INTERCONNECT: Connecting Paths, Connecting Programs, Connecting People


INTERCONNECT: Connecting Paths, Connecting Programs, Connecting People


Harrison Polk & Madison Polk
Clemson University


Ulrike Heine, Ufuk Ersoy, & David Franco
Clemson University



This is a sophisticated winning project that shows a promising urban design. The students used the 10 measures to create a well-rounded project. The endeavor to address larger social issues and legal services for refugees are commendable and respected.


Interconnect is a refugee integration center located in Plaza de las Descalzas, designed to aid the process of integration for a growing refugee population in the city of Madrid, Spain. The building occupies the site of an abandoned bank building and shares public plaza space with a historic convent, gallery/event space, contemporary shopping center, and a collection of other mixed-use programs. Interconnect is a contemporary project that responds to its immediate urban context to provide connectivity to an existing network of pedestrian paths in the city center, echoing the belief that refugees should feel like they can belong in Madrid. Currently, Plaza de las Descalzas is an under-activated site in the middle of the pedestrian network that connects a total of 8 streets and 5 public plazas. The footprint of the integration center aims to achieve a strong urban fit by extending a pedestrian path through the site and framing additional public space that will encourage healthy physical and social interactions between local and refugee user groups.

The 55,360 square foot integration center provides the city with much needed space for program necessary to help acclimate refugees to a new society; these include a refugee service center, a community media center, and a gallery. The refugee service center provides legal, professional, financial, and childcare services to the refugee population. The community media center brings locals and refugees together in one space by providing access to information and technology; a coffee bar and café provide flexible space where users are invited to spend their time. Dedicated to culture and art exhibitions, the gallery space is designed to provide physical connection for the building programs, as well as social connection for people by educating them about the refugee experience, and providing space where Madrid and refugee cultures can come together.

Practicality and cost efficiency characterize the relationships designed between structure, material assemblies, and sustainable strategies for the project. A series of terraces and large window openings are carved out of the building’s monumental form to provide views of the city, further connecting users to the surrounding urban context. While solid, rough textured Berroquena granite distinguishes the building’s exterior; the interior spaces are open and flexible, defined by indirect natural daylight and grand circulation around a central atrium. Locally sourced materials benefit the control of daylight and thermal comfort in Madrid’s hot, arid climate. Even in its smallest details, the integration center is designed to communicate connectivity to the city of Madrid: it is space designed to help refugees connect to their new home.

Measure 1: Design for Integration
Incorporating sustainable strategies
The path of the sun informed the footprint and form of the building in order to maximize the amount of shaded area within the public plaza, which is ideal in the hot, dry climate of Madrid. The plaza between the refugee service center and media center masses captures the wind that moves through the site, while pulling it into the building to create natural ventilation. Natural day lighting, operable windows, views to outdoors, terraces, and range of interior space work together to create a healthy and comfortable environment for locals and refugees that occupy the space.

Measure 2: Design for Community
Extending the pedestrian web
As a move towards urban sustainability the project proposes to replace several vehicular traffic lanes with pedestrian-only paths, reducing the city’s carbon emissions and increasing walkability of the city center. Additionally, the proposal creates a pedestrian web that spans 0.30 miles, and connects continuous pedestrian paths between five plazas and eight streets. The project site is located in the center of the pedestrian web, just a six-minute walk from a major public transportation hub. The split building footprint preserves continuous foot-traffic through the site, encouraging social and physical interaction between locals and refugees.

Measure 3: Design for Ecology
Urban-adaptive flora
Native, low-maintenance flora transforms the urban ecosystem by providing natural shade and airflow in the public plaza. A mixture of Kermes and Holm Oak trees provides the plaza shade from Madrid’s hot and arid climate. Both small-tree species are heat tolerant, drought tolerant, and evergreen. Large stone planters are populated with ornamental Blue Fescue grass, which is heat tolerant, pollution tolerant, and urban adaptive. Pest-resistant Blue Plumbago shrubs, with their light-blue blooms, attract native butterfly species throughout the year. Small Blue Hill Meadow Sage plants bloom purple-blue in the summer and also attract native butterfly species.

