Shedding light on the sciences at UMass Amherst

Fri, 01/22/2010 - 8:11am
Robert Schaeffner, AIA, LEED AP, and Gary Cabo, AIA, LEED AP
Study Treehouse

Central gathering space with two student study "treehouses." All photography ©Warren Jagger Photography 2009.

When planning for a new science building at the Univ. of Massachusetts in Amherst, faculty members had the chance to pursue a long-held ambition: to increase the profile of the sciences to the UMass Amherst community. The Integrated Sciences Building (ISB), which opened early in 2009, achieves these goals in a playful, sectional assemblage of brick and glass that both fits in and stands out as a new model for scientific collaboration.

Building organization
The 157,500-ft2 life sciences teaching and research building is part of a scalable plan to expand science teaching and research capabilities on campus with the goal of fostering interaction and collaboration between students and research faculty. The heart of the ISB is a dramatic four-story concourse (or atrium) that runs along the entire southern edge of the classroom wing, flowing with people moving along balconies, bridges and stairs and providing a variety of meeting spaces at each level. The concourse’s enormous south-facing window creates a showcase of science to the courtyard and east campus precinct beyond.

The concourse’s south-facing curtainwall is protected from excessive heat gain by a terracotta louver sunscreen supported by a steel exoskeleton of horizontal and vertical trusses. The exoskeleton provides the curtainwall’s structural support while embedded catwalks facilitate window washing. Three terracotta “treehouses” are inserted through the curtainwall, both animating the façade and providing intimate spaces for study and collaboration within the heart of the building.

Transparency fosters a sense of openness and connectivity that is new to the UMass Amherst campus. These interconnections are vital not only to scientific research, but also to building a collaborative campus community.

“The wonderful window wall, the inviting staircases, the fluidity of travel from one space to another, the fun and appealing informal interaction spaces all combine to create a place where students interact comfortably and where state-of-the-art science teaching is encouraged,” says Lila Gierasch, distinguished professor in the department of biochemistry and molecular biology, as well as the department of chemistry.

Organic Chemistry Lab

The organic chemistry teaching lab (one of five 16-student modules).

Old ways and new ways
As with many other campuses, the existing science buildings at UMass Amherst reflected the prevailing pedagogy of the time in which they were built. The key facilities were Sputnik-era midcentury structures, built for a boxy kind of efficiency for a single discipline with many fixed elements. Structures from this era also feature typically small window openings with little daylight and virtually no transparency.

While these facilities served UMass Amherst fairly well, an entire generation of advances in scientific thinking has transformed the teach ing and research paradigm on the university campus. The university seized the chance to create a wholly new model for science teaching by creating a building specifically organized to support these new learning models. This action allows the university to affirm its growing commitment to the life sciences and reinforce its expanding presence as a research institution.

The primary goal was to find ways of fostering interaction among different traditional physical and life sciences disciplines. Beginning with the approach to the building, public spaces form a primary layer of connective tissue to bring people together. Three key areas help integrate the labs and classroom wing:

  • The concourse: path and destinations. The dramatic concourse is the heart of the ISB, serving as a major pedestrian path, providing a variety of gathering places, and aiding in orientation in and around the building. The sloping site allows people to enter the concourse on multiple levels. Classrooms, conference rooms, a computer resource center and a 300-seat auditorium are arranged along the path. There is constant circulation between these destinations and the rest of the ISB and the campus.
  • Treehouses. Three “treehouses” are spread throughout the upper floors of the concourse, perched high above the courtyard. These bamboo-clad boxes are juxtaposed with the steel, glass, aluminum and terracotta facade of the concourse. They are an invitation to stay in the building; to meet, collaborate, study, or hang out with friends; to see and be seen.
  • Computer Resource Center (CRC).Recognizing the expanding need for datadriven analyses in the sciences and the necessity of technical support for students, the CRC is a convenient student resource located in the hub of the public space. Students are able to supplement their work in the lab and in the classroom setting and can work together as a team with technical support. Attached to two formal classrooms, the CRC is a beehive of activity that sees almost constant use. While formal classes aren’t taught here, the space currently supports review sessions and offers students additional space for impromptu gatherings throughout the semester.
Exterior UMas Amherst

The exterior of the building presents a lively façade and a window to the busy concourse within.

