Copper shining on ASU’s newest downtown Phoenix building

Posted By Mike Padgett

Jan. 3, 2009

The newest building establishing its presence in downtown Phoenix is ready to turn as shiny as a new penny.

Work on Arizona State University’s College of Nursing and Healthcare Innovation is at the halfway point, and much of the exterior of the elegant glass building – designed by the Phoenix office of SmithGroup – will be clad in copper. The five-story building at Third and Fillmore streets is to be completed by DPR Construction Inc. in mid-2009, in time for the fall semester.

Construction started in mid-2008. The work has been distracting me for weeks, starting when workers began assembling the building’s steel bones. Then workers hung a color rendering on the construction fence. That’s what turned my head – a design for a new building coated partly in copper.

I called SmithGroup for details. Spokeswoman Sommer Caraway put me in touch with architect Mark Kranz. The three of us recently walked around the construction site.

Kranz says copper is not as expensive as many think. Plus, he adds, the metal is a key part of the state’s history, and coating a building in copper makes a powerful design statement, which fits with ASU’s vision for its downtown campus.

“It’s going to make a significant splash for the campus, once the (copper) skin starts going up,” Kranz says.

Agreed. Will it become part of the iconic look of ASU’s downtown campus? Maybe. This building is bold eye candy. Its look of sophistication is a positive design statement. It is a refreshing departure from the look-alike glass-and-steel towers and squat stucco boxes that for too long have dominated the Valley’s often-dowdy design palette. In design, this new building’s cutting-edge look places it alongside the new Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications just two blocks away at Central Avenue and Fillmore Street.

SmithGroup’s design portfolio across the nation includes several university buildings. The company’s design for the new nursing college is unique because it is not on a campus proper, like ASU’s main campus in Tempe or the University of Arizona’s campus near downtown Tucson.

“So there’s an added level of complexity and expectation here for what the building is going to contribute to the development of downtown, the vibrancy of the street, the livability, the shade, and the kind of activity that everyone is hoping that downtown will eventually have,” Kranz says.

ASU’s nursing college first opened its downtown Phoenix facilities in August 2006 in renovated space in three buildings – the old Park Place office building on Taylor Street, between Second and Third streets; in the office building at 411 N. Central Ave.; and in the Mercado complex at Seventh and Van Buren streets.

At that time, ASU officials had hoped to open the College of Nursing in a new building at the current construction site, which is next to Park Place. But one could say that ASU, by waiting, is getting more than it anticipated because the original plan for the nursing college was a new three-story building. After more discussions, that design was boosted to the five-story building now under construction. It will have about 84,000 square feet.

The new building’s first floor – wrapped mostly in glass – will have classrooms, offices and a 200-seat auditorium with breakout space for seminars. From the second floor up, the building juts out over the sidewalks to the curb, a design innovation that creates shade for the sidewalks. That innovation also required a zoning change from the city of Phoenix.

The second floor is designed for students. It includes classrooms, a lounge and a balcony that overlooks the lobby. The third floor will have space for research and administration.

Floors four and five are open spaces available for tenants, possibly for lease to private companies or for offices for the city of Phoenix, which is the building owner. City bonds are paying for construction.

The north face of the nursing college building will receive little, if any, sunlight, so its glass facade requires minimal shading. If I had a choice, this is where I’d like an office, with unrestricted views to the north.

The east and west sides of the building will receive direct sun, so they will be shaded – the east side with fixed aluminum louvers and the west side with perforated copper sheeting.

The building’s west façade features two balconies and an exterior stairwell, all clad with solid and perforated copper panels creating shade from the harsh afternoon sun. Solar panels will be on the roof to heat water for restroom faucets.

Kranz is telling us about the project while we’re standing at Third and Fillmore, across the street from the construction site. He makes an excellent point, calling the new building “the corner gateway for the entire downtown campus.” Motorists southbound on Third or traveling on Fillmore will be distracted by the new building’s copper skin and by its total design.

“You can argue that getting off the (Interstate) 10 and coming down either Seventh or Third streets, this is the corner place where you arrive on the campus,” Kranz says. “So for the university, this is the gateway building.”

Which is why the building’s design was increased to five floors and upgraded with copper sheeting. The original three-story design “was not necessarily, from anybody’s perspective, an appropriate use of downtown real estate or an appropriate gateway building for ASU,” Kranz says.

Even at night, when the copper skin will go largely unnoticed, the new building will be hard to miss. Its exterior stairway, enclosed in frosted glass, will be illuminated, making it a giant torch visible for blocks and signifying that even at night, the building pulses with energy.

“At night it will glow and really pronounce this corner as a significant kind of entry to the campus,” Kranz says.

He adds that over time, the building’s copper sparkle will be replaced by a weathered patina. “We like the idea of the copper staying new-penny shiny forever, but we also like the beauty of copper as it weathers,” Kranz says.

The College of Nursing is just east of the twin towers of Taylor Place, ASU’s first downtown dormitories. The first tower opened a few months ago. The second tower is opening this month.

And immediately west of Taylor Place is the Cronkite building, which also opened a few months ago.

When the nursing college opens in June, it will be the fourth new ASU building opened in downtown Phoenix in less than 12 months. Collectively, the four buildings are expected to become a hub of ASU’s downtown presence. They are in three consecutive blocks between Central Avenue and Third Street, from Fillmore to Taylor streets.

ASU officials, when work on the new college began in mid-2008, said Arizona has an average of 681 registered nurses per 100,000 residents, compared to the national average of 825 nurses per 100,000 people. They said the need for more nurses in Arizona will increase in response to an expanding and aging population.

The renovations and addition of new buildings for ASU are being paid for by the proceeds of $233 million in bond sales. The bonds were part of the $878.5 million bond package voters approved in 2006.

(Photos of construction progress are available at:

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Jan 3rd, 2009

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