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Redesign takes Sauder’s buildings from ‘old high school’ to corporate cool

"The new design has liberated the spirit of this place," says Moses Richu, a 23-year-old student at the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business in Vancouver.

"It really brought out the passion of the school," adds the bright-eyed student, who hails from Nairobi and is majoring in marketing.

It's not common to hear the word "passion" applied to a business school, but the student body is particularly invested in Sauder's makeover, a $70-million project that has added 25 per cent more space, high-tech classrooms and social areas. They pledged $20-million of the cost out of their own fees and were directly involved with the design process.

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"And they had some great ideas," says project architect Russell Acton of Acton Ostry Architects, the Vancouver firm that was initially asked to redesign a single classroom in 2004 and ended up redesigning the entire school (the fourth and final phase of the project will be completed this year).

In keeping with the new student-centred approach to learning that has influenced many faculties, Sauder students asked for social spaces where they could mingle with friends and faculty, as well as different-sized classrooms where they could congregate for study sessions – both formally and informally. Luckily it was a vision shared by the architects and educators.

The future captains of industry and successful entrepreneurs managed to negotiate with the university's central bookstore to open their own branch in the school with actual student employees. But their bid for a student-run café was foiled by union concerns. Still, their enthusiasm for the place is contagious.

The central hub remains the lobby and café area, where students regularly meet for coffee, set up display tables and chat with their professors. On my recent visit, some African students – foreign students represent about a third of the student body here – were manning a booth advertising a cultural evening to promote a "knowledge exchange" program with a school in South Africa, while others went over notes in an adjacent lounge area.

The scene was about as far away from the "old school" approach as one can imagine. When Mr. Richu arrived here five years ago as an 18-year-old undergraduate, his first sight of the school did not live up to its reputation as one of the top 30 in the world. "It certainly didn't have the shine it does now," he says circumspectly.

Thomas Ross, an associate dean at the school who was the point person between the university and the architects, is more blunt. "The interior looked like an old high school. It was sterile and unwelcoming and did not reflect our mandate as a professional, international business school."

When VIPs came to visit, he recalls, faculty would try to find the "least worst rooms to show them," a somewhat embarrassing situation for an otherwise global leader.

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Now, visitors can be wowed by a new penthouse conference space that features panoramic views of the campus, among other spaces.

Acton Ostry Architects had to work with three buildings from three eras – 1965, 1975 and 1995 – and infuse them with new life.

While the 1975 building was rather brutalist and the 1995 embodied a kind of ugly brick corporatism, the original 1965 building by Thompson Berwick Pratt and Partners had good modernist bones – and it became the focal point of the new design.

Inspired by U.S. artist Scott Blake, who created Barcode Jesus (a shroud of Turin-type image made up of thousands of tiny bar codes), as well as the basic grid structure of the 1965 building, Acton Ostry also incorporated the blues and greens of legendary local artists Jack Shadbolt and B.C. Binning to create a mid-century inspired look that feels very contemporary.

Glass panels that alternate between blues and greens, transparent and translucent now form a uniform curtain-wall facade that unites all three buildings, even as subtle changes in the patterning individuate the different sections. A sky-lit atrium centres and orientates the project and also acts as a transition between old and new buildings.

While most of the social space is on the ground floor, classrooms equipped with the latest high-tech screens and audio form the second and third floors, with administrative departments above.

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"In the old model," notes Mr. Ross, "students were actively discouraged from using their cellphones and laptops. Now there are classes where they are asked to tweet onto a screen."

The shift to high-tech is also expressed in pixilated images of past faculty members, whose portraits overlook the atrium. A giant image of lumber baron and school namesake Bill Sauder presides over the atrium like a tall fir. Elsewhere, images of donors embellish glass-paneled rooms they sponsored, their likenesses cleverly formed by pixels of international currency symbols.

The new design was not only about accommodating new technologies – in classrooms, for example, real-time Bloomberg market data appear on screens. But in these design-savvy times, Mr. Ross notes, cutting edge architecture allows schools like Sauder to remain competitive.

The business world is attracting a new crop of creative, technology-aware millennials, and the "corporate cool" feel of the new Sauder school fits like a glove.

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