Classrooms and laboratories are changing
Non-lab instructional areas are located in the classroom wing, in convenient proximity to the lab wing, but associated with the concourse. Sets of stairs meander through the concourse enhancing flow between the floors and wings and minimizing elevator usage. Students have the opportunity to brainstorm, study, chat or collaborate in the spaces and paths between the laboratory and classroom wings. Paul Lahti, director of the undergraduate program in the chemistry department, calls the facility “a mixing bowl for sciences.”

Individual spaces are built around this new, interactive pedagogy of the university and are designed to support a strong relationship between instructors, teaching assistants and students. The ISB is designed to facilitate this new pedagogy, to effectively teach the large class sessions typical of a university while providing teaching environments that function at a much smaller size. Distinct approaches were pursued in order to respond to the unique requirements of fluctuating instructional areas.

In the chemistry department, introductory chemistry has laboratory sections for up to 160 students. In these sections, the university strives to preserve a ratio of 16 students to one teaching assistant. A particular challenge in these areas was to allow observation of the entire group by the professor while still maintaining environments conducive to instruction in smaller groups. In addition, there was particular concern regarding how media and waste could be supplied and removed from laboratory areas without compromising safety.

Physical Chemistry Teaching Laboratory

Physical chemistry teaching laboratory.

This chemistry suite layout allows an instructor to rotate between modules (almost like a doctor doing rounds) without leaving the general lab space. Grouping students in smaller modules gives the feeling of being in a seminar-like environment found in smaller teaching universities. It also allows for breakout sessions to take place easily. The layout features five lab modules on each side of the building with support space in between. By utilizing all of the floor area, the solution nets a remarkably efficient net:gross ratio. Each section offers students exposure to instrumentation, prep space and connection to the chemical stock room.

An 85-seat classroom serves the pre-lab teaching needs of organic chemistry courses, but the labs are set up for the tailored instructional needs of the group while preserving the 16:1 (student:TA) ratio. There are 80 students in each section of organic chemistry. The laboratory component of the course is taught in a suite of five 16-person modules aligned along one side of the building. Each is open to the adjacent module to facilitate the professor’s movement between. There are 10 hoods in each module, eight to serve pairs of students and one each for supply and waste collection. Nearly all of the experiments are conducted inside the fume hoods, which are arranged around three sides of the perimeter. The center of the space functions as a note-taking area in a U-shaped bench that performs like a seminar space. Lab instrumentation related to the program is located within this bench area.


The building offers many options for students to gather informally.

The needs of upper-level biology presented some similar challenges to the chemistry department. Upper-level biology labs are co-located on floors opposite organic chemistry and physical chemistry labs, allowing these programs to share instrument spaces. The biology sessions serve up to 72 students and the labs are arrayed in two clusters of three labs, separated by prep labs. These suites provide an opportunity to improve the way advanced biology courses are taught, with individual labs that are customized to support a curriculum that is taught over the course of a semester. Students rotate between distinct lab areas as the term progresses, offering students exposure to high-end instrumentation and focused instruction.

Instead of a large, generically planned lab, there are three labs that are specifically set up for in-depth semester-long investigations. The center lab module is a flexible lab configured for multiple instruction modes. This lab has perimeter fixed casework with adjustableheight lab tables in the center of the room, allowing both traditional laboratory and seminar-style configurations. An adjacent lab is set up for tissue culture study and features four 6-ft biosafety cabinets, CO2 incubators and low benches for microscope work. Allowing students to move from bench to the incubator is an important part of the curricular goal for upperlevel biology students.

The third lab in the cluster is configured for high-end microscope work. This lab features custom microscope cabinets, fixed benches for related bench work, and high-resolution projection capability. The grouping of the labs as a suite creates the opportunity for students not possible in generic teaching laboratories. This set up in biology is a completely new instructional approach and is destined to be a model for other university facilities in the future.

Energy leadership
One of the primary sustainable goals of the Integrated Sciences Building was reducing the energy use of a highly technical science building with more than 150 chemical fume hoods.

Steve Goodwin, dean of the College of Natural Resources and the Environment, says, “This is an inspiring facility. The design has an openness that encourages interaction among students and faculty. It allows students from different areas to collaborate, and that is an essential part of their education.”

Robert Schaeffner, AIA, LEED AP, is a principal at Payette, the Boston-based architectural firm responsible for design of the ISB ( Gary Cabo, AIA, LEED AP, is an associate principal with the company. This article previously appeared in the Nov. 2009 edition of the Academic Sourceguide produced by Laboratory Equipment magazine, a sister publication of Laboratory Design (

Published in Laboratory Design Newsletter: Vol. 15, No. 1, January, 2010, pp.6-8.



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