US Air Force Academy Center for Character and Leadership Development

In 1954, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) was selected as the architect of the newly created Air Force Academy, set for a picturesque site abutting the Rocky Mountains. To contrast this rugged backdrop, the firm created a rigorously modern campus with an iconic chapel at its center, the entirety of which has since been designated a National Historic Landmark District. In recent years, the Air Force Academy has created a new program, the Center for Character and Leadership Development (CCLD). The Academy sought a new building to house this program that would be a new reason-based icon in counterpoint to its existing faith-based icon. SOM was presented with the question of how to create a second icon that defers to the chapel and the discipline of the Academy’s grid, while also asserting itself within the campus. To create a reason-based icon, SOM designed a building that is in precise optical alignment with the North Star. The Academy uses the North Star, Polaris, to symbolize its core values and illustrates this idea by placing Polaris at the focal point of its official emblem. SOM collaborated with an astronomer, Dr. Devin Della-Rose, to ensure that the CCLD creates a precise optical alignment with Polaris. Dr. Della-Rose writes “The path Polaris, the North Star, makes in the sky can be described to a reasonable degree of accuracy as a circle centered on a point in the sky aligned along true north (360° azimuth), at an angle above the horizon (elevation angle or altitude) equal to the latitude of the viewing location.” This means that from the CCLD, Polaris is always due north, at 39° altitude, regardless of the season or time of day. A cadet inside the Honor Board Room, a room at the base of the CCLD’s 105-foot skylight, is precisely aligned with Polaris through openings in the ceiling and the skylight’s oculus. At the symbolic heart of the CCLD is the Honor Board Room, where potential violations of the Cadet Honor Code are investigated. The Honor Code states, “We will not lie, steal, or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does.” The Honor Board Room is an entirely aluminum-clad room with a marble table raised on a marble dais at its center. A luminous skylight, opening onto the larger skylight beyond, is positioned above the table. Together, the dais, table, and luminous skylight create a volumetric focal point of light at the center of the room. The cadet, seated at the south end of the table and facing north, is precisely aligned with Polaris. The skylight above him or her terminates in a knife-edged opening which has the optical effect of collapsing the Honor Board Room skylight, the larger Skylight beyond, and its oculus into a flattened abstract composition. The Forum, a flexible and dynamic gathering space for academic and social interaction, is the center of the CCLD. Its terraced levels accommodate gatherings of a variety of scales and formality, from intimate informal interaction in soft seating to formal lectures and symposia. Glass-walled break-out rooms surround the Forum, further increasing its flexibility and transparency. The CCLD negotiates a critical meeting point between the secure precinct of the cadets and the unsecure precinct of the public, as well as the main Terrazzo level and the Court of Honor. It is a nexus for the Academy, weaving together the public, cadets, professors, and visiting VIPs. Inserted carefully among existing buildings, the CCLD has many entrances, each identifiable by a threshold of glass and light. Among the CCLD’s goals is leadership in sustainability. To demonstrate that ambition, the building anticipates LEED Platinum Certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. SOM has approached sustainability through the lens of integrated building systems that influence all parts of the building’s design, construction, and operation. The following strategies were employed to help reduce the building’s annual energy consumption by nearly 70% over a code-compliant ASHRAE 90.1-2004 baseline model: 1. Earth tubes make use of the relatively constant temperature of the ground in comparison to the exterior air. Outside air passes through the earth tubes and is pre-treated prior to entering the air handling units. 2. Skylight natural ventilation: Sunlight penetrates the skylight and warms the air inside, inducing the solar chimney effect, which exhausts hot air at its top. 3. Displacement ventilation delivers 100% fresh outside air at low speeds near the floor. As this fresh air comes into contact with heat sources, it warms and rises, maximizing both energy efficiency and occupant comfort. 4. Radiant heating and cooling take advantage of both overhead radiant panels and thermally active concrete slabs, providing a more efficient heat transfer medium than all air systems. 5. Photovoltaic panels generate renewable electricity for use onsite, helping to offset building energy use. 6. Natural lighting is maximized throughout the building by the 105-foot skylight as well as by floor-to-ceiling glazing for all offices and classrooms. 7. Efficient artificial light fixtures, along with daylight and occupancy sensors and motorized shades, work together to optimize lighting and conserve energy. 8. Low-flow faucets and showers and ultra-low flow toilets and urinals minimize water use.


Project Type


US Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, 80840, United States

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