Balancing historical integrity in forward-thinking communities

The new Chemistry Building and Commons at the University of Arizona re-envisions a historic structure into an innovative, 21st century, collaborative classroom building at the heart of the active, historic campus mall. The robust feasibility analysis and programming phase made evident that a portion of the historic structure could be repurposed to accommodate the new use, while the remaining program required new, large span floors to maximize the flexibility and functionality of the collaborative teaching and learning environments. The project integrates active and experimental classrooms along with chemistry research, teaching and departmental functions into one facility. Tracking as a LEED Silver project, the design incorporates biophilic elements and incorporates exterior spaces as part of the overall environment. 

The original structure was designed by Roy Place, an architect who played a pivotal role in the design and development of the University of Arizona Campus. Completed in 1936, it was expanded and renovated over time, resulting in muddled structural, mechanical, and spatial combinations that had reached the end of their effective lifespan. This, coupled with the national historic registration designation, and the tight physical confines in the historic heart of campus, necessitated the team to look at creative solutions to meet programmatic needs. 

The essence of the project is about balancing the historic integrity of the building with the new forward looking and flexible 21st century spaces for teaching and learning.  The building must, at once, look back and always forward.  Balance in this design context is just as much about creation as it is about preservation. The project is a design-build partnership with Sundt Construction, Shepley Bulfinch, and Poster Mirto McDonald whose expertise in historic preservation provided instrumental guidance on the design approach.

New classrooms will be concentrated in the new construction areas, while services, offices, and computational space will be placed in the historic structure. A new atrium space between the wings of the building will enclose some of the historic façade and create a large mixing chamber where students and faculty can interact which can also become gathering and presentation space after hours, allowing the university to expand the “open” hours of the building. 

Balance in design is also about creating environments that are inclusive to all experiences. Accessibility was implemented in ways that enhanced the presence of the historic building along the historic mall.   The reimagined entrances and navigation through the building provide universal access where it had not been previously. The design focuses on equitable experiences for all who interact with the newly renovated building: the way students and faculty enter or exit the space, how community interactions occur, how study space is used, and how all community members can participate in social events.  

The University of Arizona prioritizes sustainable design, requiring that all new buildings on campus be designed to LEED Silver requirements. As is typical in any historic renovation, the current envelope was lacking in building efficiency measures, primarily consisting of uninsulated masonry walls, and single pane steel frame windows. To maintain the historical structure, the design team pursued extensive early energy modeling and cost estimating with our Design-Build partners and created a cost neutral way to create a new envelope inside the historic structure. All sustainable changes happened on the interior to preserve the exterior character while aligning with the forward-thinking sustainable design goals of the campus. 

Historic renovations often uncover the unexpected. The project’s success can be attributed to the strong design-build partnership and the core values of the University of Arizona, which served as drivers throughout programming and design. The Chemistry Building and The Commons will now stitch together the sciences with the larger community, creating a fusion of academics and community.