NKU bragging rights: Student union picked as a favorite by Kentucky architecture fans

HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. - The student union at Northern Kentucky University is constantly buzzing with students: studying, hanging out in the game room, or sipping lattes from the Starbucks.

Now, the 15,000-student campus can add bragging rights to activities surrounding the James C. and Rachel M. Votruba Student Union. The American Institute of Architects Kentucky has named it the favorite building on any college campus in Kentucky, based on an online vote.

“The student union has been a critical component in the transformation we’ve seen both in the aesthetics of our campus and its culture,” said NKU President Geoffrey Mearns.

The competition took place this fall and included 170 nominated buildings. Other local structures that were nominated include the Newport courthouse, Covington’s Roebling Bridge and St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica.

In April, the public was asked to nominate their favorite buildings for two competitions, one of which was "50 of The Best Kentucky Buildings." In August and September, the public then voted again to determine the ranking for the top 50.

Nearly 14,000 votes were cast by 5,000 voters, and the NKU Student Union arose as No. 6 in the "Favorite Architecture" category and No. 1 on the “Institutional” architecture list.

“We had online voting to anyone interested. It was publicized pretty extensively on (Kentucky Educational Television)  and ran in conjunction with KET’s airing of The Ten Buildings That Changed America,” said Janet Pike, Executive Director of American Institute of Architects Kentucky.

Through the competition, AIA Kentucky wanted Kentuckians to be more aware of the buildings that are around them, created by Kentucky architects.

Other universities in the vote included Transylvania University’s Old Morrison Appalshop in Whitesburg and the Gheens Science Hall and Rauch Planetarium in Louisville.

The $34 million dollar project for the NKU Student Union began in 2004 and was designed by Omni Architects , based in Lexington.

“This was a statewide competition and most of the buildings were very historic structures and properties,” said lead architect Michale Jacobs, “to be [mentioned] with these projects was a real honor.”

A "comfy," light-filled space

The 158,000-square-foot student union opened its doors in 2008. Features include food courts; a 600-seat ballroom; student organization meeting rooms; game room; and a plaza-level Starbucks.

“You have a lot of areas to relax and sit down on comfy chairs, watch TV. There are a lot of options here,” said Jon Eizyk, junior history major at NKU.

Expansive glass exterior walls and skylights create light-filled spaces within the facility, contributing to the building’s feeling of openness and spacious accessibility.

“It’s got good lighting compared to the old University Center. You actually feel welcome and all the natural light makes it feel open,” said Austin Adam, a freshman Criminal Justice major at NKU.

Inviting and efficient

Unlike the older buildings on campus, the student union is not made entirely of concrete and exudes a comfortable vibe paired with efficiency.

The NKU Student Union mission statement:

“The student union, perhaps more than any other facility on campus, is the place that fosters the sense of community that is the essence of any memorable college campus. It is the place of refuge, the beacon, the heart, the family room of the campus.”

With the help of the students, the designer, the faculty and the people who work at the union every day this statement holds true. During lunch lines flow out of doorways, tables fill with students eating together and couches embrace sleepy scholars.

Scattered about are chairs, televisions, couches, ATMs and computers available for student and faculty use.

The walls are adorned with panoramic photos students took of the campus. The third floor has a “graffiti” wall and huge banners hang above head to promote special events at NKU.

Jacobs worked closely with NKU students through a series of workshops and meetings. He believes this led to the success of the student union.

The Best Kentucky Buildings:

  1. St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica, Covington
  2. The Ascent at Roebling’s Bridge, Covington
  3. The Louisville Palace, Louisville
  4. Jacob’s Hall Museum, Danville
  5. Old State Capitol, Frankfort
  6. NKU Student Union, Highland Heights
  7. Twin Spires of Churchill Downs, Louisville
  8. Federal Hill (My Old Kentucky Home), Bardstown
  9. Calumet Farm, Lexington
  10. Jesse R. Zeigler House, Frankfort
Print this article Back to Top


or Subscribe now so you can share your opinion! It’s only a penny for a month trial.