Beyond utilitarian


Texas A&M University's new lab designed to entice top talent

By Tim Conroy & Darrell Comeaux

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Presumably, all new and renovated cleanrooms are equipped with the biggest space, the highest-quality instruments and the most flexibility that a research or manufacturing organization can afford.

In fact, highly serviceable cleanrooms are pretty much the norm today. Since these labs are basically utilitarian, what are the recruiting amenities that can attract the best and brightest researchers to a particular research setting?

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To attract top faculty and graduate students, the trend is toward what can be categorized as "quality of life" design features. The term quality of life may sound like a superfluous design statement, but quality of life is not about aesthetics for its own sake. It is about creating space that works well for researchers as well as for the university.

Key design strategies

Quality of life design addresses, in a real way, an atmosphere that promotes groundbreaking research. It is conducive to both right- and left-brain functions, increases staff productivity, and encourages collaboration among faculty and graduate students.

A project designed by 3D/I (Houston, Texas; for Texas A&M University's main campus in College Station incorporates a number of quality-of-life features. The project is generating considerable publicity, even prior to its completion.

A gateway to the College of Engineering at the university, the bold facade of the Jack E. Brown Engineering Building conveys to visitors and recruits the university's regard for and commitment to the engineering program. The arc-shaped, leading-edge design may also be interpreted as embodying the progressive research conducted at Texas A&M University.

Looking beyond the eye-catching style, however, the overall function of this 205,000-square-foot edifice continues to supersede form. While the College Station setting is rural, site space is tight. The arc-shaped footprint of this seven-story structure eases it into a tight corner, and takes advantage of bucolic surroundings.

Adding sunlight for reflection

Natural lighting, which adds a human element to most work environments, is pervasive throughout the design. Over the past few years, the trend has been to place portals to the outside directly within the labs. Now, researchers have mixed positions about windows in labs. In this case, every square inch of lab wall space is needed for casework and equipment. Therefore, access to natural light is reserved for other than lab functions. The lab space is a place focused specifically on the research.

When a researcher steps away from the lab to take a break, though, the design offers ample opportunities to be refreshed. Offices are adjacent to the labs on the exterior of the building, separated by a corridor. While the separation adds a safety element, the design also provides an unusual perk. All offices—for faculty and graduate students—have floor-to-ceiling glass that presents a panoramic view of sloping, landscaped grounds. The design is intended to provide an environment to promote creative thinking.

The corridors terminate in floor-to-ceiling glass walls that extend up the full seven stories. They provide daylight and exterior views for moments of reflection. Each floor also contains a "super lobby"—a 15-foot-high triangular glassed-in gathering area. Super lobbies on the upper floors provide panoramic views that overlook the entire campus. Especially important for grads, these informal spaces, which contain benches and chairs, offer a setting for impromptu meetings with professors and casual collaboration with peers.

Another design element is a two-story galleria, approximately 300 feet long and 15 feet wide, which serves as a space for students on their way to classes. The active area adjacent to lecture halls is flooded with sunlight from clerestory windows, and provides a place for students to gather and exhibit their work.

Adjoining the galleria is an impressive, all-glass, two-story entrance lobby that serves as a reception area. Access to an elevated outdoor terrace also is adjacent to the galleria and to a student lounge. Four feet above grade, the terrace is surrounded by sloping, landscaped grounds, which offer a leafy respite from the Texas heat. Students and faculty can eat lunch or have a snack at tables and chairs under the trees or read a book in seating that overlooks a butterfly garden.

A final element in the project is the architect's careful use of clear glass. A departure from reflective and tinted glass pervasive in hot climates to reduce heat transfer, planners were able to use clear glass selectively in north-facing areas of the building. Clear glass is used in primary connecting corridors, as well as in the super lobbies. The ability for outsiders to see the hustle and bustle of researchers convening and traversing inside the building adds drama and vitality. This new transparent look energizes the Texas A&M University campus, and is expected to showcase science in a way that attracts the best talent in the field of engineering.

For students, staff and onlookers, the design goes way beyond utilitarian.

TIM CONROY is a senior vice president for marketing, and DARRELL COMEAUX is vice president in charge of design with 3D/I in Houston. They can be reached at: (713) 871-7000.