Category Archives: Buildings Tell Stories

UConn Chem at 20

One of the sayings we have around here about our approach to design is; “endearing is enduring.” As we found during a recent event, the UConn Chemistry Building is Example 1.a. of that catchphrase.

In the two decades since the ribbon was cut, the building has endeared itself so much so that the Chemistry Department organized two days’ worth of events to celebrate its 20th anniversary. We were honored to take part in the festivities. Principal-in-Charge Mark Simon and Project Manager Jim Coan led the Blueprint Architect Tour of the building, and Mark took part in an exclusive Q&A session, going behind the scenes of how the project came to fruition.

As with any anniversary event, it was a trip down memory lane for those involved from the beginning. The first of two guided building tours started with a look at our model, which prompted Art Dimock (then-department head, now-lecturer emeritus) to recall a tidbit from the original planning meeting where the lone request from UConn Facilities Management was that the building have a pitched roof. Apparently one less building they had to worry about a flat [leaky] roof was a high priority.

The tours elicited a number of questions and comments. During one chem lab stop, a guest mentioned that there is a noticeable lack of any chemical odor. “It smells good in here.” Art attributed that to the building’s robust ventilation system.

Another guest, who is a new professor in the department and joined the tour to learn more about the building, was impressed that the labs have whiteboards on three walls – providing ample space for class participation.

One of the main talking points across both tours was the considerable extent of building systems and services necessary for a chem lab – fire protection piping, supply air ductwork, power, water, lab gases, telecommunications, etc. – and how they were laid out in layers that rundown the hallway and split off to each lab. There are no suspended ceilings in the lab areas and corridors. The original intent was, as needs and wants change over time – say changing a dry lab to a wet lab, or vice versa – that conversion work would be minimal. Building manager Tyler Cardinal confirmed the ease of access is indeed as originally intended.

Special access to the attic was granted for our tours. The sheer size of the equipment housed there is quite impressive, with the massive air handlers needed to properly vent a 200,000-square-foot chemistry building. As Mark noted, it’s also defacto bonus storage space not found in a flat roof building.

Overall, there have been very few changes in the 20 years since the Chemistry Building opened. A small library was converted to a tutoring room since journals are now accessible online. A computer lab was also adapted to a research lab since dedicated desktop workstations are no longer a necessity. There are more student locker spaces in the labs since enrollment is up in the last 20 years. Naturally, the size of equipment and instrumentation has decreased over the years, so the way some spaces are utilized has changed a bit as a result. The nuclear magnetic resonance equipment, for one, has changed dramatically. But as Mark commented upon entering one of the general chemistry labs, which can be extrapolated to the building on the whole, it pretty much is as it was in 1999.

And as it became clear from the event’s planning stages through execution, the building has indeed endured as it has endeared itself to so many. Chemistry department head Dr. Christian Bruckner, a great champion of the building, noted that only one chem faculty member has chosen to leave UConn for another institution since the building opened. He added that it is likewise a great recruiting tool for prospective faculty.

In fact, the Chemistry Building is so revered, it was commemorated on a cake during the event’s luncheon. Two cakes, to be exact!

Fun Fact #1:

The 14 large stacks perched on the roof ridges (see above) are prominent feature of the Chemistry Building’s exterior. Each is fed by multiple exhaust ducts – some more than others (see below) – but they are uniform in their size at seven feet wide by 19 feet high. Wind studies determined the height that would safely disperse the exhaust and reduce the potential for reentrainment at air intakes at this and adjacent buildings. And to add to the stack discussion – one of the 14 is actually for aesthetic purposes to keep the uniformity, and has no exhaust function. We’re not telling you which one, though!

Fun Fact #2:

The floor tile in the hallways of the two lab wings have a feature that would likely go undetected by a guest, but is essential knowledge to lab users. The darker tiles designate where the emergency services are located. So if one accidentally gets chemicals in their face, perhaps resulting in impaired vision, they can trek toward the distinguished dark tiles for the wash station. And to answer a follow-up question from the tour, there is no drain at the emergency wash station since the chemicals have to be safely contained.

Fun Fact #3:

The Chemistry Building has its own machine shop in the basement, where instruments can be manufactured or modified as needs arise for different experiments. There was also originally a glass blowing shop next door to the machine shop, but that service has since been outsourced.

To see more about the 20th anniversary events, UConn Chemistry set up a webpage on their site to commemorate the milestone. You can also check out this preview of the events from the UConn student newspaper.

Designing a Campus of History

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Wheatland, the home of President James Buchanan is a distinguished house in Lancaster PA.

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Sitting next to it was the not-as-distinguished Lancaster Historical Society building, done in a 1950s neo-Georgian fashion. The two sat side by side on Marietta Avenue, like twins, though the relationship was uncomfortable since Wheatland was clearly the more gifted of the two buildings but both institutions deserved equivalent prominence.

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Through an interactive master planning we found support to combine the two properties and create a new identity for the historical society around the corner on President Avenue. By covering the old society library wing, Wheatland would visually reclaim its original, larger piece of property while the society could be notable separately and in its own way.

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After much discussion, and since the Society needs to be free of any one period in Lancaster’s history, we decided that a modern design would be best. Nonetheless, the final shape was influenced by historic imagery such as saw-toothed factories …

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…and the wagons built in nearby Conestoga.

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The new addition to the old library is broken into three connected pavilions, a grand lobby leading to all other parts as well as Wheatland out the back, an exhibit gallery, and a lecture hall.

