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Fixer Upper

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Throughout my career, I’ve walked through all kinds of spaces. Some just need a little love, and some, honestly, feel more like the set of a home improvement show and I’m waiting to see if a camera crew is around the next corner. We were recently presented with the challenge of adapting and adding onto a university’s 1960s science building to transform it into a 21st century learning environment for their students and staff. We accepted the challenge. 

A lot of older structures have “good bones,” but are in need of a little ingenuity and modernization to bring it up to date. Our challenge was to evolve one of the original buildings in the heart of the campus. The building had a distinctive precast concrete framing system and exterior window frames and was designed to mimic the surrounding campus facilities, which were built in the same era. Given the context, we needed to preserve the original character of the building but in a modern, enhanced form. The interior had its own unique challenges. One of first items that needs to be addressed when updating any facility is the mechanical infrastructure. Being built in the 60’s, the building we were tasked with wasn’t designed to accommodate modern amenities like, air conditioning. This meant the floor to floor heights were low leaving little room to add ductwork. Most modern lab building floor to floor heights are between 14­ and 15 feet, but this existing space only had 11 feet to work with. This begs the question of how to create modern, enhanced student spaces for labs, classrooms and collaboration while maintaining the character of the building?

 The solution? An “Extreme Makeover” of sorts. A two-story addition was incorporated into the existing building through a series of ramps and openings that houses new lab classrooms with ceiling clearance to accommodate the modern mechanical infrastructure. Part of the learning environment, the transition space between old and new creates much needed collaboration spaces and a central gathering point for students, while still celebrating the existing precast window frame system. With room to stretch in the new space, the former labs were converted into classrooms and offices where the mechanical need is less. 

When working with an existing space, it’s important to consider how the people who use it have changed. In addition to lab requirements and practices, learning styles have changed since the 1960s. With a more collaborative approach to learning that we see today, it was important for this project to incorporate things like flexible and adaptable benching space within labs and a variety collaboration zones scattered throughout the building for students and faculty. These spaces are areas for study as well as opportunities to prepare for the “real world” experiences these students will soon find themselves in. We added increased touch down spots, white boards and conference rooms, with a variety of seating more closely resembling a corporate setting than the original traditional science classrooms. We wanted to create a space that was an overlap between academia and the workforce. A space the students, faculty and Chip and Joanna Gaines would be proud of.

Colleen O'Meara, AIA