Rethinking the Role of an Athletic Facility
10.17.2011
Mariela Buendia-Corrochano in Sports, Sustainability
Gensler

Photo courtesy of Prakash Patel

Gensler recently had the opportunity to help George Washington University (GWU) renovate and re-design the Charles E. Smith Center. Located at the heart of GWU’s Washington, D.C., campus, the 32-year-old building plays an integral part in the student experience. It is where students start their college career at orientation, celebrate its conclusion at graduation, and cheer on the university’s Division I sports team in between. It is also a place where faculty and administrators entertain potential donors and host special events that reflect GW’s standing as a top-tier academic institution.

The project was a thoroughly enjoyable experience and a prime example of a well-planned collaboration between client and design team: over the three-year renovation period GWU never had to cancel a single event. I recently spoke with Robert Chernak, senior vice president of student and academic support Services at GW, about the rejuvenated Smith Center and the role it plays in campus life.

Photo courtesy of Dean Alxander

According to Chernak, prior to the renovation the Smith Center did not provide the level of flexibility desired by faculty members and administrators. GWU officials wanted a reinvigorated space that would embody school spirit and help attract top athletic talent and alumni dollars. So in addition to refurbishing interior spaces, upgrading building systems, and improving overall accessibility, our design team created new spaces aimed at helping the university meet these specific goals.

On the floor of the arena designers knocked down several concrete walls and converted old racquetball courts into a state-of-the-art VIP section dubbed the Colonials Club. Insulated from the court by a glass partition, the Colonials Club provides seating in a sophisticated environment that is in close proximity to the court. During the first two years of operation, memberships to the Colonials Club sold out, and it is now the top spot on campus for entertaining potential donors.

This remains important to the GWU administration because as the costs of higher-education continue to rise universities and colleges are relying more heavily on contributions from alumni and other donors to cover operating costs. The Colonials Club facilitates a productive level of interaction between university officials and potential donors, and it has the flexibility to host various types of events throughout the year.

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Photo courtesy of Prakash Patel

Another key aspect of the renovation process was improving the Smith Center’s athletic training facilities to ensure GWU can attract top-notch athletic talent. In the 32 years since the Smith Center was constructed, college athletics programs have changed. College-athletes now require more professional training facilities as well as non-athletic environments they can call home during the offseason.

In addition to updating the locker room facilities and the in-house natatorium (the campus pool), we paid special attention to refurbishing the student-athlete academic center, which promotes academic excellence amongst GWU’s student athletes. According to Chernak, the academic center is a critical aspect of the GWU student-athlete experience—it gives student athletes a space separate from the rest of campus where they can study. The new education center has proven so popular that the university expanded its hours of operation.

We also refurbished the exterior walls, helping the Smith Center to blend in better with the surrounding architecture, and Chernak says the Smith Center now “provides a new front porch for the GWU campus.”

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It should also be noted that the university chose to renovate the Smith Center rather than construct a new facility out of a desire to minimize the environmental impact of the project. Our design team honored this sensibility by selecting green materials and implementing a smart design strategy that reflects a commitment to sustainability. The university is pursuing LEED silver for the Smith Center.

The redesigned Smith Center has already yielded tangible results for GWU. Attendance and concessions sales have increased, and participation in the Colonials Club and Athletic Director’s club remains high. We attribute the success to two factors: a thorough and well-organized collaboration between client and design team and a design that presents the Smith Center not just as a place to watch sporting events, but as a multi-purpose facility that serves the needs of many different groups on campus.

Mariela Buendia-Corrochano is a principal at Gensler and works at the firm's Washington, D.C., office. Contact her at mariela_corrochano@gensler.com.
Article originally appeared on architecture and design (http://www.gensleron.com/).
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