Continue reading Designing a Campus of History

Playing with Tennis

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Yale University needed to double its indoor tennis courts, which were housed in a ribbed metal industrial shell. A feasibility study led to the design of a similar, adjacent shell sharing a new common entry and lobby.

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Because of the inherently banal court sheds – dictated by site and utilitarian consideration – the entrance needed to be inviting and fun, declaring that this is a place to play games. It also required a long, covered ramp for accessibility from grade to the raised lobby. Continue reading Playing with Tennis

Building on a Non-Tenured Fast Track

Coming down Prospect Street in New Haven a few years ago one spied a sleek, one-story, silver classroom and office building with horizontal metal siding and long patterns of windows that raced by each other. It was an intriguing curiosity, announcing loud and clear that it was having fun. And yet its demure profile let it nestle neatly into its residential neighborhood.

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Long and sinuous, it meandered around a flagstone-paved entry court with floor-to-ceiling glass under a porch at the back, welcoming academics to enter. Continue reading Building on a Non-Tenured Fast Track

Respectfully Modernizing a Classic

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We were excited in 2005 to be asked to restore and expand the Addison Gallery of American Art, a museum designed by Charles Platt in 1930 for Phillips Academy Andover. Phillips Academy is a distinguished boarding school in Massachusetts that was founded in 1778. Our addition would increase the museum’s size by half and refurbish the building top to bottom.

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We were asked to respect the building’s formal relationship fronting a broad green that had been ridden across by General Washington during the Revolutionary War and reconfigured a century later by Frederick Law Olmstead. Continue reading Respectfully Modernizing a Classic

Aki House – Frozen Music

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The original bungalow was renovated first

I don’t think architecture can substitute for a biography but it is possible to use forms, shapes, and details to create a portrait of sorts, architecture that conveys someone’s personality. Working with this client over a period of 15 years, we took a rambling bungalow with a shed in the back yard and tried to weave her personality through the renovated house and music studio.

The original house was a simple bungalow and rather dark.
The original house was a simple bungalow and rather dark.

Over time we tinkered here, we adapted there. We solved the common problems, like getting more natural light and fixing a collapsing roof. But to make the place special we sought inspiration from the southern New England setting, our client’s Japanese heritage, her interest in wood, and her experience as a world class violinist and professor of music at Yale University.

Using a specific shape or detail to suggest abstract ideas such as nature, music, and someone’s roots, is difficult, seldom will everyone read it the same way. I doubt “the pickle” is the idea the architects were trying to suggest for the recently completed high rise office building in London. However, we have tried here through a combination of shapes, details, and materials to convey the joy of nature and music as well as conjure up a feeling of being in New England – with a whisper of Japan. Our goal was to create a visual version of a musical concerto. Continue reading Aki House – Frozen Music

A Home for American Impressionism

Florence Griswold Museum - Photo by Jeff Goldberg/Esto

At the Florence Griswold Museum we designed a building for housing the art of a very special group of American Impressionists. So we wanted to create a memorable contemporary structure but one that would honor the extraordinary history of the site.

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The story begins at the turn of the last century when a handsome Greek revival house in the village of Old Lyme was left to a spinster, Miss Florence Griswold, by her seafaring father.

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To make ends meet, Miss Florence ran the place as a seasonal boarding house. To her delight, the clientele she attracted was a rollicking band of New York artists looking to escape summers in the city.

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They came in search of landscape subjects to paint in the new Impressionist style. These they found in Miss Florence’s gardens, stands of mountain laurel, fields and barns, and in the marshes that lay just across the Lieutenant River. The ranks of Miss Florence’s artists grew over the years and became known as the Lyme Art Colony. It included such masters as Henry Ward Ranger, Childe Hassam, Willard Metcalf, Matilda Browne, William Chadwick, and many others. Today, Miss Florence’s house and our new museum stand as the core elements of a regional institution dedicated to this great moment in American art.  Continue reading A Home for American Impressionism

A Synagogue’s Welcome

Park Synagogue East, Pepper Pike, Ohio

This new building is a sanctuary, school, and community center that serves as an East Campus for the expanding congregation of the renowned Park Synagogue in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. The original  synagogue was designed by Eric Mendelsohn in 1950. Like its older sibling, it was designed to offer welcome, shelter, and blessing to its congregation. This modern structure also recalls and celebrates the long history of Judaism.

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The primary building is a simple steel frame box sheathed in a stick and panel mosaic of copper cladding. While copper in itself is a primeval but durable material, this patterning evokes the wood siding of synagogues in Eastern Europe, from where most congregant families came.

The building is expressive from select vantage points. Large organic shapes burst from the larger copper-faced rectangle; the first view from the road is of the sanctuary, which is faced with Jerusalem stone. Continue reading A Synagogue’s Welcome

Building Big in Texas

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Building in a park can be controversial, especially when the building is big and the park is hugely beloved. We ran into this in Austin, Texas, at Town Lake Park, which is revered by Austinites as the “Jewel in the Crown” of their open spaces. Our friends at BGK Architects in Austin got us involved with them designing a really big building for that park –the 130,000 SF Palmer Events Center. The building was to host concerts, boat shows, conventions, festivals, weddings, flea markets and all kinds of funky community events. We tapped a group of 100 citizens to help us figure out how we might make so large a building fit seamlessly into so special a park and amiably reflect Austin’s memorable character. Continue reading Building Big in Texas