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Designing Southern Adventist University’s New Student Center


Becky Djernes spent the last three years creating a home base on Southern's campus for students to hang out and connect. She describes some of the most striking features of the new space, including a climbing wall and an indoor slide.

Question: You were the interior designer for the new Bietz Center for Student Life, which was officially opened last October on the campus of Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, Tennessee. What has been the reaction by students, faculty, and staff to the new building?

Answer: If the amount of activity in the building is any indication, I would say the students enjoy having a place to relax, study, and socialize. The comments I’ve overheard sound positive.

Also to be clear, there was an entire design team who worked on this project and everything went through them. The team consisted of four people: myself, the interior design and real estate coordinator on campus; our corporate architect, Fred Turner; his assistant, Annette Ronaszegi; and associate vice president for financial administration over facilities, Marty Hamilton.

View from the second floor of the student center

Recently the building won four awards from the national Association of University Interior Designers. What awards did you win?

First and second place in the Specialty Category, second place in the Renovations $50,000–$150,000 category. The project that won first place in the Specialty category and Best of Show was definitely Gods project and is a story in and of itself. This was the wall art in the Jack Blanco Chapel, which are four Bible verses chosen by retired School of Religion dean Jack Blanco and printed on four large backlit panels. I never dreamed a spiritual project would win these awards.

The Jack Blanco Chapel

The center is 43,000 square feet and boasts many innovative and student-friendly features, like a slide that goes from the second floor down to the first floor. Are you kidding? A slide? Where did that idea come from? What do the students think of it?

The slide idea came from our corporate architect Fred Turner and his previous assistant Anna Montague, who left to serve in the mission field. I wasn’t sure of the idea at first because I didn’t want a big plastic slide that looked like a McDonalds kiddie playground right in the middle of the student center. Nevertheless, I started searching for a slide I could embrace and found Natural Structure out of Baker, Oregon, who made beautiful stainless-steel slides. They had an enclosed one with a clear top. When I saw that slide, I supported the idea wholeheartedly.

The distinctive slide in the atrium of the student center

It has been a big hit. Before the building even opened, families started coming on tours and wanting to go down the slide. I think the parents may have been more excited about it than the prospective students! It was soon obvious that there is a little bit of kid in all of us regardless of our age.

What else is in the center? I believe you even have an interactive gaming room! What other student spaces are there?

For a while, we feared the Interactive Room” wouldn’t be so interactive. We were searching for games that students could play together but that would keep them moving and talking rather than stuck in a seat and glued to a gaming screen. While this room has two of those spaces, we also included a couple of old-fashioned arcade games like Pac-Man. My favorite feature of the room is the interactive climbing wall by Valo Motion. 

Valo Motion is a company out of Finland run by a group of avid boulderers. They wanted a way to practice their bouldering skills while they were stuck indoors at work and developed a 9-foot-high climbing wall and a computer program that projected games onto the wall. They keep developing new games. This is very different from the tall climbing wall in the Hulsey Wellness Center because no one has to be strapped in or have spotters and there is a 12-inch-thick tumbling mat under it should someone jump the short distance to the ground.

The Valo Motion wall in the interactive game room

Lest anyone think it is too easy, I can quickly attest to the fact it is indeed a whole-body workout— though a few games could be played without ever leaving the mat (especially if you are 7 feet tall). The wall is not vertical although it appears so. The top is actually at a 5% incline back into the room so you are hanging on the wall using your hands and feet. If you do give up and jump down, it is only two or three feet onto that thick tumbling mat from the highest point. This is designed for people who aren’t necessarily mountain climbers, as well as for those who are.

One of the cool things about this game” is that students can create challenges for fellow students. They can also save games they play and send them to themselves or their friends, or post them on their favorite social media.

What was the old student center like?

The old student center looked like an old hotel lobby with a small game room off to the side.

