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SRG Partnership, Clatsop Community College Join Forces to Build New Maritime Science Building on MERTS Campus

SRG Partnership, Clatsop Community College, Marine and Environmental Research and Training Station, Maritime Science Building

By Bekka Wiedenmeyer

With facilities extending across Astoria and Tongue Point, Clatsop Community College (CCC) has been serving students since 1958 as Oregon’s first community college. Its main campus overlooks the Columbia River, and its Marine and Environmental Research and Training Station (MERTS) campus sits about four miles east of Astoria on Tongue Point just steps away from John Day Channel and the broader Columbia River. In an effort to expand CCC’s coastal educational program and increase the spotlight on the surrounding maritime community, the college is collaborating with Seattle-based architecture and interior design firm SRG Partnership to build a 15,500 square foot Maritime Science Building that will add classroom, lab and conference spaces with flexibility to evolve alongside the program in years to come.

“There was an opportunity here to connect this building to an understanding of how things happen on a ship, what the day-to-day routine is on a ship and the way that ships are constructed and made in order to enable them to support the kind of activities that happen on them,” said Carl Hampson, design principal at SRG. “So the intent here was not to mimic the aesthetics of a ship, but to mimic the DNA of a ship, how a ship is organized and how it supports the hands-on approach to what they’re teaching at this school.”

Hampson said he was personally excited to be on board the project when it first came up in 2018 because prior to becoming an architect, he had spent three semesters with the California Maritime Academy in a program similar to the coastal educational program at MERTS. According to Hampson, this tenure had a major influence on his approach to architecture.

“I had an obvious relation to the [Maritime Science Building] and an interest in it,” Hampson said.

The MERTS campus, located at 6550 Liberty Lane, currently houses three buildings which offer  students hands-on experience in maritime, fire science and industrial technology training. Hampson said three factors that primarily drove the design of the new Maritime Science Building were the challenging soil conditions of the site, student experience and program reputation. 

“One of the biggest drivers is the fact that the soils conditions on the site [are] silty soils and they’re subject to a lot of liquefaction in a seismic event,” Hampson said. “As a result of that, working with our civil engineer inspection engineers we realized that there was going to need to be extensive piles used for this building to keep it from sinking into the ground in an event, and there was significant cost connected with that.”

Many maritime students come to MERTS for two to three weeks of intensive specialized training for certification purposes, which can mean up to eight hours a day spent in the classroom.

“How can we best utilize the dollars that the college had allocated for this project to maximize the learning experience for the students?” Hampson said.

As only the fourth building on the MERTS campus, the project team also wanted the building to assimilate to the character of the existing campus while also representing a new gateway for MERTS.

“How can we use this building to create a new gateway, a new face for the campus?” Hampson said. “Because there’s only three existing buildings on the campus and we wanted this building to really provide a gateway and a welcoming to the campus. This building was intended to promote the kind of reputation and the visibility on the national scale, because…there aren’t many of these schools.”

To address the soil conditions and potential seismic issues, the project team designed the two-story building with a smaller first floor than the second, which resulted in a smaller foundation. The team then cantilevered the ends of the building as far as possible so no foundations would be required, and transformed the space beneath the cantilevers to covered outdoor work areas. 

“There’s some lab spaces on the lower floor where they work on diesel engines and various maritime equipment and things, and they’re able to open the doors and move that stuff outside and get shelter from the rain underneath those long overhangs,” Hampson said.

The primary structure of the building is steel, and the team intends to use mass plywood for the roof and floor structure.

“Plywood was invented in Oregon so it ties back to the industry of timber in Oregon,” Hampson said. “This building is pretty much about supporting the maritime industry of Oregon. So there’s a strong connection here about the association with learning here and the support of local industries.”

To help the building act as a gateway for campus, the team aligned the design of the Maritime Science Building so its main entrance lines up with an existing classroom building, and then they created a south-facing two-story glass atrium which represents a visual entry point and circulation area. Through this feature, students can take advantage of outdoor views without being affected by the Pacific Northwest rain. On the back wall of the atrium is a perforated plywood graphic of the Columbia River meeting the Pacific Ocean.

“It pays homage to the maritime history of the beacon and also the timber industry through the use of wood, not only in the artwork but also in the structure of the building,” Hampson said.

The project team focused on a simple design so they could express different components of the building in the same way different components can be expressed on a ship. The linear, upper floor element is designed for navigation activities, where there is a bridge simulator for students to learn the operations on the bridge of a ship, and the lower floor element is dedicated to engineering-oriented activities, like how an engine room would be located below deck on a ship. Hampson said the vertical element of the building is its mechanical core, where pipes and ductwork are exposed moving down into the atrium to allow for flexibility of teaching modalities and new equipment and technology. The expression supports the hybrid steel and plywood system of the building, which is then clad in simple metal panels to emulate the enclosure of a ship.

“It’s a very different look than the other buildings [on campus], but it’s intended to complement them in the way that it relates to them in terms of organizing the campus circulation,” Hampson said. “It also becomes more about expressing the interior of the building; that back wall is where you enter into that atrium, and seeing the activity inside and then becoming a new icon for the campus and main gateway.”

Hampson reiterated that one of the goals of the building is to provide something that is workable for students and their pursuit of learning.

“What’s key here is that this is a training facility that really provides access to very well paying jobs for people in the community where they have what’s currently a very robust maritime industry,” Hampson said.

Hampson also emphasized the project team’s efforts to design a building that could be flexible for use over time. To do this, they kept classroom and lab spaces column free on the interior so the linear volume of the building can be divided by shifting walls back and forth, if needed.

“A lot of these programs evolve over time,” Hampson said. There’s new technology, there’s a bridge simulator in here which is a very expensive piece of technology, but even that over time may get upgraded or may require some modification. So we designed the building so that it would have maximum flexibility.”

While the design for the Maritime Science Building has been completed, budgetary constraints and the COVID-19 pandemic have prevented the project from moving forward. 

“We’ve been trying to think of things that we might be able to do to help the college in terms of moving this project along,” Hampson said. “Whether it’s looking at helping them attract other donors or whether it’s looking at maybe some creative partnerships with things like the Maritime Museum in Astoria, which is currently looking at going through a major expansion, but sort of trying to link this to the broader maritime and the community of greater Astoria to try to find opportunities…that might help them give the project a new opportunity to move forward.”