hub of student life,” Bao says.

Input from LPA’s Sustainability and Applied Research team helped establish an evidence-based framework for evaluating and implementing biophilic design strategies proven to reduce stress, enhance cognitive performance and elevate mood.

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As part of the biophilic strategies, the staircases were redesigned using wood, imagery and light.

“We used biophilic principles as design inspiration for the solution,” Bao says. “Everything from the materiality to the form and strategic placement of natural daylight creates an experience that is immersed in nature.”

The image of a light-dappled forest became a stimulus for the design, providing a cohesive sense of place to the building. The staircases, each with their own identity, use wood, imagery and light to suggest climbing a tree or navigating a forest. The entry experience was choreographed around the biophilic concept of “prospect,” the sense of safety and control one feels experiencing a larger space from a smaller comfortable space. People entering the building from the plaza pass through a relatively low 12-foot space before moving into the two-story atrium with its monumental staircase and wood columns.

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The new center was designed to activate outdoor spaces and connect to the rest of the campus.
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Healthy food choices and retail service were added to support the graduate students’ daily lives.

The new center is designed to provide the campus with the flexibility and adaptability to address shifts in priorities and increase connections to outdoor spaces and the existing campus. Spaces can be easily reconfigured. A folding glass door opens to the courtyard. Parking lots were replaced by a student plaza, linking the building to the overall campus and the university’s goal of creating a healthier environment for students. LPA civil, landscape and structural teams were involved at every step of the design process, helping to integrate seismic upgrades, landscape and low-carbon strategies into different elements of the design.

Opened in the fall of 2023, the center is already a success with students and faculty. Concierge services, e-lockers for online purchase, a food pantry and an area to store and prepare meals are helping students in their daily lives. There are now several healthy food options, including a full-service restaurant, café and demonstration kitchen. A private dining room, The Shared Table, located on the first floor, is popular with graduate faculty.

Creppell calls the center “a place of identity and spirit” for the health sciences students.

“The students love the Campus Center,” she says. “They love that they do not need to leave campus for food and coffee, and they have such a variety of spaces in which they are comfortable, productive and happy.

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