SOM Elevates U.S. Air Force Academy to New Heights

The centre's epic skylight is particularly striking at twilight.
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The pyramid-like skylight reaches 32 metres high.
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SOM completed virtually all of the buildings on the U.S. Air Force Academy campus.
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Looking up and into the skylight from the Forum, a multi-use gathering space.
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Glass-walled breakout rooms line the sides of the Forum.
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Violations of cadet code are investigated in the Honor Board Room.
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The Honor Board Room's central table sits directly beneath an aperture that opens up to the skylight, which points directly to the North Star.
The centre's epic skylight is particularly striking at twilight.
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The Center for Character & Leadership Development is the new heart of the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, giving the historic campus a new forum that’s loaded with symbolism.

The CCLD is the latest chapter in a story that SOM started long ago. Virtually all the other buildings on the site – modernist structures with an emphasis on aluminum exteriors – were completed by SOM in 1954, and declared a National Historic Landmark District 50 years later.

Placed next to the campus’s iconic chapel, at the point where facilities for cadets meet buildings open to the public, the CCLD is a new focal point for the campus, where a think-tank will develop instruction in character and leadership.

The U.S. Air Force Academy buildings, designed almost entirely by SOM.

The Forum at the Center for Character & Leadership Development, SOM's new building at the U.S. Air Force Academy campus.

At the centre of the 8,000-square-metre, LEED-NC Gold building lies the Forum, a multi-use gathering space for academic and social interaction. This central room is divided up into sections by terraces, which provide areas with different degrees of formality, and is lined by glass-walled breakout rooms along two sides, emphasizing the centre’s literal and symbolic transparency. Beyond them lie a conference room, library, and banks of smaller offices.

But the defining feature of the space is its skylight, a slanted four-sided pyramid that encompasses the entire room, and then some. Reaching 32 metres high, the skylight is angled with its top surface rising at 39 degrees above the horizon, narrowing as it ascends so that it always points directly to the North Star – a powerful symbol of the Academy’s guiding values.

The pyramid-like skylight at SOM's U.S. Air Force Academy building.

The skylight demonstrates SOM’s proficiency integrating architectural design and structural engineering – neither is given precedence over the other, and instead both are seamlessly combined into one. The struts that make up the triangular grid of architecturally exposed structural steel (AESS) are unembellished, and angled with the position of the skylight to withstand wind loads. As impressive as it is, the skylight is no mere decoration: besides flooding the Forum with light, it also acts as a solar chimney, drawing air up and out of the building to pull cooler air in below.

Behind the Forum stage, under the edge of the pyramid’s top wall, is the Honor Board Room, where cadets are held accountable for their actions. This space occupies a significant position at the very heart of the building; its central boardroom table is positioned beneath a glass aperture that opens to the skylight above. Any cadet seated at the table has a clear view up the skylight, pointing directly to the North Star. The rest of the boardroom’s interior – walls, floor and ceiling – were kept as plain as possible, clad entirely in maple, in order to keep the focus on the table at the centre of the room.

The Honor Board Room, at SOM's Center for Character & Leadership Development.

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