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Disparate Academic Programs Thrive in New Science and Engineering Building at the University of Texas at San Antonio

Efficient, Flexible Design Strengthens Alliance Between Biology, Chemistry, and Engineering
Published 3/13/2024
Large room with couches, soft chairs, and bar chairs at a counter.
Architect's drawing of a floor plan
Two images: One with college students sitting at desktop computers, the other with studentsd standing around lab tables working on a project..
College students sitting at small tables and on a couch.

The new Science and Engineering Building (SEB), completed in 2020 on the campus of the University of Texas at San Antonio, is helping the engineering, biology, and chemistry departments overcome the challenges of inadequate infrastructure, crowded instructional rooms, poor access between labs across multiple buildings, insufficient lab support areas, and lack of space to accommodate capstone projects.

“The facility is part of the growing STEM area on campus and is physically connected via on-grade and elevated pedestrian walkways to allow for easy access to all other facilities,” says Timothy Reynolds, a principal at TreanorHL Science & Technology. “We provided a significant amount of gathering and collaboration spaces to encourage students to stay in the building to socialize and study together.”

The 140,000-sf, $76.5 million building provides a programmatic focus on instructional labs for the College of Engineering and the departments of chemistry and biology, as well as research for chemical engineering and the Brain Health Initiative. The design of the signature building maximizes flexibility, efficiency, and sustainability; highlights innovation by putting STEM learning and research on display; provides an abundance of space for informal collaboration; maintains service vehicle access; and corrects accessibility deficiencies on campus. 

Convincing the three groups to co-exist in the same building required ongoing, open communication with building users. Each group had unique needs and a desire to maintain a strong identity to recruit faculty, staff, and students. During the planning and design process, all existing spaces were inspected to verify deficiencies and determine improvements necessary to better meet the needs of the faculty, students, and researchers. 

Concerns about collocating engineering teaching labs, which can produce noise and vibration, with biology and chemistry instructional labs were addressed by developing appropriate adjacencies and separations. 

Early Observations and Project Vision

An analysis showed each department had insufficient space and resources to meet its needs, a problem the SEB corrected. The building houses 13 instructional labs on the second floor with associated entry alcoves and six lab prep spaces distributed between the teaching labs. It is organized on an 11-by-33-foot planning module. All planning spaces, including non-lab spaces, also are derived from the module, allowing spaces to easily be adapted for future needs. The building is constructed with ample floor-to-floor height and increased shaft capacity to provide space for future mechanical improvements to accommodate changes in function.

The chemistry instructional labs had been split among three buildings and lacked the necessary infrastructure for proper teaching. Many were converted research labs that were cluttered, dark, and potentially dangerous because of poor egress. The department needed general chemistry labs, organic labs, an inorganic chemistry lab, a physical chemistry lab, and one analytical chemistry lab, in addition to lab support spaces and faculty offices.

The biology department also was in disarray, with labs located in five buildings and instructional labs that were either crowded beyond capacity or barely being used. Department leaders initially wanted eight general labs, two advanced labs, and enough research labs to accommodate up to 25 principal investigators. The Brain Health Initiative, part of the biology department, required additional research labs.

“We dropped or significantly curtailed the research function of the biology department because the project budget could not afford it,” says Jeff Davis, a principal at TreanorHL. “The Brain Health Initiative includes two 6-module open research labs, each with multiple support and shared equipment spaces to support critical discoveries. The open labs were designed to support multiple investigator teams, depending upon funding and need. Because lab modules are multidirectional with moveable casework, space can be assigned and reassigned as required.”

The engineering department had two major problems: There was no space for the new chemical engineering program which requires a unit operations lab, and there was no dedicated space for the senior student capstone projects. The department also uses a high-bay structural testing lab with its own special requirements; instructional labs that focus on fluids, materials characterization, measurements, and instrumentation; research labs for the new chemical engineering program; faculty offices; and a cutting-edge maker space providing students with top-notch resources and equipment to create projects. 

Creating Efficient, Fiscally Sound Solutions

Providing each department with optimal resources to function at the highest level was key, but it had to be achieved within budget with creative solutions, such as being more efficient with lab space planning and utilization. The building systems are energy-efficient and sustainable, with a heat recovery system, automatic lighting controls for daylight harvesting, and deep overhangs and passive shading devices to provide protection for the large expanses of glazing. 

“The biology faculty members had an issue where some of their teaching labs were over-utilized and even being used on Saturdays, while others were grossly under-utilized at two hours a week per semester,” notes Reynolds. “We went through an analysis to determine how to make the labs more functional so the faculty could teach more efficiently without teaching on Saturdays.”

