CAED Alumni Behind Frost Center for Research and Innovation

by Simeon Johnson and Alex Flores / Photos by Zach Kanter

Frost Center

North side of the William and Linda Frost Center for Research and Innovation during the dedication ceremony. CLICK ON THE PHOTO TO VIEW A VIDEO ABOUT THE alumni behind the Frost Center.

On May 5, the Cal Poly community gathered to celebrate the dedication of its newest building. The William and Linda Frost Center for Research and Innovation is a 102,000-square-foot interdisciplinary facility equipped with state-of-the-art laboratory and teaching spaces. 

The modern building will enhance research and learning experiences for students and faculty in the Bailey College of Science and Mathematics; the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences; and the College of Liberal Arts while also serving as a central hub for the campus. The four-story structure features configurable classrooms, hands-on learning programs, undergraduate research labs, and standard large-sized lecture halls for general education courses.

1) Attendee holds a “Dedication of the William and Linda Frost Center” pamphlet 2) President Jeffrey Armstrong thanks donors of the Frost Center

Although the spaces will not house facilities dedicated to the College of Architecture and Environmental Design, the interdisciplinary building holds special significance for the college. Many individuals involved in creating the facility are CAED alumni, including the architect, structural engineer, landscape architect and many of those managing the construction efforts. 

1) Linda Frost addresses the crowd 2) Ribbon cutting at the dedication ceremony

Architect Ted Hyman, who led the team of architects from ZGF, graduated from Cal Poly and designed many education facilities, including the Warren J. Baker Center for Science and Mathematics at Cal Poly. He attributes the success of both the Baker and Frost Center to the student-focused culture of the university, its faculty and its administration.  

“Most universities, when you talk about the relationship of faculty offices to student spaces, they want them sequestered away from what are typically more noisy spaces. They want a higher level of privacy when they’re in their office. Here, in those early discussions, they said, ‘We want a place right outside our office where students can hang out, where we can see them, where they can come knock on our door and interact easily.’ That’s a pretty unique approach for us, and it drove the planning both at Baker, where there is collaboration and ad hoc teaching space right outside of the offices, and now at Frost, pushing that approach even further, creating similar spaces that link faculty offices, student collaboration space and research space,” Hyman recounted.  

Hyman also discussed the significance of interdisciplinary collaboration as one of the college’s strengths, tracing his experience working with other professions back to his studies in the CAED.   

“When we were here, we had to take classes with other majors. I have good friends who are leading some of the best structural engineering firms around the world now who sat in the same class as I did at Cal Poly. My education in structural and mechanical engineering, all those things along with design, has been the foundation of my work throughout my career. It is so essential that students come out of here with that broader experience on what it means to design a building holistically rather than just thinking about form giving,” he noted.  

For the Frost Center specifically, several vital elements would not have been included if not for Hyman’s interdisciplinary training, including the innovative approach taken to the building’s HVAC system and the integration of the exposed structural concrete as an aesthetic in the design. 

1) The wood above the glass includes transfer grilles that allow air to be transferred from the offices into the atrium and from the atrium into the labs as make up for the laboratory exhaust system. 2) When the building goes into “fire mode,” gravity louvers above the atrium ceiling drop to allow for a passive smoke exhaust system. 

Hyman broke down his approach to generating the design for the building. He explained that the form started as a simple box, and his team worked with the university to organize all the programmatic spaces needed for the facility. The site constraints drove the building from a rectangular form to maximize the available site around the existing buildings, creating the iconic angular atrium in the process.   

Including the “collaboration bridge” and secondary wing of laboratories was a pragmatic response to the budget. On the one hand, the opening acts as a north / south gateway at the core of the campus. However, it also allowed the university administration to continue fundraising up to the start of construction. If funding fell short, the bridge and secondary wing of the building could be eliminated or phased out without requiring significant redesign of the building. 

The materials and finishes were selected to begin knitting the campus fabric together architecturally. The red brick facades on the engineering buildings to the south and the administration building to the north are reflected by Baker and Frost. At the same time, the exposed concrete references the school’s many brutalist structures but interprets the style in a more tectonic and human way.   

Finally, one of the most essential elements of the design from the exterior and within the atrium is the transparency of the building, putting research on display and highlighting the impressive interdisciplinary work going on inside. Success might be measured when someone from CAED is sitting in the atrium and has an “intellectual collision” with fellow students from liberal arts and the sciences. 

1) The transparency of the building puts research and innovation on display 2) Careful coordination of mechanical systems allowed the exposed structure to be expressed cleanly.

Structural engineer Kurt Clandening, of John A. Martin & Associates, graduated from Cal Poly with his bachelor’s and earned a master’s at UC Berkeley. Clandening discussed some technical aspects of how the building was conceived and constructed while reiterating the significance of collaboration in making the project successful.   

