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When University of Utah officials cut the ribbon on the Honors College Friday, they won't just be dedicating a new building. They will be ushering in a new emphasis on the undergraduate experience, embodied in the $30 million Donna Garff Marriott Honors Residential Scholars Community on the southeast corner of campus.

Its architects say the five-story, three-winged structure evokes the walled hilltop Italian town of San Gimignano, famous for its medieval towers, and the colonnaded forums of classical Rome.

But it also reflects a renewed commitment to student success through creating a vibrant campus life, a central pillar in President David Pershing's new vision for the university.

"The board of trustees is in sync with the president," said trustees chairman Clark Ivory, a 1988 U. graduate. "We've done a lot to grow this amazing enterprise, but we asked ourselves, how much of the focus has been on the student?"

Until a few years ago, Ivory feels, the answer would have been "not enough" — despite a campus skyline crowded with construction cranes. Much of the recent building boom has been focused on health sciences and research.

The new building boom • The recent Marriott Library renovation and the Honors residence hall, whose entire first floor is devoted to the college's academic and social life, are intended to make class time more engaging and campus an alluring and worthwhile place for students to study and play when they are not in class.

Next year, construction begins on the Student Life Center, just to the north of the Honors building. Officials are also contemplating replacing the school's largest classroom building, the decrepit Orson Spencer Hall, and overhauling the neighboring Olpin University Union.

Then there is the visibility factor. Like Honors, many future projects will rise along the campus's periphery, bringing a new set of aesthetic concerns to planners.

Under construction are the Ambulatory Care Center on the former golf course, as well as two other projects targeting the student experience, the second phase of the school of business and the Sorenson Arts and Education Building.

Under design are an athletics training facility on Guardsman Way and the law school's replacement on University Street. And envisioned someday for Rice-Eccles Stadium is an expansion to the south and the mixed-use Universe Project on the parking lot.

Inaugurating this wave of edge development was the 2009 Frederick Albert Sutton Geology Building. Because the building is so visible from off campus, earth science officials insisted on softening its visual impact, even if it increased costs. Accordingly, Sutton presents a curved edifice on its north elevation, which faces busy 100 South and a historic neighborhood.

Architect Joe Jacoby chose a similar strategy for the Honors building's face along Mario Capecchi Drive.

"Instead of making a 450-foot wall, we wanted to break down the scale using a variety of colors and textures. We wanted it to feel like the edge of a town rather than the edge of a building," Jacoby said. In several spots, towers jut up to 25 feet above the roof line.

Study, sleep, socialize • The 180,000-square-foot building, which is aiming for LEED Gold certification, is home for 308 students living in 67 four- and eight-bed apartments. The light-filled lobby houses a commons, deli, grocery, round-the-clock information desk, faculty offices, library, and three high-tech classrooms fitted with windows you can write on.

Divided by its third wing, the building's exterior space on the west provides a patio for games and socializing on one side and a stepped lecture/performance/you-name-it venue on the other. Room and board are more expensive than at the Fort Douglas residential halls, but every bed was filled the day after students began registering for Honors housing.

The east side of the building features a landscaped "dry creek" designed to handle major flooding events, which will create a buffer against the busy street when its trees mature. The Fort Douglas TRAX station is steps away.

While the Honors College seeks to provide an intimate experience at a major university, its students are encouraged to be part of the larger campus and tailor their studies to address problems and issues in the real world, according to dean Sylvia Torti. The new building is not just a hub of student life, but is also a jumping-off spot for Salt Lake City's Main Street, just a seven-minute train ride away.

"We're not the insulated world," Torti said. "They want to be part of a community, not just a community on campus. They want to be downtown."

Better connections = better grades • The U.'s master plan envisions turning this formerly sleepy corner of campus to its most vibrant node, anchored by the Honors College. The area includes the Student Life Center, slated for construction next year to the north, and intercollegiate competition venues, all tied to historic Fort Douglas via the Legacy Bridge.

The Honors building also marks the return of student housing to lower campus, where officials are planning residence halls on ground occupied by the E-shaped Annex south of the Huntsman Center. The U. is hardly alone in ramping up its inventory of campus housing. Dorms are rising or in planning at every traditional college in Utah, with the exception of Salt Lake Community College and Utah Valley University.

Officials contend living on campus keeps students engaged with their education and enlivens the campus atmosphere. Broad housing options help recruit students, retain them and improve academic achievement, according to the U.'s housing master plan.

Data support these assertions.

For her honors thesis, for example, Brigham Young University economics major Hannah Marchant crunched seven years worth of recent GPA data at her Provo campus. She documented a striking correlation between academic achievement and where students lived. Average GPA for BYU freshmen were 0.09 point higher among those living on campus. And off-campus dwellers were 1.7 times more likely to become "academically at-risk."

"The transition from high school to college isn't easy," said Marchant, whose freshman year was spent at BYU's Helaman Halls. "I would have felt less connected to my schooling and peers if I hadn't lived on campus."

New Honors College home

University of Utah officials are dedicating the new Honors College building, marking the return of student housing to lower campus and a wave of major construction around the periphery of the Salt Lake City campus. Many of these projects are geared toward enhancing the U.'s undergraduate experience and keeping students on campus when they are not in class.

When: 11 a.m. Friday

Where: Donna Garff Marriott Honors Residential Scholars Community building, 250 S. Mario Capecchi Drive, just east of the Huntsman Center.

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