Weber State University Builds a Scientific Gathering Place on Campus
Tracy Hall Science Center at WSU's Ogden campus brings the science departments together and puts them on display
Weber State University graduate Tracy Hall learned to make synthetic diamonds and built his fortune by compacting carbon under intense, prolonged pressure. But creating the next generation of scientists requires open space for the free flow of ideas across disciplines, according to designers of the new science building that will bear Hall’s name on the WSU campus in Ogden, Utah.
The 185,000-sq-ft, nearly $64-million Tracy Hall Science Center soon will be the largest building on campus and brings together all of the science disciplines taught at WSU into one location.
“The goal was to get everyone under one roof, to build a community of science and foster interdisciplinary interaction,” says Celestia Carson, an associate principal and project manager for Salt Lake-based VCBO Architecture, the project architect. “We wanted a safe building and one that would function to promote learning.”
In 2012, the Utah Legislature allocated the initial $57.4 million for the project, with the balance raised from private donors. Carson says VCBO performed the initial programing for the new building and was later awarded the design contract. Okland Construction secured the CM-GC contract and began demolition of two buildings on the site in May 2014.
One Building, Many Uses
Weber State University enrolls nearly 25,000 students each year and the college is growing. The Ogden campus lies along a sloping bench of the northern Wasatch mountains with views of downtown Ogden to the west.
The Tracy Hall Science Center at the heart of the campus is composed of two offset, masonry-clad concrete towers that anchor the building on the west side. An arching three-story, glass-and-steel section is attached to the towers on the east, or uphill, side.
According to Carson, the building was divided into a series of smaller volumes to better align within the character of the campus. “The university wanted this to be a new anchor for this active part of campus,” she says. “They wanted a flagship building that would set the standard for future buildings on campus.”
The building was also broken into sections because of its different uses. Laboratory space containing sensitive equipment and classrooms and offices required the use of concrete and steel for structural support and to reduce vibrations in the labs, says structural engineer Jeremy Achter at Ogden-based ARW Engineers.
“We had stringent vibration criteria within the lab building,” Achter says. “We went with the concrete waffle slab for the floors in the labs because it is stiffer and will reduce vibrations. There was a challenge in connecting the structures. There are no expansion joints. The concrete building has the lateral system and the steel ties into it for lateral support. We used concrete shear walls throughout the building so there are no brace frames.”
Chad Ovard, a superintendent for Okland Construction, Salt Lake City, says that early consultations with the design team led to the use of the waffle slab to reduce costs but also provide the rigid floor required for lab spaces. Ovard said the team started the project by placing concrete for the towers and floors first and tied in the steel section during a subsequent phase.
The many angles and different materials made applying the building’s air barrier a challenge, Ovard says. “The barrier lets the building breathe but not take in moisture. We used a spray on the material and it has to be a certain thickness,” he says. “It can be difficult and it took a lot of testing to make sure we had it right, but we passed all the tests.”
Ovard also notes that the mechanical systems of the building are differentiated among the labs and the office and classroom areas. “The lab space is all typical forced air, and we have mechanical penthouses on the roof, but the other areas use VRF (variable refrigerant flow) that is fed from a system below grade,” he says.
Carson says one reason for the differing systems was to meet WSU’s goals of carbon neutrality by the year 2050. “This building will be the largest energy user on campus. It not only has to be very energy efficient but also operated without the use of fossil fuels in the future,” she says.
A large heat pump and chiller for the VRF system was placed below grade and will eventually be supplied by a series of thermal reservoirs. Concurrent with the construction of the building, crews have been drilling a series of 200 thermal reservoirs, 275 ft deep, on the northeast corner of campus.
Ovard says the Tracy Hall building has been constructed to meet LEED Silver standards.
Science on Display
The building features plenty of glass to provide offices and classrooms with ample natural light. Even the labs feature glass windows opening into the hallways to allow anyone passing by to observe the experiments and classes taking place inside.
It is all part of the university’s goal of “putting science on display” and generating more interest in it, Carson says. VCBO teamed with San Diego-based Research Facilities Design (RFD) to tailor lab spaces to meet the needs of each department.
In a sense, even faculty meetings will be on display. Three conference rooms and the faculty break room feature floor-to-ceiling glass walls unobstructed by framing. One conference area at the southwest end of the building cantilevers over the plaza, providing sweeping views of the lower campus and the valley.
“That cantilevered section was one of the more challenging parts of the structural design,” says Achter.
Also on display in a lobby on the south end of the building is an 8-ton stainless-steel cube with rounded edges and threaded openings to accommodate massive bolt-like attachments. While it could easily be seen as a sculpture, it’s actually a press base formerly used to create artificial diamonds, developed by the building’s namesake. The cube was donated by Novatek, the company that Tracy Hall founded.
Joining the two towers is a three-story atrium with a full-height glass wall on the west side and balconies flanked by open study spaces and hallway entrances opposite the wall.
Carson says the atrium was not part of the original plan. But the design team wanted to create a space that could be shared and serve as the “heart” of the building. The university found room in the project budget to create the atrium space.
“That was perhaps one of the most impactful decisions we made during the design,” says Carson.
Scaling up the side of one three-story wall in the atrium is a sculpture by artist Michael Singer, who also designed an atrium garden at Denver International Airport. The vertical, trench-like sculpture in the WSU building was inspired by a geological feature known as Devil’s Slide, located in Weber Canyon, east of the university.
Ovard says that during rainstorms a system of roof drains will direct water down the feature, creating a waterfall. The block pieces forming the channel feature of the sculpture are imprinted with patterns replicated on similar blocks at the entrances to various college departments on other floors of the building.
Carson says each college and each floor feature a “relic wall” that includes material native to the area. One relic wall features copper from the Bingham Canyon mine to the southwest. Another wall has stone quarried from a nearby canyon and a third includes timber salvaged from a railroad trestle that once crossed the Great Salt Lake.
The features are all part of the larger design goals, Carson says.
“Coming out of programing, we had this idea of place and using the building itself as a learning tool,” she says. “We have the relic walls of local materials inside, and on the exterior, we’ve tried to demonstrate scientific concepts or principles.”
Carson says the brick on one of the towers replicates a DNA pattern that spells out a message when translated. Elsewhere, stripes in the brick pattern are placed according to the Fibonacci series of numbers. On the north side of the building, a diagonal slash in the brick replicates a geologic fault line.
The Tracy Hall Science center is scheduled to open in late summer in time for the 2016-2017 school year.