Biologists, botanists and geologists will be working under the same roof when the new Science Initiative (SI) building opens on the University of Wyoming campus. Designed with strategically placed collaboration spaces for interdisciplinary research activities, the state-of-the-art facility will transform the way the university investigates and teaches science.

The project—with a construction cost of $90 million—encompasses 153,000 sq ft of classrooms and labs to support two new research centers: the Center for Advanced Scientific Instrumentation and the Center for Integrative Biological Research. In addition, 27,000 sq ft of cutting-edge greenhouse facilities are being constructed on the roof and will be lit up at night, serving as a beacon for the Laramie community. The Wyoming Legislature approved the Science Initiative project in 2015 and supplied a total of $88 million for the project over two legislative sessions, while the university raised $15 million toward the $103-million project.

GE Johnson, serving as the construction manager at-risk, is leading the project from its office in Jackson and self-performing the structural concrete, rough carpentry and excavation, backfilling and grading. GSG Architecture of Casper, Wyo., and Perkins+Will of Seattle are partnering on the design.

A Firm Foundation

The five-story building broke ground in October 2019 and is scheduled for completion in November. It will open to students in February 2022, with shelled space for a vivarium and additional research areas ready for future build-out.

GSG has designed 18 projects for UW over the years and recently completed the campus library with Perkins+Will, which “was just coming off of the incredible life sciences building at the University of Washington,” says Tim Schenk, GSG senior project architect.

The SI building features a concrete foundation and structural steel frame with drilled piers and a composite concrete floor system. The concrete cores were placed after the steel framing was erected, says Garth Scholl, principal with Martin/Martin Wyoming, the project’s structural engineer. “This construction arrangement helped shorten the critical path of the project, saving time on the schedule. Concrete core walls can be challenging in the winter months in Laramie, and the shotcrete cores are far less impacted by inclement weather as well,” he says.

The university’s strict design and construction guidelines require that campus buildings feature sandstone sourced from a quarry in Utah. The sandstone was incorporated into an intricate masonry design featuring extensive limestone on the base, vertical mullion projections and corbelling.

The facade is composed of large curtains of glass flanked by masonry pilasters clad with stone veneer. The weight of the material required extensive miscellaneous structural steel to be erected around the perimeter for support. Stately stone arches over the entries and on the corners of the north elevation are supported by rolled hollow structural section (HSS) tubes that span to pilasters on each side, which in turn provide anchor locations for the stone soffits, Scholl says.

Vibration management is a significant issue for lab buildings. Any transmission could impact clarity and functionality of the electron microscopes in the SI building. GSG performed below-grade and low-grade vibration analysis of the site before construction and discovered that train tracks on the west side of town could potentially affect soils under the stone. To address this, special floating floors were designed in the cyber areas where scanning and imaging are done to control even the smallest amount of vibration.

“To minimize ground-borne and structural vibration transmission to the imaging spaces, 12-in. reinforced-concrete slabs were cut at the demising walls and perimeter isolation material was incorporated to prevent any rigid connection between the slabs,” Schenk says. “The demising partitions are double-stud partitions without any rigid tie-backs so each imaging suite is isolated from the adjacent spaces.”

The design of the facility is expected to help the Science Initiative achieve top-tier status among university science programs nationwide in both learning and research. In addition to good vibration control, the design provides totally dark spaces and a special magnetic shielding around areas with computerized scanning devices and microscopes.

To entice interaction, collaboration and visibility, the building’s atrium will have a generous communication stair and plenty of meeting and gathering spaces but will also contain opportunities for displaying the work that is happening within the building.

“This was a driving factor of the design: to make as much of the building as visually available to students, researchers and even potential students,” Schenk says. “The work is not closed up behind solid walls; it’s very transparent, and this will be a marketing tool for recruiting students.”

Active Learning

A boon for the Wyoming economy, the facility will enable science majors of all disciplines—including future science teachers and 72% of students university-wide—to participate in highly interactive laboratory and classroom environments.

“The importance of this facility, more specifically the research and education that this facility will host, will positively impact future generations in the state of Wyoming and around the globe,” says UW project manager Sam Farstad.

A 200-seat active learning classroom (ALC), the largest in the Rocky Mountain West, will engage students through interactive lectures, small group discussions and case studies, along with web-based learning opportunities outside of class. Often referred to as smart classrooms or flexible classrooms, ALC spaces offer a cutting-edge way to educate students, and research shows that when teaching in an ALC setting, attendance, participation and grades are way up, says Schenk.

A customized sound system developed at Stanford maintains the sound for each group of students without interference from other areas in the space. Specialized audio visual and IT systems throughout the facility will allow users to share their research in real time.

Temperature Control

“As the project’s design progressed, additional funding enabled the university to add quite a bit of work, including an innovative rooftop greenhouse with its own mechanical and electrical system,” Schenk says.

The rooftop structure includes 12 research-quality bays that are remarkable in terms of their height (20 ft tall) and scale, and more sophisticated than typical greenhouses due to their ability to introduce additives into the air for studying plant growth in different environments.

“These are not your typical greenhouses,” Schenk says. A greenhouse specialist from Canada worked with the design team to create space that could simulate certain environments while controlling for temperature and humidity.

Designed with insulated glazing and aluminum, the structure includes specialized systems that can control the mechanical system in each of the bays as well as flexibility to open windows and vents to deal with the climate like a normal greenhouse space. Outside, semi-protected areas will be available for planting, along with soil prep lab areas and room for testing and experiments.

“We have been building greenhouses on the ground around the world, but constructing this 12-bay greenhouse on the building’s fifth floor with the Wyoming winds in January made it more challenging,” says GE Johnson project manager Jeff Meena, noting that it can be 29 degrees below zero with the windchill.

GE Johnson is no stranger to battling Laramie’s brutal winter weather, having built several projects at UW over the years. “We have great crews and craftsmen who are dedicated to the job and to the winter conditions,” Meena says. “We have weathered the storm, with 220 to 250 craftsmen from Wyoming, Colorado and Utah working inside and outside on the project. We’ve kicked up our cleaning protocols, kept everyone safe, and it’s worked out very well.”

“The lion’s share of the construction progress to date has been in the midst of a pandemic, which certainly throws a wrinkle into an already complex project. Hat’s off to the University of Wyoming and all our project partners to make this a reality through diligent safety precautions and exemplary logistical process management,” Farstad says.