Wine Spectator Learning Center

Project Description

GLOBAL PROGRAM:  Sonoma State University’s Wine Business Institute (WBI) is a globally renowned institution, preparing students for successful business careers in the wine industry, and was the first such program in the country. The Wine Spectator Learning Center is an education and industry hub designed around advanced technology classrooms, student commons and gardens, and a collaborative space for faculty and business leaders that support the executive, professional, and degree programs of the Wine Business Institute including all activities, events, and research projects. Multi-point video conferencing and video production with broadcast capabilities enable distance learning with institutions around the world.

SEEKING IDENTITY: The program, however, had little exposure or presence on the Rohnert Park campus, with offices and classrooms tucked away in various buildings. With the original Campus Commons (bookstore and cafeteria) vacated after the construction of a new student center, the building afforded an opportunity to showcase the WBI to the campus, partners in the wine industry, and the general public. With intense involvement on the part of WBI faculty and staff, the building was transformed, transitioning from a dark, internally focused structure, to a transparent and welcoming presence on the Campus Green. A new entry trellis structure and café invite students and visitors to partake of a sandwich and glass of wine on the shaded terrace.

ZONED FOR COLLABORATION – The renovated building now includes a welcoming transparent lobby, a large multipurpose space suitable for large lectures, receptions and symposiums; flexible classrooms supporting active learning, a global classroom that also functions as a wine sensory lab, a faculty office and work zone, and multiple informal spaces that encourage collaborative work between students and faculty. Surrounding outdoor terraces, which overlook both the campus quad and lake, have been upgraded to encourage dining and meeting, and support the WBI’s many large functions.

NEW WITH OLD:  The project involved a complete gutting of the original building, including the complete replacement of the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems, as well as structural seismic strengthening.  Large sections of exterior concrete wall have been removed and replaced with full-height glass to allow natural illumination and a stronger connection between interior and exterior spaces.  A restrained palette of warm, new materials evocative of the wine industry was introduced.  The finishes were intentionally and deliberately selected, and carefully juxtaposed with the building’s cold concrete shell and waffle slab to craft a cohesive interior, while being clear as to which materials are original or new.

Design Challenge

With the goal to create an open, transparent, and inviting facility, challenges due to constraints imposed by the existing concrete structure had to be addressed and overcome, and within the context of a limited budget. INVERSION / TRANSFORMATION:  The Wine Business Institute hosts a variety of social events at the building.  But the generous outdoor terraces were previously cut off from the interior. The original building was inwardly focused, with heavy concrete and brick walls, and the entry points recessed and dark. Large sections of the existing concrete exterior walls were removed while maintaining the structural and seismic performance of the building.  Shotcrete was applied to the remaining shear walls, and additional steel bracing allowed full-height concrete and brick walls to be removed at the building perimeter. The main entry was dramatically improved by moving the perimeter glazing out one full bay, generously expanding the lobby and creating a much more transparent, visible, and inviting entrance, and a much stronger connection to the terrace. LIMITED VERTICAL DIMENSIONS: Another challenge was maximizing ceiling heights in order to increase the openness of the building. However, the original mechanical system, which had underfloor air distribution, could not be salvaged, and overhead distribution would have greatly diminished ceiling heights. The challenge was overcome by creatively planning the air distribution from the rooftop mechanical penthouse to minimize ductwork, running ductwork on the roof (carefully screened from view), re-routing conflicting utilities where necessary to keep the ducts as high as possible, utilizing sidewall diffusers, and where necessary coordinating duct crossings in strategic locations without compromising the building structure. WARMING THE SHELL:  The cold concrete shell and waffle slab of this 1960’s building made it an unlikely candidate for the Wine Business Institute’s program, without significant intervention.  However, the design approach taken was to celebrate and put on display the “bones” of the building, while juxtaposing the cold concrete with new, warm and tactile materials appropriate to the wine industry.

Physical Context

In addition to the context of its surroundings, the building’s concrete structure establishes a context of its own.  Exterior options for transformation of the existing building were limited, due to budget and the client’s objection to the exterior use of wood. The building was part of the original campus construction in the late 1960’s, and is prominently situated on the main Campus Green. Similar to the other buildings on the Campus Green which are from the same era, construction was primarily cast-in-place concrete frame with waffle-slab roof structure, with limited fenestration. The building is horizontal in form, and being diminutive in comparison with other buildings on the Green it had been elevated on a plinth. A LIGHT TOUCH:  The goal of the exterior design was to transform the building, while respecting its architecture, as well as that of the adjacent buildings from the same era. Aside from new window openings, changes to the building shell were kept minimal.  The exposed concrete surfaces were cleaned to restore their original sheen. A dark gray tone was introduced over the existing red brick, and a new entry trellis provides a subtle modern reference, adding an element of sophistication appropriate to the WBI’s connection to the wine industry. CLEARLY CONNECTING: Providing transparency to the activity within the building, and a visual and sensory connection to the campus were crucial objectives of the project. The design achieved this objective by providing new fenestration in two strategic types of locations: one; at the two main building entrances, which powerfully invite visitors into the public zones, and two; at the building corners, which provides active work spaces a strong indoor-outdoor connection to the campus. The connection to the campus also extends from the newly upgraded exterior terraces which offer sweeping views of the lake and gardens to the north, and the Campus Green to the south. The iconic pyramidal skylights were retained and glow with light at night, enhancing visibility of the program’s many afterhours classes and functions. VINTAGE REFLECTION: A key mandate to the design team was to create an environment that expressed a connection to the wine industry. In addition to introducing natural light and views, interior applications such as wood paneling and ceilings, porcelain tile, blackened steel, colored glass and custom patterned carpet are juxtaposed with the original concrete structure. The donor wall displays backlit wine bottles behind an etched glass façade. The new landscaping includes native and drought-tolerant plantings, as well as a working demonstration vineyard that surrounds the building.