Giving the students a living room” to socialize in was one of our goals in the Bietz Center, and the Farrow Family Lodge seems to have hit its mark. Whenever I go over there, students can be found studying, playing games, or socializing.

Comfortable seating in the Farrow Family Lodge

How did you come up with the interior design plans for the student center? When did the plans start being made? Did you consult with students? Did you look at other student centers on other campuses? 

Plans started for a student center over 10 years ago, with the help of a consulting firm that specialized in student centers. We had some student focus groups and we visited newer student centers at public universities across the country. While the original student center design for across the street got scrapped in favor of keeping the student center along the promenade, the groundwork still applied.

As we were selecting furniture for the Bietz Center, we had a company bring a trailer filled with soft furniture onto campus and invited students to sit test the furniture and give us their reactions. The furniture with the highest marks is what we purchased to use in the Farrow Family Lodge.

Our design team of four people that I mentioned above met weekly with the architects to discuss the interior layouts and needs. We also met weekly as a team to talk about how we wanted each space to feel. It was important that each space have its own feel and yet coordinate with the building as a whole. Creating a space like this was very different from creating an academic building that houses one specialty. This was more like creating a mall and all the stores within it. While the overall mall needs to be inviting, each store also needs to spark the interest of the shoppers, inviting them inside with the design. 

Is everything working out like you expected? Is there anything you wish you had designed differently?

Mostly everything came together as expected. As to things being designed differently, yes, some departments being housed in the new building had specific programming needs we had to meet, so some decisions were out of our hands.

Every project requires flexibility as unexpected situations surface during construction. I’ve learned that sometimes we have to let things go. This is Gods building, not mine.

I’ve learned from past buildings that things are always changing. This building will be no different.

I believe the building was all donor-funded? How about the interior design? Is that paid for by the university?

All finishes and furniture were included in the funds raised to provide this beautiful facility for our students.

Where did you get your experience in interior design? Did you attend Southern as a student?

My degree dealt in design but not specifically interior design. My dad was a contractor and the knowledge I gained from working alongside him has proved invaluable to space planning.

I’ve spent years following my husband from school to school doing what God put in front of me. Particularly when he became a dean of boys, I tried to make the spaces more homey and less institutional, as that is where students spend the bulk of their year. God doesn’t always call the equipped but he always equips the called and he does that through our lifes experiences.

I did not have the privilege of attending Southern as a student, but at this point, I’ve given it nearly 19 years of my life and with it a piece of my heart.

This project must have taken all of your time and energy for quite a while!

The student center was my main focus for probably three years. As with all spaces, there is a lot of intense planning and then there is a lot of waiting while the project is starting to come out of the ground. Then as the drywall goes in and they start to get ready for finishes, there are daily or near-daily visits to the site to make sure the paint colors are being applied where they are supposed to be and the correct flooring is being installed as planned. It really starts to come together when we get to start bringing in the furniture and installing the artwork. Then the grand opening happens and the baby we have nurtured for so long is handed over to the adoptive parents. It is always encouraging to know that the new family is so attentive as Joey Tolbert, the facility manager, has been in her care of the Bietz Center.

Now what projects are you working on? What else does a real estate coordinator at Southern do?

Now we are focused on the backfill of the spaces that were vacated by the move of departments to the Bietz Center. So many departments moved from so many buildings that the backfill plan is quite massive. Then as people shuffle into the backfill spaces, they leave more spaces to be backfilled, so that will keep us busy for a long time.

Plus, our new president is a man of vision, and he has been exploring the needs for new academic spaces, which will also keep us busy.

The real estate part of my job is helping to keep track of all of Southerns properties, as well as properties on which Southern has the right of first refusal, and assist in any real estate transfers. I also work with the county to get tax exemptions on any properties that qualify. 

Watch the video tour below to see more of the Bietz Center for Student Life


Alita Byrd is interviews editor for Spectrum.

Images courtesy of Becky Djernes and Southern Adventist University.

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