Aside from the material selection that ties the building into the context, the structural concrete visible throughout the project plays a key role in stabilizing the building and minimizing vibrations for the lab spaces. The thermal mass also helps to regulate temperatures, keeping the building cooler on hot days and slightly warmer on cool nights.   

Clandening’s design approach was also critical in ensuring the building stayed true to the architect’s vision while still being practical to construct. One way this was achieved was by eliminating the need for seismic joints in the bridge area. While it would have been easier to design the building as two structures, it would have also been significantly more costly and complex to build. Instead, Clandening and his team opted to create a heavily reinforced core for the building on either side of the bridge to act as a rigid support, stabilizing it in the event of an earthquake. They also maximized the interior space by insetting the columns back to the office and classroom walls while cantilevering the walkways and lounge areas into the atrium.   

Clandening explained that one of his team’s biggest challenges was working with the building’s unusual geometry, dictated by its cramped site.   

“A flat slab system works well with rebar in two directions, but when you start doing these multiple grids, you get layers of rebar. There were some areas in those twelve-inch slabs where we’ve probably got six layers of rebar because you have them coming in at all different angles,” he said.   

Aside from the rebar, the slabs also hide utility conduits, eliminating the need for drop ceilings in most areas. Even in the more minor details like the exterior fins, the structural and architectural teams worked together to find ways to achieve the intended results with more straightforward and less costly methods. By eliminating the need for access, they made it possible to hang the expanded metal shades from the facade directly without an extensive supporting structure like initially planned.

1) Brick, glass and perforated sheet metal on the northern façade 2) View from the “Christina Bailey Learning Terrace”

The innovation continues outside the building’s walls and into the landscape designed by Joni L. Janecki & Associates (JLJA). Janecki, a graduate of the college’s Landscape Architecture program, focused her team’s efforts on creating and activating green spaces within the site that serve the academic and recreational needs of the campus community. She explained that the design creates opportunities for scientific experimentation, like soil and water testing or botanical research. At the same time, it provides spaces for arts and humanities, where students can paint, perform, debate or write. The diverse range of plants also offers a prime learning environment for those studying horticulture, and the outdoor rooms can be used for agriculture classes.  

“We also imagine that, just as it did on opening day, there could be events such as graduations, student fairs, science fairs that could happen in those outdoor spaces. When they are not active, we also want to make sure that they do not feel huge and overwhelming and that they are still inviting. That is where the tree canopy and the subtleties of the materials, and eventually outdoor tables and seating, will come into play,” Janecki elaborated.

1) Crowd attendance during Frost Center dedication seated in the outdoor area north of the building 2) The landscape outside of the building served as a spacious location for the dedication ceremony

Janecki noted that her familiarity with the campus from her studies and from more recent visits in her role on the Landscape Architecture Department’s advisory board helped expedite the site inventory and analysis stage, allowing her team to produce their concept for the site quickly. The design underwent several iterations as spaces were sized and materials and plants were selected, but the initial vision stayed clear throughout the process.   

She explained how the grading and hardscape are used to define six zones within site: Gateway, Canyon, Bluff, Landing, Dell, and Grove, each offering a different microclimate and scale of space, from larger open areas capable of hosting events to sheltered seating for small groups or individuals. Besides communicating the narrative behind the design, the paving and grading also have functional characteristics that contribute towards the building’s LEED certification, including reflectivity to reduce the urban heat island effect and onsite stormwater retention and filtration.   

Another point Janecki highlighted was the diversity of the project’s plant palette, which builds on the campus’ extensive collection of beautiful trees and references the site’s history as a plant conservatory. The plant layout transitions users from the more natural groupings of Australian species found around Baker Science into an agriculture-inspired layout of California natives going along Building 10 towards the North Perimeter. Janecki noted that including fruiting and edible plants was a priority, in order to reflect the agriculture-related coursework taught in the adjacent buildings. Moreover, while references to the local Chumash people are not specifically highlighted in their presentation, many of the plants that were selected have medicinal and cultural uses for them as well. Special effort was invested in the site’s southwest corner to preserve the most eye-catching planting element: a towering eucalyptus that has long been a campus landmark. 

One challenging aspect of the project was budgetary. Despite the generous funding for the building and class spaces, the budget for the landscaping component of the project was limited, considering the scale of the site. As a result, the JLJA team had to be selective and find ways of cutting costs while still achieving their vision.   

“We had to really examine and talk through what are the most important parts of the landscape. For us as a team, it came down to the pattern in the paving and the planting patterns, but maybe the size of the plants going in at the time of planting was not as important,” Janecki explained.  

She also discussed how her office’s team, managed by Paige Pedersen, another Cal Poly Landscape Architecture alumna, worked with the civil engineers, architects, and structural and geotechnical engineers to ensure the design would meet the site’s requirements and function as expected when complete. The collaboration was especially effective thanks to the care and commitment dedicated by the many alumni working on the project.   

