8-year, $90 million renovation of Sonoma State’s largest academic building is complete

The once bunker-like Stevenson Hall has been completely transformed by a facelift.|

Christopher Dinno is the Chief Planning Officer at Sonoma State University, although he sounded more like a proud parent during a recent tour of Stevenson Hall, the school’s largest academic building.

Once bunker-like and uninviting, “performing poorly from an energy, lighting, exiting, plumbing, comfort, acoustics and ventilation standpoint,” according to one university report, this 57-year-old structure has been dramatically transformed by an eight-year, $90 million renovation.

Formerly a dreary and inefficient space, it was the subject of a whistleblower lawsuit over asbestos in 2017 that resulted in a $2.9 million jury award.

Now, the building is a technologically and acoustically state-of-the art structure, big on sustainability and inclusivity — ask Dinno about the gender-neutral restrooms and lactation area — and awash in available light that penetrates deep into its 130,000 square feet.

School officials will gather at 9 a.m. Friday, Dec. 2 for a ribbon cutting ceremony at Stevenson Hall, which officially opens in January.

Tours will be offered that morning. Many who take them will barely recognize the new space. What had been an incoherent hodgepodge of departments — Dinno likened the previous layout to “a corn maze” — has been clarified and simplified to the point that students will hopefully no longer get lost searching for their classrooms or the offices of their professors.

Pointing to a map of the old Stevenson, he noted that the 12 departments of the School of Social Sciences were located in scattershot fashion on all three floors.

“They’re all over the place,” said Dinno.

In addition to contributing many of the ideas executed in the blueprints by the San Francisco architecture firm EHDD, Dinno had to figure out who would be occupying the new space. To make Stevenson a “true academic building,” the decision was made to move many people — including the university president — elsewhere, for good.

Transferred out were the administrative offices, including those of the president and provost, along with the university’s Media Center, and offices of advancement and alumni affairs, among others.

Remaining behind, on a floor plan that’s far better organized and intuitive, are the Schools of Social Sciences, Business & Economics, and Education.

Classrooms had been located on all three floors of the old building. While four labs have been placed on the second floor of the renovated building, its 22 classrooms are on the first floor — “so you’ve got all that energy now on the first level,” said Dinno.

Nineteen classrooms have 32 seats. One has 64, another, 128. The largest lecture hall seats 224 students.

Entering that 224-seat hall, Dinno effused about its “21st century, high technology” and “incredible” acoustics, with sounds “softly bouncing” off the sawtooth ceiling and combed concrete walls, “so it’s not like an echo chamber.”

That room is one of seven new “high flex” classrooms, set up for both students who are physically present, and others following along virtually. Cameras track the professor walking back and forth on the stage, and students with whom they interact. Voices are picked up by an array of microphones in the ceiling.

In addition to coming in handy when students aren’t able to attend classes, said Sonoma State economics professor Robert Eyler, going out of his way to not use the word “pandemic,” high flex classrooms are also well-suited for courses with a global audience, such as those taught in the university’s Executive Wine MBA program.

The old building housed a trio of stairways, each sheathed in concrete walls.

Two of those stairways have moved outdoors, in the new version. The new stairways are open-air, unenclosed. Those shear concrete walls, reinforced to resist seismic shocks, have been moved to the perimeter of the building. Putting the “exoskeleton” on the outside, said Dinno, “freed up all that space in the center.”

Speaking of wide-open spaces, the star of this makeover is arguably the vast atrium that has replaced what had been a drafty, exposed, underutilized courtyard.

The Stevenson of old was notorious for its unwelcoming, concrete-forward facade. In focus groups and feasibility studies conducted before the building was designed, students and faculty asked for a more welcoming, communal space.

The atrium, flooded with sun streaming through its skylights, looks east on quadrangle, framed by the Sonoma Mountains in the background. It is destined to become a popular spot to study, hang out between classes, or chill with friends.

Dinno was also excited about smaller gathering places scattered throughout the building — he referred to them as “eddies” — spaces for students to sit between classes, or while waiting to meet a professor.

While the building is “institutional,” said Dinno, its exposed ceilings and collaborative spaces give it a “Silicon Valley vibe.”

By removing offices from the perimeter, architects vastly increased the amount of light penetrating to the core of the building.

Eyler, who has occupied seven different offices at Stevenson since arriving at Sonoma State in 1995, recalled the old building as “very dark.”

“The fact that it’s got this much ambient light in a closed space — it’s unbelievable. It's blowing my mind.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

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