Rolex Learning Center: An innovative roof shape with ArcelorMittal's Cofrastra® 40

The Rolex Learning Center, designed by SANAA as an intimate public space, is a highly innovative building with gentle slopes and terraces, undulating around a series of internal patios with almost invisible supports for its complex curving roof, which required completely new methods of construction. Cofrastra® 40, the steel deck profiles used in the roof construction, adapts to its irregular forms thanks to its reduced depth.

Detailed information

Built on the campus of Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), The Rolex Learning Center functions as a laboratory for learning, a library and an international cultural hub for EPFL open to both students and the public. Spread over one single fluid space of 20 000 square metres, it provides a seamless network of services, libraries, information gathering, social spaces and spaces to study, restaurants, cafes, and beautiful outdoor spaces. In comparison to traditional study spaces, where corridors and classrooms are clearly separated, there are many different ways to use the new space resulting in more active interaction, which in turn triggers new activities.

A modern library

The main library, containing 500 000 printed works with access to 12 000 online journals and over 20 000 e-books, is one of the largest scientific collections in Europe, with advanced lending machines (RFID – Radio Frequency Identification) and systems for bibliographic searches. A study centre for use by postgraduate researchers provides access to the university’s major archive and research collection. There are learning areas including 10 'bubbles' for seminars, group work, and other meetings.

The most audacious aspect of the new library is its lack of physical boundaries. The large open space is defined by its artificial geography – an interior landscape. It groups silent and calm zones along its hills and slopes rather than offering traditional cloistered study rooms. Recognising the importance of social interaction to learning, the open space experience encourages solidarity between students in the struggle to obtain the best individual academic results and an open flow of ideas to improve collaborative efforts.

Learning lab: The CRAFT

The CRAFT laboratory is the Center for Research and Support of Training and its Technologies – an avant-garde approach that combines computer interfaces with real world interaction to improve learning techniques and spaces. Developed learning technologies for the CRAFT lab include interactive furniture, paper/computer interfaces, and eye-tracking devices with futures technologies already on the drawing board.

A public space

The Rolex Forum, an amphitheatre with a stage of 310 m2 is a venue for up to 600 people to be used for conferences, lectures, performances, and other large scale events. A variety of catering outlets includes 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 of which are open to the public. Everybody, including those outside EPFL, is welcome to consult books or to work on the premises.

Architecture: An intimate, public space with a light and organic shape

Located centrally on the EPFL campus – as its new hub – the building is essentially one continuous structure spread over an area of 22 000 m2. 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 people from all sides are drawn 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. Without dividing walls, one area of activity clearly gives way to another. Visitors can stroll up the gentle curves, or perhaps move around the space on one of the specially designed horizontal lifts - elegant glass boxes whose engineering was 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 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 emphasised by fourteen voids of varying dimensions in the structure. These are glazed and create a series of softly rounded courtyards or 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.

Engineering and construction

The engineering and construction of the Rolex Learning Center is highly experimental and innovative and required a close cooperation of the architects, engineers, and constructors.

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. Thanks to the use of a steel deck by ArcelorMittal with a low profile depth and a reduction of the spans, the roof construction adapts perfectly to its curved form. Following the geometry of the shells required 1400 different moulds for concrete. The pouring of the concrete involved delivering it continuously over a period of two days in order to achieve the complex task of creating a naturally flowing floor space.

Essentially, the building is made up of two 3-dimensional concrete shells. Inside the two shells are 11 under-stressed arches. The smaller shell sits on four arches, 30-40 metres long, while the larger shell rests on seven arches, 55-90 metres long. The arches are held by 70 underground pre-stressed cables.


As the building is made up of a single structure, all of 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 facades, 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 day lit with carefully controlled natural ventilation systems, except for the restaurant and multimedia library, which have cold ceilings. It achieves 38.5 kWh/m2 (139 MJ/m2) energy consumption thanks to high quality double-glazed windows, 20 cm 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 the campus and comprised of engineers from Lausanne and Zurich. Using digital modelling 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.

Text: EPFL & Constructalia

Project information

  • Lausanne
  • Switzerland
  • Architect:
    SANAA - Kzuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa
  • 2007-2009, Inauguration: July 2010
  • Client:
    EPFL - Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne
  • Engineering office:
    B+G Bollinger und Grohmann GmbH
  • Contractor:
    Losinger Construction AG
  • Photographer:
    © EPFL | Alain Herzog