The new 268,000 sf Strong Hall Science Laboratory Facility at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK) is designed to be the “Home of the Sciences—Earth, Life and Time.” It is scheduled for completion in December 2016 and will house the university’s anthropology, earth and planetary sciences, chemistry and biology programs.

On the project site, the Strong Hall dormitory is being replaced with this iconic Strong Hall Science Laboratory Facility. A small portion of the dormitory’s original architecture will be retained, yet renovated into a new Visualization Lab. This remaining portion is part of the original women’s residence hall “Sophies” (circa 1925), which will quaintly contrast the former 90-year-old structure with the new and innovative lab environments.

UTK embarked on this major $114 million initiative in 2013, marking the first major step in their “Journey to the Top 25” of the nation’s research universities. The S/L/A/M Collaborative, as the design lead, and Lewis Group Architects as architect of record, soon joined in this initiative.

The building was designed to promote unity and create a vibrant, synergistic teaching and research community. The new building style is predominantly collegiate gothic with design elements layered in a rich blend of colors and materials consistent with the campus standards and compatible with its campus context. There is also a careful introduction of modern details, materials and systems that infuse a state-of-the-art appearance to the building that reflects an innovative building of today.

“The new classroom and lab building is going to totally remake how we teach and what we are able to offer our students,” says Dave Irwin, Associate Vice Chancellor for Facilities Services. “It’s really an exciting time to be here, as we remake the campus in such a dramatic way.”

Overall, the look of the building celebrates the old and the new with the transition from traditional learning methodologies to innovative and collaborative research models as well as the building’s aesthetic. The building is monumental at eight stories with a rooftop penthouse. It is capped with a large gable roof that will become a signature piece for this facility, visible from many points on campus and in the city. Elements of the building, such as the colonnades, the nave-like commons, the two-story classroom volume on the southeast corner, and the remaining portion of the original Strong Hall all provide places in which students can engage the building at a human scale.

Stepping gracefully with its sloped site toward the heart of the University, the Strong Hall Science Laboratory Facility welcomes visitors on several levels, including access from a pedestrian bridge spanning Cumberland Avenue. By siting the majority of the building’s footprint on the western section of the site, generous green space is preserved to the east, featuring a dozen old growth oak trees surrounding two smaller scale existing buildings from pre-1930. From background to foreground, the building’s massing elements include an eight- story laboratory wing, three-story atrium and two-story oval lecture hall mass.

Interactive Teaching and Collaborative Spaces

The facility’s layout supports interactive teaching and hands-on learning, with plenty of space for both structured and unstructured interactions among students, faculty, and staff. The building’s theme of “Earth, Life and Time” emerged during the programming effort, capturing the spirit of the building and the disciplines it will house.

Collaboration and public space throughout the building are key components to its success. The spaces are branded to reflect the theme through the finishes, artwork and three-dimensional science displays. The atrium, designed to serve as the “heart” of the building, has a distinct image, greeting people with its spacious grand style. As mentioned above, a key element of this space is the inclusion of a portion of the original Strong Hall women’s residence where students, faculty and visitors can enjoy a glimpse into the distant past from within the atrium. The atrium will also serve as the definitive destination for learning and collaboration outside of the classrooms and labs.

The first three floors are dedicated to undergraduate general education and will house the following: general registrant assigned classrooms and lecture halls on the first floor, undergraduate biology instructional labs on the second floor and undergraduate instructional chemistry labs on the third floor. Science exhibits will be on display to highlight the various studies underway in the building for all university students to experience. For example, the new Visualization Lab will feature live feeds from NASA cameras on Mars, allowing “real-time” science on display. These spaces support students across all majors, making it a vibrant and energetic space.

Inter- and Trans-Disciplinary Learning

A major design goal within this new facility was to create an environment that enables inter- and trans-disciplinary learning, supporting an experiential/collaboration-based curriculum and, in some ways, transforming the culture of the departments.

The teaching labs accommodate both lectures and laboratory activities. The large lecture halls include a tiered collaborative 250-seat lecture hall, a 125-seat team-based learning (TBL) lecture hall and five large technology-enhanced active learning (TEAL) classrooms with advanced A/V capabilities. The large lecture halls are designed with removable tiers allowing for future flexibility of the spaces. In many labs, furniture located at the center will be moveable to accommodate curriculum changes. Within these lab set-ups, teams of students will be able to occupy individual tables for lectures and discussion, work at island benches or at the perimeter on special apparatus set-ups or in fume hoods.

Multiple writing surfaces, seamless media delivery systems and wireless projectors allow faculty to move around the room to work with each student while easily accessing A/V systems. Adjacent student/faculty research labs will be able to provide opportunities for more intensive work while offering a glimpse into the world beyond undergraduate education. Shared instrument labs equipped with industry standard analytical tools are designed to bring students and faculty together within and across disciplines.