The solution in the SEB is biology teaching labs designed to support multiple classes, ranging from general biology to microbiology, physiology, cell biology, and immunology. The labs are similar in size and layout, so spaces can be used interchangeably as needs evolve. Two to four labs were connected via entry alcoves to allow for ease of movement between spaces. Lab preparation rooms are located adjacent to every two teaching labs. The focus accounts for changes to pedagogy and courses in lieu of providing customized spaces that are difficult to use efficiently and to convert as needs change.

For the chemistry function, which is driven primarily by fume hoods, the support and preparation spaces were integrated inside the labs to enhance access between labs and permit overflow space outside the labs to be used for special projects. All of the chemistry labs are connected by a corridor, allowing instructors and teaching assistants to transition easily and quickly from one space to another, creating a continuous chemistry lab for the university.

A major programmatic element of the College of Engineering was the need for space to complete and showcase the capstone projects done by senior students. A maker space provides the ideal venue for the design and fabrication of projects, and features a machine shop, woodshop, and space to work with composites. 

“The maker space also provides them with industry collaboration space where they can do presentations in front of industry leaders,” says Davis. “It is very open and transparent, with a lot of light and it is located right at the entry of the new building and to the campus, putting the students’ work on display.”

Reynolds notes that facilities housing innovative maker spaces, which showcase the work of students and the potential for industry involvement, often have an easier time obtaining donations of money and equipment because industry leaders get a firsthand opportunity to witness the work and envision the potential for creating marketable products.

The university already had an organization called the Center for Innovation, Technology and Entrepreneurship (CITE) prior to construction of the new building. CITE enables business and engineering students to collaborate, interact socially, and bring their products to market. Additional informal seating and work space for collaborating and socializing is available in an atrium-style area.

The research labs support chemical engineering and the Brain Health Initiative with a focus on flexibility, shared labs, and adequate support spaces for specialization. The labs are open with just enough casework to ensure the space is not crowded, since equipment and instruments are regularly moved in and out of the space. 

The engineering instructional labs necessitated spaces based on themes to address fluids and thermofluids; measurements and instrumentation; materials characterization; chemical engineering and unit operations; and maker space/senior design. There also was a critical need to help the university develop its new chemical engineering program with the creation of not only the unit operations lab, but more importantly, a high-bay space for distillation equipment. 

LSTF Design Decisions

The Large-Scale Testing Facility (LSTF), used to validate the integrity of materials such as 100-foot concrete bridge beams, is not located at the SEB. A decision was made to locate it on the west side of the campus near several service buildings with easy access to the highway, space to accommodate large trucks carrying items to be tested, and storage to contain used or broken items that might be an eyesore near the new building. The location also alleviates any disruption to the main campus from noise and vibrations. It is about a half mile away from the core building of the engineering department, but the university operates a transit system that connects this area to the main campus. 

Beneath the strong floor of the LSTF is a concrete box girder, because the majority of the floor is designed to accommodate up to a million pounds of pressure, with an even thicker part capable of handling up to 4 million pounds. The concrete in the box girder is 6 feet thick, and a tunnel system below the floor provides space for the hydraulic equipment that feeds up through the floor and into the testing facility to test beams and other items. 

Overcoming Challenges at the SEB Construction Site 

The UTSA campus is unusual in that all of the buildings are serviced by a subterranean tunnel system big enough for a truck to enter. Everything is accessible by truck, and utilities are piped overhead in the tunnel to service the buildings. Servicing the SEB was a challenge, because the design required two 20-inch pipes and two 12-inch pipes to pass through the tunnel while still accommodating the height of the trucks. 

“We were already under construction and we still didn’t have a definite route of how we were going to get those chilled water pipes to our building,” says Ariel Chavela, senior principal at Alamo Architects. “We had already met about 20 times to brainstorm and we were out of ideas. For every route, the campus would have to give up access somewhere because the tunnels were congested.”

After further consideration, the design team and stakeholders concluded the best solution was to construct an overhead utility pathway/pedestrian bridge, crossing the primary north-south axis of campus and leading to the third floor of the SEB. The bridge serves a dual purpose of providing access to the SEB and offering a conduit for the pipes, which are concealed under the span. 

“Another big challenge that specifically impacted construction was the hard rock encountered during excavation,” says Chavela. “While we knew about the condition prior to construction, the actual rock required additional excavation time, increasing the project cost and affecting the construction schedule.”

Reynolds says transparent and frequent communication allowed the team to work together to identify challenges and provide effective solutions. Allowing all stakeholders to voice their concerns can diffuse potential issues.

“Getting users and stakeholders to be part of the solution provides benefits over the lifetime of the project,” says Reynolds. “Challenge preconceptions about the numbers and the types of spaces needed, focus on sustainable solutions, and don’t be afraid to think outside the site.”

By Tracy Carbasho