“The Vision Was Very Clear”: The New Center for Student Life

“The Vision Was Very Clear”: The New Center for Student Life
  • Makers
Karen Lewis Taylor

Design thinking translates “dreaming” into reality for the Olander Center for Student Life at the A.E. Finley Activity Center.

Ravenscroft announced plans to create a new student life center through renovations and additions to the A.E. Finley Activity Center in July 2020, but the vision for such a space — a vibrant, adaptable community hub designed around a holistic approach to student wellness — had been on the minds of school leadership for much longer.

Above, the construction site is uncharacteristically still at sunrise on March 15, 2021.

This August 2021 aerial photo shows the striking architecture and campus context of the Olander Center for Student Life at the A.E. Finley Activity Center.

“We had spent 10 years dreaming about this space,” Head of School Doreen Kelly said. “We know we have an obligation to meet the contemporary needs of our students — health, wellness, community and connection. Our vision was born out of that commitment.”

As Ravenscroft worked in partnership with the design team at Little Diversified Architectural Consulting to translate those values into brick, glass and concrete, stakeholders including trustees, faculty and staff, students and alumni gave input that helped craft the project’s vision statement.

“There was a unity of message from all the stakeholders. The vision was very clear,” Tomas Eliaeson, partner and design principal at Little, said of the process. “Looking back at the early sketches now, we see a lot of things that were very much like the final product today.”

Here, Eliaeson, project architect Anne Seeley and landscape architect Ryan Ives highlight how the school’s vision has ultimately shaped the spaces of the Olander Center for Student Life at the A.E. Finley Activity Center — slated to open in the spring. 

A September 2019 concept sketch of the first floor reflects features that are remarkably close to the Center’s final design. 

Center for Student Life Vision Statement

“The Center for Student Life reinforces the understanding that learning is relational and that the social and cognitive competencies are complementary processes of human growth and development and are inextricably linked. The Center for Student Life provides fluid spaces that encourage an exchange of ideas; promote a holistic concept of wellness; and strengthen the Ravenscroft family.”

Encouraging an Exchange of Ideas

“There was this balance the stakeholders talked about, between academic life and wellness and creating connections and social interactions. You need to have this other sort of connectivity,” Eliaeson said. “So this place was envisioned to push the social aspect of the school experience and support mentoring relationships — teachers to students, students to students, older students to younger kids. That idea became pretty important.”

Design solutions:

  • Strategically situated to allow Middle School and Upper School students to share a space that promotes interaction and mentoring
  • Collaborative and meeting spaces of various size and scope, with an open feel similar to the Keim Center for Innovation and Research
  • Room for an entire division (approximately 400 students) to meet comfortably
  • Information desk and dynamic message boards

Schematic design floor plans from January 2020 capture the many features that define the Center, including the large dining hall that will accommodate an entire division for meetings and second-floor meeting and social spaces. 

LEARN MORE: Little’s Design Methodology

The Little design team shares precedent images reflecting the school’s vision for an open, welcoming building where students can study, collaborate and relax in various kinds of spaces.

A rendering of second-floor common areas illustrates the Center’s flexible options for seating.

This rendering captures how the architectural design informs the function of the space, with the two-story glass curtain wall allowing connection to the exterior campus quad. 

Sketches, precedent images, site plans and renderings courtesy of Little Diversified Architectural Consulting 

Construction photos courtesy of Chris Farrow

This August 2021 photo shows the views from the second-floor mezzanine into the dining hall below and out across the campus green.

Promoting a Holistic Concept of Wellness

“One thing that became evident [in conversations with students] was that they often feel pressure to be amazing athletes, students, musicians and so forth, and they need a space where they can decompress in multiple ways: social interaction, relaxation, mindfulness, exercise,” Eliaeson said. “It was really pretty striking to hear this from the students’ point of view.”

Seeley added, “We also heard about their challenges in finding enough time to do all the things they want or need to do: ‘If there was a way to throw all that together — I don’t have to walk anywhere, I can get my food, do my club meeting, meet my friends right after and make it back to class within the lunch period — that would be amazing. We’d use that space.’”