Flexible Classrooms and Labs

The Department of Biology will consist of laboratories suitable for the type of pedagogy currently at the cutting edge of instruction in introductory biology courses. The program has envisioned a new teaching model, combining “scale-up” classrooms with wet lab teaching and research space to provide a more flexible group-based learning environment for UTK’s growing student population. For instance, two separate classrooms can be combined into larger classroom configurations where each classroom is supported by an adjacent wet lab.

The Department of Chemistry will consist of teaching laboratories for undergraduate teaching courses, such as general chemistry, organic chemistry, honors general chemistry and analytical chemistry courses. Moveable and fixed casework appropriate to the chemistry teaching laboratories are also integrated into the design.

Located along the atrium, The Visualization Lab is housed inside a remnant of the existing 1925 Strong Hall dormitory, creating a dynamic juxtaposition of old and new. As part of the Earth and Planetary Sciences department’s “science on display,” large flat-panel screens will project real-time NASA feeds from outer space.

Highly Specialized Labs

The upper floors house the Departments of Anthropology and Earth and Planetary Sciences. Instructional and research labs as well as departmental offices provide a home for diverse fields of study—and yet, their adjacency will sustain new opportunities for collaboration.

The Department of Anthropology, located on the fourth and fifth floors, will include diverse types of research spaces to support archaeology, zooarchaeology, biological anthropology, human anatomy and anthropology fields of study. Laboratories include computer modeling, data collection, wet labs, DNA lab and the Gross Anatomy Lab, as well as extensive skeletal and cast mold collections.

The Forensic Ancient DNA laboratory is designed to support the recovery of PCR-amplified DNA from highly-degradable DNA samples, utilizing a suite of procedure rooms designed to facilitate the workflow from sample arrival to data analysis. To minimize cross-contamination, the lab has been designed to provide positive pressurization, HEPA filtration, ultraviolet decontamination and stainless steel casework.

The Gross Anatomy Teaching Lab is provided with downdraft anatomy tables, surgical lights, stainless steel casework and a cold storage room. Additionally, this highly flexible lab has been designed to support lecture-based instruction.

Anthropology Collections within the department include donated skeletal remains, forensic skeletal collections and zoological comparative collections. Each of these varied collections are climate- and access-controlled spaces with adjacent research labs and collection prep areas.

The Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, located on the fifth, sixth and seventh floors, will serve a diverse range of programs including Geophysics, Geomicrobiology, Environmental Sciences, Paleontology, Petrology, Planetary Geosciences and Sedimentology. Supporting each of these programs are several sophisticated research labs and equipment.

Geochem and Ultra Clean Labs facilitate the refinement of soil and rock samples for examination by the adjacent Neptune Plus multi-collector mass spectrometer, Electron Microprobe or X-ray Diffraction Lab. This suite of labs facilitates the refinement of samples in progressively cleaner environments utilizing progressively aggressive preparation techniques. Final sample preparation in the Ultra Clean Lab utilizes solid polypropylene constructed lab casework and fume hoods to preserve sample quality.

ICP-MS Instrumentation Lab utilizes a Thermo Fisher Scientific Neptune Plus multi-collector mass spectrometer, facilitating high-precision isotope ratio measurements and separation of molecular interferences. Samples are received into this lab via an interlocked pass-thru to preserve sample quality.

Electron Probe Laboratory utilizes an existing Cameca SX-100 Electron Microprobe that will be relocated to the new lab on the fifth floor and required structural frame vibration analysis. Complementing this microprobe are dispersive spectrometers, cathodoluminescence detectors and backscattered electron detectors.

Stable Isotope Biochem Mass Spectrometry Lab provides services for the department as well as commercial users utilizing a variety of scientific instrumentation for the analysis of solid, liquid and gas samples.

In this premier facility, designing for flexibility was a crucial aspect in allowing a variety of science disciplines to be integrated within universal lab and classroom space, creating very diverse outcomes in the way students will learn and discover. The collaboration, inter- and trans-disciplinary learning and unity of this new facility will help the University of Tennessee Knoxville reach new heights in becoming one of the Top 25 research universities in the nation.

William W. Stelten, AIA, is an Associate Principal with The S/L/A/M Collaborative. He has 23 years of professional experience and substantial experience in the design of higher education facilities. In addition to his exceptional design skills, Will is particularly adept at designing buildings that are comfortable and compatible in the context of their particular settings while, at the same time, expressing their own unique program and architectural character.

Grant Stout has brought his 30 years of experience to The S/L/A/M Collaborative. He has a history of successful institutional, laboratory, research, science, engineering, medical, bio-containment and radiological facilities delivered “on time, on budget, and exceeding the owner’s expectations.”