Measure 4: Design for Water
Collect + Recycle
Madrid only receives an average of 17.8 inches of rainfall per year, therefore, it is important to collect and filter rainwater onsite so it can be recycled and used to irrigate the native flora during severe droughts. The refugee integration center is designed to capture rain runoff from the roof as well as through the pervious surface that covers the plaza. The water is then filtered and stored in the available 3,000cf of underground cistern space until it is needed for irrigation. For a 2 year, 24-hour event, 100% of storm water will be managed onsite.

Measure 5: Design for Economy
Local Materials + Local Labor
The building envelope is pre-cast concrete construction dressed by a no-maintenance granite veneer. Pre-cast concrete was chosen to reduce both time and cost required for onsite construction. Locally sourced granite was chosen because of its proximity to the site—just 42.7 miles away—and its ability to increase the performance of the envelope as a thermal mass, thus reducing long-term building operations cost, while maintaining appropriate thermal comfort levels. Local miners and craftsmen would be employed to harvest the granite and apply it to the pre-cast structure using a ‘dry installation’ method.

Measure 6: Design for Energy
Renewable sources
The building reduces its carbon footprint by utilizing a solar photovoltaic array to produce energy for heating, lighting, and technology. There are 500 PV panels divided between the roofs of the media center and the refugee service center that produce approximately 270,000 KWh on average annually. Skylights are designed to diffuse natural daylight into the building throughout the day, reducing the amount of energy required for artificial lighting. Additionally, exterior louvers block 90% of glazed surfaces from direct sunlight, which largely reduces solar heat gain to the interior of the building.

Measure 7: Design for Wellness
Creating openness and views
Operable windows, terraces, and the open floor plan allow for natural cross ventilation to passively cool the building. Small terraces are carved out of the building’s monumental form to increase the variety of exterior spaces users can enjoy; each one highlights a particular view of the surrounding public space as a way to further connect refugees to the city of Madrid. Interior spaces and circulation are organized around open atriums, which act as light wells and provide physical and visual access to the community plaza. Openness and fluidity of interior space encourage social interaction between occupants.

Measure 8: Design for Resources
Local Materials + Local Labor
Currently, Eucalyptus trees are over populating Spanish forests, preventing the growth of native, deciduous tree species. Local Spanish forestry companies are currently making efforts to harvest eucalyptus wood to sell to the construction industry. According to a study by Grupo Empresarial Ence, eucalyptus trees are an incredibly sustainable resource because they grow fast, require little water, and capture greater quantities of carbon dioxide than other trees. While the building design takes advantage of natural daylight, the eucalyptus louvers protect the interior space from direct sunlight. Eucalyptus is also used as an interior finish material.

Measure 9: Design for Change
Addressing the European Refugee Crisis
War, persecution, and famine are a few reasons that approximately 4.8 million Syrians left their homes in 2016, seeking refuge in various European countries. ‘Interconnect’ provides Madrid with additional space for government infrastructure needed to manage the growing population of refugees seeking integration into Spanish society. Additionally, the media center and gallery programs extend services to refugees and locals, allowing the project to remain relevant beyond the refugee crisis. The granite façade will weather well and ensure a long life for the building, and the flexible and open floor plan provides adaptive reuse potential.

Measure 10: Design for Discovery
Uncovering new perspectives
Designing a project within the context of a politically charged issue required an abundance of research to understand the identity and experience of a refugee. Investigation beyond the popular media informed fresh perceptions of the issue, and invited exploration into the notion of empathetic architecture. As a response to new understanding, the gallery program in ‘Interconnect’ is incorporated to accurately inform locals about the refugee experience, the function of the integration center, and the building’s efforts towards sustainability. Additionally, designing with sustainable measures provided new insights into ways architecture can improve physical, mental, social, and environmental health.