Replacing Scribner Village: The $42 million project in the making

Posted by Katie Vallas

In 1973, the college built Scribner Village as an experiment to gauge student response to apartment-style on-campus living. Three decades later, the 15 wood-frame apartments still stand. But with the aid of trustee donations and the spur of a rapidly growing student population, members of the college community will soon see the culmination of the college's decades-long advances in on-campus apartment living.

At the helm of the project stands QPK Design, the architecture firm responsible for designing Northwoods Apartments. Contingent on approval by the Board of Trustees and the city of Saratoga Springs, the first phases of the $42 million Scribner Village Replacement Project could begin to appear by next fall.

Trustee donations made the project possible, with a $12 million donation from the Sussman family, who also gave aid to the construction of the Murray-Aikens Dining Hall. An additional $5.5 million donation from an anonymous trustee moved the project forward. "These are what's permitting us to start the project and begin it in a serious way," said Mike West, the college's vice president for Finance and Administration.

With help from a college task force representing the voices of students, faculty and staff, QPK architects created a three-pronged plan that provides short-term solutions to dorm overcrowding and large-scale improvements to on-campus apartment living.

The three phases of their design include additions to Northwoods Apartments, the creation of new slope-side apartments intended as dorm alternatives for sophomores and a complete reconstruction of Scribner Village apartments, with eventual demolition of all of the current structures.

"The major comment we received was to build the maximum number of beds that we could while creating accommodations that could result in the best possible living in Scribner," said Eugenia Brieva, one of QPK's leading architects on the project. Brieva and her colleagues intend to tear down the existing structures and replace them with ones built with an eye toward sustainable planning and long-lasting construction, all without leaving any student without housing during the construction period.

To make this possible, two 56-bed slope-side apartment buildings will house more students outside of Scribner Village. "These are four-story buildings, but the lowest levels are kind of buried into the hillside," architect Paul Vaivoda said. "These are two-unit apartments: one accessed from the low side, and one from the campus side."

With a single bedroom on the first floor of each unit and four more above, the five-person apartments would also include a kitchen, living room and dining area. Based on the responses of about 700 students who participated in a 2008-2009 survey, the architects also included in-building laundry facilities and bicycle racks in their plans. These facilities hold a tentative date of completion for fall of 2012.

In an initial design revealed last fall, the architects discussed more large-scale slope-side apartments. But when they brought their designs before the college, administrators raised aesthetic and environmental concerns.

"The steep slope apartments weren't going to work. We would have demolished so many trees," said Don Hastings, director of Residential Life. "It would have been scorched earth."

QPK went back to the drawing board, presenting a fresh design on a smaller scale. The new concept led administrators and architects to consider how these apartments might serve as alternative living options for sophomore students seeking a little more self-sufficiency.

"These two buildings are really very close to campus and have five-person units, whereas in the rest of the project, we have four-bedroom units," Brieva said. "The idea was to try to complement the sophomore accommodations, in a less-independent living situation than the students who occupy Northwoods and Scribner."

Already, Hastings said his office is considering programming opportunities for these sophomore apartments, with prospective models including a sophomore extension of the First-Year Experience or a return to the pre-FYE structure of "theme houses," based around student commonalities including substance-free housing, multicultural interests or honors designations. Hastings said consideration of an exclusively sophomore apartment complex also raises new logistical concerns surrounding meal plan structures and extensions of the college's alcohol and drug policies.

For the juniors and seniors who will still operate as Scribner Village's primary residents, the QPK architects placed an emphasis on preserving the current apartments' community spirit in the new design. "One of the things that students liked most about the actual Scribner Village is the feeling of social interaction," Brieva said.

For the new plan, the architects disregarded the current units' row organization and instead arranged apartments in a circle, with all entrances feeding out of a central park at the community's center.

"In the nature of bringing these buildings closer together, there's an intimacy and more of a connection with your neighbor," Vaivoda said. "We thought it would only reinforce this sense of community."

As they did in Northwoods Apartments, the architects split the four-person apartments through a mix of ground entrances and entryway stairs. But the new Scribner Village apartments, like those they replace, boast larger kitchen, living and dining areas. In an echo of the current apartments' popular back porches, the new design adds outdoor patios for each townhouse. "We want students to take advantage of the space and use it, not just have it as a view," Brieva said.

The architects' work with the college's task force also led them to try to capture what they perceived as the spirit of the Skidmore student in their new Scribner Village designs. "We recognized that the dynamics of the students are of a very active nature," she said. "Part of the idea is to go away from the concept of a box with holes, that's your house."

They took a creative point of view in their planning with the hope that the designs would then better integrate with the college campus as a whole. "You have a lot of things, architecturally, that give character to the buildings you have on campus – funky windows, special roofs," Brieva said. "So what you see here is an attempt to keep those elements harmonious with what you already have."

With the new Scribner Village projected for completion in fall 2013 and the slope-side apartments anticipated for 2012, the college urged the architects to add an additional solution to combat overcrowding pressures in the dorms. They needed something that could stave off on-campus housing trouble for next year, while still being effective in the long-term.

The architects' original plans included construction of a new residence hall with a mix of single and double rooms, as well as four-bedroom suites, to house increased numbers of freshmen and sophomores. But Hastings said such a plan failed to address administrators' concerns about juniors and seniors moving to off-campus housing. "It didn't do what the project wanted it to do," he said. "It took care of the triple issue, but the dynamics of the project were also that we wanted to become more of a residential college."

In keeping with that goal, the architects instead incorporated plans to construct additional Northwoods structures copied from the already-established QPK designs. "Northwoods has been hugely successful," West said. "We haven't had a vacancy in those buildings since they've been constructed."

The three new apartment buildings will house 114 students in the same mix of groundfloor and stairway entrance accommodations appearing in QPK's original Northwoods Apartments.By building the new apartments in place of two parking lots serving the Northwoods community, the college can expect new housing for students well before the completion of the new Scribner Village apartments.

"The beauty of this concept is that in the previous version of our planning, we couldn't see any new beds on campus until 2012," Brieva said. "We are right now in the process of getting city approval that would allow us to displace these cars and start building these 114 beds as soon as we can."

They tentatively expect to see the new Northwoods buildings completed by fall of the upcoming year, in time to accommodate the housing problems posed by the overcrowded freshman class. "With the class of 2014 alone, we need 100 more beds," Hastings said. "That was the reason behind the push for the three new buildings in Northwoods, because they would alleviate that."

He said he thinks this project will prove to be successful in increasing the number of students who choose to live on campus. "After Northwoods, we only had 250 or 300 students off campus," Hastings said. He said he expects the new Scribner Village to have a similar effect in limiting the number of students who live off-campus.

But even while it awaits confirmation from trustees and Saratoga Springs officials, the project has gathered some donations, but not enough to cover the $42 million cost of construction. "The rest of the funds for this project will come from other gifts we'll be seeking during this time," West said.

Already, administrators look forward to new campus improvements. "This project was holding us up from other things," West said.

With a solid plan for the reconstruction nearly come to completion, he said he expects the college to soon begin on changes in other aspects of campus, including the library and the new admissions building. "And after that there will be a new science building, probably an addition to Dana," he said. "There's no shortage of the projects we want to do."

Other administrators emphasize the role the Scribner Village reconstruction will play in prospective students' perceptions of the college. "When we complete this project, we'll have housing of such a high caliber that we'll be incredibly competitive as an institution," West said.

"These apartments are going to be better than Northwoods," he said. "There are not many campuses where that would be the case."

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