Rolex Learning Center in Lausanne, Switzerland

Under the Rolex Learning Center's roof will be an array of facilities, for study, teaching, research, socializing, entertainment and administration. It is a radical and highly experimental building, designed for new ways of study and interaction in the 21st century.

A modern library
The main library, containing 500,000 printed works, is one of the largest scientific collections in Europe; four large study areas can accommodate 860 students with office space for over 100 EPFL and other employees; a state-of-the-art multimedia library will give access to 10,000 online journals and 17,000 e-books, with advanced lending machines and systems for bibliographic search; a study centre for use by postgraduate researchers will provide access to the university’s major archive and research collection, and there are teaching areas including 10 ‘bubbles’ for seminars, group work and other meetings and a Language and Multimedia Centre and associated administration offices.

Learning technologies
The CRAFT Laboratory (Centre de Recherche et d’Appui pour la Formation et ses Technologies), EPFL’s research centre carrying out pioneering work on new learning technologies, offers innovative approaches to text and learning; a career centre is open to students, the student union (Agepoly) and the EPFL Graduates’ Association (A3). There will be a multimedia bookshop and an EPFL shop.

A public space
The Rolex Forum, an amphitheatre with a stage of 310m2 is a venue for up to 600 people, to be used for conferences, lectures, performances other large scale events. A variety of catering outlets include a cybercafé, a self-service cafeteria and, at one of the summits of the building, a high quality restaurant with outstanding views of Lake Geneva and the Alps, all open to the public.

Innovative courtyards
Five external patios, intimate courtyards to be sympathetically landscaped with informal seating, will provide outdoor relaxation areas for visitors and students. The opening hours for the library and building are from 7 am to midnight.

A light and organic shape
Located centrally on the EPFL campus, and its new hub, the building is essentially one continuous structure spread over a site of 88,000m2: The building is rectangular in plan, but appears to be more organic in shape because of the way that its roof and floor undulate gently, always in parallel. With few visible supports, the building touches the ground lightly, leaving an expanse of open space beneath which draws people from all sides towards a central entrance.

Slopes instead of walls
Inside, the hills, valleys and plateaus formed by the undulation often make the edges of the building invisible, though there are no visual barriers between one area and the next. Instead of steps and staircases, there are gentle slopes and terraces. Clearly, but without dividing walls, one area of activity gives way to another. Visitors stroll up the gentle curves, or perhaps move around the space on one of the specially designed ‘horizontal lifts’, elegant glass boxes, whose engineering is adapted from everyday lift design.
As well as providing social areas and an impressive auditorium, the building lends itself to the establishment of quiet zones and silent zones, acoustically separated areas created through changes in height. The slopes, valleys and plateaus within the building, as well as the shapes made by the patios, all contribute to these barrier-free delineations of space. In addition, clusters of glazed or walled ‘bubbles’ make small enclosures for small groups to meet or work together in.

Patios – enclosure and enclosed
The topography lends an extraordinary fluidity to the building’s flexible open plan – a flow that is emphasized by fourteen voids in the structure, of varying dimensions. These are glazed and create a series of softly rounded external ‘patios’, as the architects describe them. The patios are social spaces and provide a visual link between the inside and the outside. They are very much part of the building. From the higher areas, visitors may enjoy views not only of the campus but, spectacularly, of Lake Geneva and the Alps.

An intimate public space
With all its unity and variety, the Rolex Learning Center is, as described by Kazuyo Sejima on the announcement that SANAA had won the architectural competition, an ‘intimate public space’.

Designed for scientific research
The Rolex Learning Center embodies the aims and philosophy of the EPFL, setting the scene for different kinds of collaborative, cross-disciplinary research, regarded as essential to advances in science and technology. It offers flexibility to use the building in many different ways, now and in the future, to absorb new technology and working methods, as they come on stream, many of them developed within EPFL itself. The building emphasizes sociability, getting together for coffee, for lunch, for study, for seminars, to stimulate informal encounters between people of all the key disciplines. It is designed to be a landmark, a place people will want to visit, allowing EPFL to reach out to the surrounding community and internationally.

Design of the concrete shells
For the 3-dimensional curved concrete shells, SANAA worked with structural engineer, SAPS, to find the shapes with the least bending stresses by making computer simulations. After repeating this process numerous times, engineers Bollinger und Grohmann and Walther Mory Maier made detailed calculations to arrive at the final shape.

Construction: precision and innovation
For the construction, SANAA worked closely with the total service contractor, Losinger Construction, on the final calculations and physical implementation of such large and gentle slopes. The concrete execution had to be precise because of the complex façade system that needed to absorb both the concrete shell deflection movement and the construction tolerances. One example of precise execution was the use of laser-cut 2.5m x 2.5m wooden formwork, which was positioned using GPS technology on site. For the ventilation and heating, the undulating one-room volume was also studied via computer simulation to determine the periods when natural ventilation was possible and when floor heating would be necessary. This helped to achieve a low energy consumption target.

Essentially, the building is made up of two ʻshellsʼ. Inside the two shells are 11 under-stressed arches. The smaller shell sits on four arches, 30-40 meters long, while the larger shell rests on seven arches, 55-90 meters long. The arches are held by 70 underground pre-stressed cables.

The main structural materials are steel and wood, with concrete poured into formwork so precise that the underside of the building looks polished. The floor is a concrete structure, the roof steel and wood; the floor and roof run parallel to each other. To follow the geometry of the shells required 1400 different moulds for concrete. The concrete pouring involved delivering concrete continuously over a period of two days, to achieve the complex task of creating one continuous flowing roof space.

As the building is made up of a single structure, all the elements, including the roof, have to be flexible, to accommodate minute changes in dimension caused by natural and structural movements. The internal ceilings are jointed to accommodate these shifts. The curved glass façades, including those that wrap around the patios, with a total area of 4800 m2, also have to take the movement of the concrete: each piece of glass is cut separately, and each piece moves independently on jointed frames.

Energy efficiency
The Rolex Learning Center is a highly energy-efficient building which, for its low energy consumption, has received the coveted Minergie label – the standard used in Switzerland for measuring environmental excellence in buildings.
The building is largely daylight with carefully controlled natural ventilation systems, except for the restaurant and multimedia library, which have cold ceilings. It achieves a 38.5 kWh/m2 (139 MJ/m2) energy consumption thanks to high quality double-glazed windows, 20cm of insulation in the roof and up to 35 cm in the ground, exterior blinds, natural lighting and ventilation, and because it takes advantage of the 25-year-old installation of thermal pumps that use lake water for cooling the whole campus. This degree of energy efficiency was achieved by the pioneering engineering firm Sorane SA, based near to the campus and comprised of engineers from Lausanne and Zurich. Using digital modeling for airflow, lighting, and thermal measurements, the firm increased the energy efficiency of the new building to a technical maximum while at the same time ensuring the safety of its users in case of a fire. Obtaining the Minergie label is an even more outstanding achievement given the energy challenges of an open plan building.

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