“We found that everyone that came to the table, particularly the alumni, found the project to be super important to them from their own background and experience, and I think all of us gave as much as we could as professionals and providing support for extra meetings or things like that,” Janecki noted.  

Niko Workman, a graduating Cal Poly landscape architecture student and JLJA intern, also had the opportunity to contribute to the project, initially working with the landscape team on redlined revisions for the construction documents and later assisting with site visits as the hardscape was constructed and the plants were installed. He shared that his involvement allowed him to understand better the process a project goes through, from paper and computer drawings to the built landscape. It also taught him valuable lessons about working with others within the office and interdisciplinary collaboration with engineers, architects and contractors.  

When construction began in May 2019, more CAED alumni joined the project, working with the general contractor Gilbane and many subcontractors. The structural concrete subcontractor, Largo Concrete, even provided a unique position for construction management faculty member Andrew Kline to experience the process as a faculty intern.

“One of the things that Largo is very strongly supportive of is interdisciplinary studies. Coming from the Construction Management Department, we’re strong supporters of senior projects and whatnot that include all the disciplines within [CAED],” said Chris Forster, Vice President of Operations for Largo Concrete. 

Kline explained that his role was to work on the project while learning from the specialists and bringing that knowledge back to the classroom for his students. He discussed his team’s challenges but expressed pride and satisfaction with their accomplishments.  

“Months were spent planning for every concrete deck and exposed structural wall. The walls ranged from 10 to 30 feet tall and 12 to 18 inches thick and it took a team to coordinate the planning and execution of each structural element. It was a huge accomplishment getting each element poured and it is amazing to see the quality on every floor and hallway of the structure now,” Kline expressed.  

Each alum also recounted this project’s special significance to them. For Hyman, the opportunity to design two buildings at his alma mater was a privilege few of his peers ever received.   

“Coming back and really getting connected in the sense of community has been amazing. This building, the Frost Center, it’s been a high point of my career,” he said.   

Hyman and his team even helped with the fundraising to keep the “DISCERE FACIENDO” (Learn by Doing) motto in the brickwork near the bridge from being value-engineered out of the project.  

“As an architect, you don’t usually try to raise more money for your building, but it was so important, and I think we were super excited by that,” he explained. 

1) Wall on the south side of the building reads “Discere Faciendo” 2) Complex geometry and large areas of exposed concrete provided the team from Largo Concrete an opportunity to showcase their craftsmanship. 

The dedication of everyone involved was what set this project apart for Clandening. He recalled that his team was constantly pushed to create the best possible building from the beginning. Throughout the project’s different components, there was always a passion for excellence, which he noted is unique to university campuses, particularly Cal Poly.  

“It was very easy to bring that passion being an alum, being here on campus saying, ‘okay, I was here, I know what these buildings do. I’ve seen them,’” Clandening noted.  

For Janecki, the project’s significance was the chance to design a space serving the entire university.   

“It’s an exciting time because of all the different disciplines in that building and the cross-pollination that can happen. It is good for the students and great for the faculty and staff that there is this opportunity for them to spill out of the building into these outdoor spaces where students from other places can come and take a break. I am hoping that it becomes a real hub for conversation and activities. That is my dream,” she explained.  

From a personal perspective, the Frost Center holds great significance for Workman as it was one of his first opportunities to see a landscape he worked on constructed in the real world.  

“There is nothing more exciting than walking past a dirt lot for months as a student while knowing a bit about what is to come and finally seeing it all come together. Seeing this project completed reminds me why I chose this career,” he said.  

With the unique position of being an alum and a faculty member, Kline found the project incredibly enriching because of the connections he had with many of the other professionals working on the project and the passion they all had for creating a lasting impact on the campus.  

“I had some past students who were working for the subcontractors, some current students who are working for Largo too, and then some peers of mine who are working for the general contractor team, so it almost felt like a family reunion,” he explained.  

Kline discussed how impressive it was to see the quality achieved with the finishes, which he attributes to the contractor’s level of engagement with the university, engineers, and design team. He explained that everyone involved wanted to leave a lasting impact on the campus they love returning to.  

The completed Frost Center is a testament to the quality of the professionals the CAED sends out into the world. Everything about this project, from the architecture, landscape architecture and structural design to the construction, reflects the care and expertise that CAED alums carry with them and pass on to new graduates. The facility showcases the college’s continued success at training the shapers of our built environment across California and beyond.   

“I love walking past it and seeing the finished project, walking my students past it, looking at different aspects of how that got put together. I think the finished project tells one story, but all the lessons learned tell a number of different ones. It is a beautiful project that will inspire future contractors, engineers, and architects,” Kline concluded.

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