Since before Arizona became a state, the University of Arizona has served as a center for learning and discovery, over time becoming a leader in scientific research and space exploration. From the 1891 opening of Old Main, the Tucson school’s first building, to the more than 800 buildings and over 19 million sq ft of space it now has, the university’s planning, design and construction department shapes the vision for campus growth, functionality and aesthetics.

With more than 51,000 current students, the university has an ever-growing need for new state-of-the-art facilities. “But at the same time, we need to reinvest in some of the old buildings that we have, as the oldest campus in the state, to get more utilization,” says Peter Dourlein, university architect and associate vice president of planning, design and construction.

massive thermal vacuum chamber

Crews installed the massive thermal vacuum chamber early in construction.
Photo courtesy McCarthy Building Cos.

Like many large campus owners, the University of Arizona builds to last, with optimal life expectancy for buildings ranging from 50 to 100 years. “What really drives us is not just building things that facilitate a function, but that also inspire,” Dourlein says, whether that is creating a healthy workspace or a space that boosts productivity or one that increases scientific discovery. “In the beginning, we shape a [new] building, but eventually the building shapes our own behavior,” he says. “Looking at the long haul, we can best serve our constituency, our professors, our faculty and staff on campus by providing something that not only works today, but will work for a very long time.”

The chamber

The chamber simulates conditions in the stratosphere and space.
Photo by Scott Blair/ENR

For its dedication to collaboration, service to many stakeholders and commitment to better the campus built environment, the University of Arizona planning, design and construction department (PDC) has been named ENR Southwest 2023 Owner of the Year.

Many of the 50 or so department employees have had extensive experience in the construction industry. “We’ve got the secret sauce going on at U of A,” says Lorna Gray, PDC director of construction. “We bring folks on and they get with it. For a lot of them, it’s probably the best job they’ve ever had, because it’s a real collaborative environment. Our motto is: We’re all going to cross the finish line together. That means we’re trying every day for everybody [on the project team] to be as successful as possible. ”

$42-million revitalization

The university recently completed a $42-million revitalization of its historic chemistry building.
Photo courtesy U of A PDC

Grand Challenges

Two projects currently under construction showcase many PDC department strengths in working to deepen the bench of cutting-edge facilities for university researchers to delve into some of the biggest questions and issues facing the Earth and beyond.

The $99-million Grand Challenges Research Building will expand the school’s optics research programs, which include lasers, lenses, spectrometers, medical equipment and massive mirrors required for telescopes, satellites and other space exploration functions. It will also house a new quantum networks center to create new methods to transmit information and boost computing power. Other researchers will track space junk, experiment with sound and delve into bioinformatics, which uses the power of statistics to analyze biological data and help improve health outcomes for patients.

Arizona Public Media

A planned 50,000-sq-ft facility for Arizona Public Media will modernize the region’s not-for-profit media production facilities.
Photo courtesy U of A PDC

The seven-story project was awarded under a progressive design-build contract to Kitchell Contractors, ZGF Architects LLP and BWS Architects. Work began in July 2021, with substantial completion set for February 2024.

To avoid the dramatic escalation of materials pricing and shortages that impacted the construction industry in 2021 and 2022, the PDC department allowed Kitchell to preorder key materials and bill for those stored items.

“PDC has been an excellent steward of the university by creating new environments and repurposing others to help keep the university in the top ranks. It’s also an excellent steward of the state’s money,” says Brian Brown, Arizona regional executive at Kitchell, adding that a “willingness to collaborate is a big plus.”

The university’s “willingness to collaborate is a big plus.”
—Brian Brown, Arizona Regional Executive, Kitchell Construction

Nearby, the $85-million Applied Research Building will support some of the more specialized research at the school. The three-story building includes high-bay payload assembly areas for high-altitude balloons, space exploration and other experiments, plus a large-scale thermal vacuum chamber, anechoic chamber to suppress sound or electromagnetic waves, clean rooms, labs and offices.

Also being built under a design-build contract, the team, led by McCarthy Building Cos. with SmithGroup, will wrap up construction this month.

Debra Johnson, PDC director of design, credits much of the project success to the flexibility it has to employ a variety of delivery methods. The department can select construction manager at-risk (CMAR), various levels of design-build, job order contracting and traditional design-bid-build, depending on project size and requirements. The delivery methods “allow us to select qualified firms, both from the design side and the construction side,” she says. “That really starts us off in the right direction, because we’re bringing in teams that we believe are highly qualified to do the specific projects.”

Grand Challenges Research Building

Occupying a former parking lot, the Grand Challenges Research Building provides research space for optics and quantum computing.
Photo courtesy Kitchell Contractors

Dourlein emphasizes a “people-first” approach to awarding project contracts. “When we select the team, we’re really looking at the people who are going to be working on the project day to day, not necessarily the shiny magazine cover that was completed a while back or by another office, but rather the people to be actively engaged in the project.” Reflecting the motto of crossing the finish line together, “If somebody falls down, we’re going to stop and pick them up, so to speak,” he adds.

PDC culture “is one of mutual respect and trust where everyone on the team feels they are in a true partnership,” says Michael Gonzalez, vice president of McCarthy’s Southwest region education business unit. “The university’s unique approach allows the design-build model to function at its best, where egos are on the sideline and every member of the team feels equally valued for their expertise. Because of this people-focused approach, everyone is invested in a project’s success and part of bringing it to life.”

Health Sciences Innovation Building

The $165-million Health Sciences Innovation Building won the national ENR Best of the Best award for health care in 2021.
Photo courtesy CO Architects

Stakeholder Engagement

The university also is currently constructing the $23-million Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine, a CMAR project designed by Line and Space and built by DPR Construction. The contractor also is slated to build the $45-million Arizona Public Media facility, which is still in the design phase by SmithGroup and Swaim.

On all of its projects, PDC interfaces with a broad array of stakeholders—from other departments including facilities, groundskeeping, transportation, lab safety and risk management to students, staff, faculty and researchers—and even those in the larger Tucson community.

Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine

Currently under construction, the $23-million Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine will focus on research into holistic health and well-being.

To foster communication and reduce potential clashes with the community, the department employs “impact control planning” to carefully plan and notify stakeholders and the public about anything that may happen outside of the boundaries of the project site.

“We’re trying to be really forward looking, proactive in our communication and sharing the experience with the community, and it’s done wonders,” Gray says. “I personally am really proud of it.”