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Visitor centers become an important design focus for universities vying for the attention of prospective students.

By AnnMarie Martin

Visitor centers become an important design focus for universities vying for the attention of prospective students.

You can only make one first impression, and colleges and universities across the country are becoming aware of that amidst the mounting competition in student recruitment.

With potential students applying to more and more places, schools are focusing on building visitor centers that reflect the character of the campus and create excitement around students’ impending journeys, all with the hope that it will win their loyalty (and dollars) for years to come.

“We’ve heard things like you have 15 minutes to really win the student,” says Jean Carroon, FAIA, LEED, principal with Boston-based firm Goody Clancy, which just completed an adaptive reuse and addition to the welcome center at Champlain College in Vermont. “Just in the last couple years, we’re seeing welcome centers as sort of dedicated spaces.”

Many schools are even making them multi-use by incorporating related offices into the buildings (such as financial aid), and by creating spaces that offer the flexibility to host a variety of events and functions.

I&S spoke with a handful of experienced firms about creating visitor centers that send the right message to potential students, and help make the tough decision about where to call home for the next four years a little easier. Here are some key points to keep in mind as you approach your next higher education project.

sustainability is key
The students of today are more concerned than ever with the world of tomorrow, and they want to make sure the college they attend is also eco-conscious.

The LEED Silver-certified visitor center at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) designed by Glavé & Holmes Architecture in Richmond, Va.

features strand-woven bamboo panel flooring in the reception entry area, as well as the same panels above the reception desk. The use of natural light was also a huge factor for designers, as it was at the welcome center at Champlain (a LEED Platinum building), according to Carroon. Ninety percent of spaces there are daylit, and provide views or connections to the outdoors.

Champlain was also highly respectful of its surrounding community, as the welcome center building involved restoring a home that pre-dates the Civil War—one of 11 in the community. There was also great anxiety that the addition would be too large and change the character of the street, which is part of a National Historic Register district. Goody Clancy was able to create a center with a relatively circumspect profile when viewed from the street, without sacrificing space or amenities. “It’s set back a little bit, then as you come around and see it, you realize it’s large and has dramatic balconies,” Carroon says. The addition also houses an auditorium with a low, swooping roof that hides behind the existing historic building.

be warm and accessible
As the number of visitors and applications began to rise at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., they began to have more staff and filing space needs. “They needed more space but really liked the smaller, cozy atmosphere of the building they were in,” says Heather McCanna, interior designer with Lambert Architecture + Interiors, which designed the school’s new welcome center.

The project originally began as a study regarding an addition to the building the admissions department was previously housed in, but administrators at Wake Forest ultimately decided against it, as it wouldn’t have supported the school’s workflow. “They wanted a building that reflected the character of the school. That smaller, warm feeling was one of the aesthetics we were after,” McCanna notes.

The Virginia Tech visitor center is built right on the edge of campus and off of a main highway. “You get off the exit and within a quarter of a mile, you come to our visitor center, so it’s really convenient for people,” says Larry Hincker, associate vice president for university relations. And while Virginia Tech is a larger university, it’s known for cultivating a small-town campus feel, he explains. “The center is another way we can inoculate someone into that special Virginia Tech experience.”

connect with the campus
Whether it’s via a view or the use of cohesive materials, a welcome center should always have a strong association with the rest of the campus and its buildings.

The Wake Forest welcome center maintains the Georgian Revival style of the campus, while Virginia Tech’s features the same Southwest Virginia limestone all of the school’s structures are known for.

The Virginia Tech visitor center is also situated on a hill high above the rest of the campus, which Glavé & Holmes wanted to use to their advantage. Two stories of glass in the lobby and the conference rooms provide a dramatic look down onto the campus. In the reception area, information-intensive electronic kiosks also connect guests to the campus below. Touchscreens ranging from 50-60 inches provide maps of the university, information about student living and various degree programs, among other information.

bridge the old with the new
Creating buildings that retain the tradition of a campus’ architecture on the outside while incorporating newer technologies on the inside (such as the latest in A/V in larger presentation spaces) is a great way to attract potential students. “It’s so important to students to feel the place they are coming to is cutting-edge,” says Vanessa Vinsant, interior designer with Glavé & Holmes. “So we have larger presentation spaces where we can seat anywhere from 5-100 students. They get a sense of awe and potential.” On the opposite end of the spectrum, designers also provided Virginia Tech staffers with smaller interview rooms and offices to give students the individualized experience they desire.

Many centers are also integrating other departments into these spaces, such as the offices of alumni relations and graduate admissions, in an effort to connect students with the school’s history.

“Every university is different, and in the case of the welcome center at Wake Forest, that is specifically for undergraduate admissions. It includes all of the components that parents and potential students would need for their visit, which is large and small meeting rooms and auditoriums, interview rooms, dean and counselor private offices, and open office space for application processors,” says McCanna.

inject school pride—carefully
“It was certainly a challenge,” says Vinsant of integrating Virginia Tech’s classic maroon and orange school colors into its visitor center.

“How much do you use campus colors without seeming cheesy? At the same time, people expect to see references to maroon and orange, so we figured out some clever ways to do that,” she adds.

Subtle references were made in the bathrooms and the backsplash behind the coffee bar in the reception area, thanks to a stone mosaic that has orange and rust-red colored pieces throughout. The design team also specified carpet tiles that include slight variations on the school’s iconic colors.

“It’s a nice reinforcement of using the idea of university colors,” Vinsant says. “Collegiate colors are the most readily identifiable marketing tool for any university.”