El Paso Community College’s architecture building, known as Building Z, teaches by example of its fine detailing, prudent climate response, and generous circulation planning.
Architect Alvidrez Architecture
General Contractor Banes General Contractors
Civil Engineer Site Work Engineering
Landscape Architect Desert Elements
Structural Engineer HKN Engineers
MEP Engineer FMS Engineering
Texas Tech University and The University of Texas at El Paso are the best-known higher education institutions in El Paso. However, El Paso Community College (EPCC), established in 1969 as the El Paso County Community College District, provides significant local community outreach. According to its website, EPCC serves over 27,000 credit students and 8,000 continuing education students each semester. EPCC’s architecture building, Building Z, designed by Alvidrez Architecture and completed in 2017, exemplifies both successful institutional building and avant-garde architecture regionally and even nationally.
EPCC’s architecture program is especially known in the region for its work with the Texas Tech University College of Architecture (CoA). In 2007, EPCC and the CoA partnered to establish a 2+2 program, whereby students can obtain a two-year associate degree in architecture from EPCC and then continue their education at the CoA to earn a Bachelor of Science degree in architecture. With bachelor’s degree in hand, graduates have some clear options: (1) They can invest two more years in their education at Texas Tech or elsewhere by pursuing a professional Master of Architecture, or if advancing a specific research agenda, a Master of Science in Architecture; the joint program even offers a graduate degree on historic preservation and design as a way for local students earn a master’s degree. (2) They can seek a position with an architecture firm.
The EPCC‒CoA partnership received a $5.9 million Department of Education Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) grant designated for Hispanic institutions. The funds were used primarily to construct a new building for EPCC’s growing architecture program at its Valle Verde Campus, thereby advancing its development plan and supporting the partnership with the CoA. Built in southeast El Paso, the Valle Verde Campus — the first campus organized and constructed by EPCC after the 1974 purchase of some buildings near downtown — was initially completed in 1978 and has been expanded many times since. Most of the buildings were organized in the central axis. With the installation of what EPCC calls the “modular village,” the master plan followed to some extent Thomas Jefferson’s “academical village,” with a quadrangle courtyard (quad) defining the central open space.
Given the quad’s importance, the organization of the central buildings, and the connection of the northern and southern parts of campus, the new architecture building, Building Z, was placed between the Student Services Center and Building A, the central building with courtyards. The way in which Building Z is situated is based on the original master plan. With its interior circulation, Building A connects the southern parking lots, situated below the northern quad, with the buildings and the quad, situated in the northern part of campus. Additionally, a set of monumental stairs — as it is known on campus — next to Building A makes the same connection on the exterior. Understanding the significance of the stairs, the architects of Building Z incorporated them such that they are integral to the new design.
Standing above the level on which Building A and the Student Services Center interact, Building Z creates a bridge between the north and south of the campus. Anyone approaching the building from the southern lower level parking lots sees the end of this bridge: Elevated by concrete piers to the height of Building A and the Student Service Center, it is a one-story rectangular glass tube encased in EIFS — materials engaged in a striking interior-exterior relationship — expressing an architectural language that distinguishes it from the immediate context. From the parking lot, the monumental stairway goes up to the quad on the same level as a plaza between Building A and the Student Services Center. From the conceptual design stage, Alvidrez wanted to populate this plaza and, for this reason, raised the building, thereby operationalizing the plaza level as a roofed, open-air social space.
The rectangular tube sits on two recessed rectangular volumes, one on each side of the plaza. Both volumes are fully glazed on the east side where visitors first see the building. The main entrance of the building is located in the northern volume, in the roofed plaza area. The entrance volume is a double-height multipurpose open space, serving as a foyer, gathering space, presentation space, and lecture hall. It is very open, with a grand stairway to the studio spaces on the upper level. The use of this relatively wide stairway varies according to how the open space is being used at a given time. For example, students often use the stairway as seating, for socializing or listening to lectures. On the other hand, the southern volume consists of a traditional classroom with a stairway up to the studio level.
The second floor, i.e., the main level, is a space that appears very open despite incorporating somewhat separated studio spaces. The main studios are located at the north and south ends of the building, with service spaces, including an open gathering space and a glazed computer lab, in the middle. To serve as a buffer from the afternoon sun, all areas, from the faculty offices to the elevators, are located in the west side of the rectangular tube, lined from one end to the other, leaving the rest of the space as open as possible. At the south end of the building a perforated metal screen added to the glazed facade protects the interior from the direct southern sun, while providing a glorious view of the landscape from the studio space.
In short, knowing that the building must serve architecture students primarily, Alvidrez realized a detailed interior and exterior design, creating a living architecture laboratory for all who encounter Building Z.
Mahyar Hadighi is director of historic preservation and design at Texas Tech University College of Architecture in El Paso.