Ferris State University is dedicated to providing a stimulating student-centered academic environment—that much is clear.  But it got a bit murky inside the University Center that traditionally housed the many student amenities and services.  Originally built in 1957, with additions in 1960 and again in 1987, the Center had become dog-eared, disparate and disconnected—socially, physically and functionally from the campus and the university’s mission and values. Although the existing collection of program elements had a lot to do and say, it fell well-short of making an iconic statement, and could work harder to foster a sense of community on campus.

To underscore its commitment to the students and academic excellence, Ferris State was determined to renovate and revitalize the University Center. The site of the building was never in question—it was in a prime location on campus, but it failed to successfully connect to the quad at its doorstep, and lacked a “front door” to provide a gateway to campus.  Ideally, the new University Center would direct the flow of community through the Center and on to the campus while providing a “living room” for relaxing, socializing and informal learning. Ultimately, the redesigned Center and its revise program elements should offer both a doorway and a window into student life 24/7 at Ferris State.

To arrive at this critical duality, end-user viewpoints were solicited and incorporated, and program elements were studied, validated and prioritized.  To navigate, the University Center’s dramatic yet pragmatic redesign creates a “street” inside the Center to guide the university community through the affirmed elements of event space, meeting rooms, student organization offices, collaborative spaces and marketplace dining —and connects people and places with ease.

The “street” spills out to a broad staircase that steps down to reveal the soaring two-and-a-half story glass curtain wall of the student lounge. Looking out onto the quad, this grand atrium offers an exchange of views between those within and those outside—affording both parties a stunning and clear view of Ferris State. The tiered seating of the staircase enables students to stop at a variety of levels and study or relax and take in the view: light and transparency, food, conversation and study meld together. 

The north wing of the Center highlights meeting and gallery space, and is enveloped in a warm soft concrete with stacked slate at the fireplaces to create entry and lounge spaces.  By weaving the pedestrian path from the academic buildings to the University Center, the front terrace provides a belvedere to the quad and outdoor room for hanging out.

Designed to achieve LEED Gold and to withstand the weather of northern Michigan, the University Center practices sustainability and uses natural materials and color to create a welcoming atmosphere both inside and out.  A team effort between associate architect Neumann Smith Architects and executive architect KSS Architects, local materials were used to reflect the indigenous character of the region. Wood, concrete and local stone all play off a white backdrop to highlight their rich materiality and to define gathering places such as the large fireplace area with a stage and coffee bar.  To further delineate spaces, the interior of white is contrasted by swaths of bright colors.  But perhaps the most effective play of natural light and transparency occurs at the boundary of the Center and the quad on which it looks.

The newly created path and entryway to the Ferris State University Center is actually a crossroads—it is where students of the past, present and future meet.  It is where rest and relaxation kick in and where culture and entertainment take off.  It is where scholars, faculty and the University community collaborate, expanding minds in new and exciting directions – with a renewed sense of passion and clarity.