Design solutions:

  • Athletic and workout spaces integrated with other elements of student life
  • Relaxation and mindfulness spaces with focus on mental/emotional health
  • Spacious and appealing dining hall with different seating options, providing busy students with meal options and greater choice of where and how they spend their lunchtime
  • Features promoting safety and security: the building is nestled within the campus interior, has controlled access points and facilitates appropriate supervision by adults

At left, an early rendering of the dining hall captures the appeal of an open, sunlit space with views of the outdoors, also reflected in this construction photo from August 2021. 

The new wellness room is integrated into one of the Center’s quiet spaces — on the lower level, overlooking Stefanou Field — and will complement the A.E. Finley Activity Center’s existing cardio and weight rooms. 

In a presentation made to the Board of Trustees’ Buildings & Grounds Committee in October 2018, school leaders use this word cloud to communicate institutional priorities around the proposed Center for Student Life.

Strengthening the Ravenscroft Family

“We talked early on about how the Finley Center was already the most-used building on campus and how the culture of schools is transitioning to an 8 a.m.-8 p.m. experience, with families coming onto campus in the evenings for practice, rehearsals or games,” Seeley said. “We wanted to create and design a space where all members of the community — students, parents, visitors and employees — intrinsically feel welcomed to all of the spaces or zones within the overall design.”

Design solutions:

  • Open floor plan, natural light and interior finishes that create a welcoming space for the entire community
  • Accessibility features including a thoughtfully designed front entrance ramp
  • RavenZone school store’s branded spirit wear displayed in a visible, central and convenient location
  • Dining hall and Alumni Hall of Fame suite to host social functions involving alumni and families

This rendering from December 2019 suggests the Center’s proximity to Gonet Gateway as well as the Finley Center’s Main Arena, making it a convenient and welcoming place for families and alumni as well as students, faculty and staff. 

This site plan from January 2020 shows how the Center is integrated into its site on campus, with steps, pathways, outdoor seating and landscaping woven seamlessly into the campus context. 

The new Alumni Hall of Fame suite will offer expansive views, with a balcony overlooking Stefanou Field, and an updated space for meetings and social functions.

Enjoy updated photos and video from the construction site and read more stories about this exciting project on our dedicated project page.


“How the challenge became the driver”

The decision to renovate and expand the A.E. Finley Activity Center for this project may seem like a no-brainer: after all, the building, one of the four original facilities on campus, sits prominently on the quad and has served as a hub of events since its opening in 1973. But planning for new construction on the existing site didn’t come without challenges. As it turned out, the design team’s response to one major challenge — the significant changes in elevation across the site — created some of the building’s most striking features.

This site diagram from September 2019, with numbers representing the many changes in topography across the site, illustrates the challenges the Little team addressed with thoughtful design solutions. 

“This is an example of how the challenge became the design driver,” landscape architect Ryan Ives explained. “Figuring out how to insert the new construction, almost surgically, in the heart of campus between the Middle School and the Upper School meant determining how to have the building really engage the slope — how to make that landform ‘hold’ this building and then how the students move across that slope.”

The team’s design response included:

  • Two main entrances, one from the Middle School and one from the Upper School, at different points of elevation — and each with its own distinctive features
  • A thoughtfully designed exterior with a pathway that provides accessibility and seamlessly engages with landscaping and other elements at the front and side of the building
  • A nearly 270-degree line of sight from inside the building — from the Middle School, along the quad to the Upper School and over to Stefanou Field — to further anchor the building to its surroundings

One key design solution — the entrance on the Middle School side of the tract, where the elevation is higher — creates additional gathering places for students in and around the Center. 

“The path was really important,” Ives said. “We made sure that the accessible route is a primary route that goes to different destinations on campus. It’s not just a separate path that checks the boxes of accessibility but makes users feel like, ‘Oh, I have to go that way.’ My hope is that we created enough ways to occupy that path and slope to entice people to take the long way.”

“The whole concept of the building is about interweaving and interconnecting the students through visual and physical connections and movement,” Seeley added.

“Those 10 years of dreaming and honing in on what was most needed was one of the best things about this project,” Ives concluded. “This was a really challenging site, but it was the right site.”

This drone footage from August 2021, shot by Director of Facilities Chris Farrow, captures the full scale of the project and the impressive line of sight — nearly 270 degrees — that will connect the Ravens inside with the other parts of our campus.

An updated rendering of the RavenZone school store shows how spirit wear and other branded merchandise will be visible.

Renderings of the interior depict the openness of common areas, giving a more welcoming feeling for all users.