Designing a New Era of Experience-Based Learning at CSU

csu natural resources entry
View of new entry. Courtesy David Lauer Photography


Millennials are out – centennials are in.

With the new generation of students comes a breadth of new research and a need for refining the approach to higher learning. As true digital natives, centennials are using technology less as a consumer and more as a pragmatic tool for communication.

michele decker

Michele Decker
Principal, 4240 Architecture

Our firm most recently completed the Michael Smith Natural Resources Building Addition at Colorado State University. Giving a new face to the brutalist design of Warner College of Natural Resources’ 70,000-square-foot building, the 42,800-sf addition and renovation look to usher in the next era of higher education, celebrate the academic program, and align with a new generation of teaching tools and techniques.

dj gratzer

DJ Gratzer
Senior Associate, 4240 Architecture

Prioritizing the opportunity for stewardship and placemaking, 4240, with design-build partner Pinkard Construction, focused on creating an impactful first impression – a place that draws people in; fosters independent, adult thinkers; and provides interesting, engaging and varied experiences that are tailored to the new generation.

“We couldn’t be happier with both 4240 and Pinkard,” said the College’s Dean of Students, John Hayes, Ph.D. “They were phenomenal to work with and involved us in every stage of the process to ensure we had a finished product we can all be proud of.”

csu meeting room

Fourth-floor Canopy Meeting Room – Garage door closed. Courtesy David Lauer Photography)

For the new building, we arranged the programmed uses around a collaborative central spine – an Intellectual Marketplace to be used for study, leisure and wayfinding. At one end of the spine, “treehouses” overlook the coveted old-growth evergreen grove, known as the Sherwood Forest; at the other end, students are connected to the Collaboratory and Idea Incubator – a community space where users can exchange ideas, become inspired, and have a want to stay.

“4240 did an outstanding job of understanding our college’s culture and using that understanding to design a building that is aesthetically beautiful, meets the functional needs of our program, stayed within our budgetary constraints, and captures the essence of what our college is and strives to be,” said Hayes. “Throughout the process, from shaping the vision through implementation of the design and construction, 4240 was highly responsive and a delight to work with.”

Capitalizing on the community it serves, the natural resources brand is reinforced with every detail. The signature stacked masonry fin walls were used as student teaching tools in regard to the primary building systems distribution. The implementation of live-edge community tables made from felled campus trees, various interior plantings, operable office windows and fritted glass, to name a few, are used as creative and tactile moments that engage the senses for enhanced learning. While the building aesthetic is derived from the CSU kit of parts, the new entrance gives a unique identity to the College of Natural Resources with a dramatic, canted, 24-inch-diameter round Douglas fir glulam column spanning 55 feet to support a heroic cantilevered roof. Once inside, visitors are greeted with a two-story living wall and an extended atrium for gathering. A collection of murals based on prehistoric eras of geology bring forth conscious connections to the curriculum taught within. Perhaps the most memorable design elements are the “treehouse” collaboration rooms that overlook the Sherwood Forest through floor-to-ceiling windows. With a unique view of the forest’s tree canopy from each level, the architecture influences experience-based learning that is practical yet playful. Working as a convertible space to bring the outdoors in, the Canopy Meeting Room on the fourth floor even has a vertical folding façade that can be completely opened to the exterior.

“The facility has been designed to tell the story of natural resources, create a teaching tool for students and faculty, and root the project to its specific place on campus,” explained Pinkard’s Steve Burns. “Natural materials (stone and wood) and natural elements (sun and wind) are incorporated throughout the student experience with an emphasis on building collaboration, curiosity and community.”

csu living wall

Two-story living wall. Courtesy David Lauer Photography

Asking the question of “how we learn” was important for designing a building that would nurture an Intellectual Marketplace that supports both students and faculty. With a request for a new type of classroom environment, focused around experience-based learning, flipped classrooms were incorporated into the design. With no obvious “front” to the room, flipped classrooms allow for a teacher-student dynamic that is more casual, adaptable and encourages the sharing of ideas. The increasing shift to team-based learning and problem solving has given casual spaces like entries and corridors moments for informal interactions and collaboration as well. Once-lifeless corridors are now vibrant, artful opportunities for intellectual collisions, blurring the line between programmatic areas while maximizing space functionality.

To immerse students in a culture and way of learning that will better prepare them for their future, we applied study knowledge from the Young Professional Model – a model that looks to youthful, office space strategies to create pedagogy inspired by how people work today and will work in the future. As a resource for career counseling and student recruitment, the addition is home to the college’s first ever Student Success Center, dedicated to donors and alumni John and Dolores Goodier. The student-centric facility also houses wet and dry instructional laboratories, meeting spaces of every size, office spaces, a flex conference room, nursing station, reflection room and more. Each space is designed to support dynamic learning that promotes success and prepares students for their professional lives beyond.

“It is a rare client and a rare project that encourages us designers to take the collective leap into the unknown,” said 4240’s Principal-in-Charge Lou Bieker. “For me, the Michael Smith Addition to the Warner College of Natural Resources represents the best of both … visionary client coupled with student experience centric building … a collaborative vision that rewarded design curiosity, a building solution that reflected the college’s values, and a site specific solution that the students, faculty and staff can proudly call their own.

Edited by Building Dialogue