A Flourishing Home for Science

August 1, 2007
Opening new doors: The French center's design encourages interdisciplinary collaborations

Opening new doors: The French center's design encourages interdisciplinary collaborations. Megan Morr

When construction began on the French Family Science Center two-and-a-half years ago, one of the first things the biology department had to do was find a place to put the plants that its faculty members and students use in research. The old greenhouses were located immediately behind the Biological Sciences building, in the space that had been earmarked for the construction. New greenhouses were quickly constructed a hundred yards or so behind the old ones, and the plants ferried between the two.

This summer, the new greenhouses are bursting with life, as is the space between. The $115 million, 275,000-square-foot center, which now houses the chemistry department—since moved out of Gross Chemistry—as well as parts of the biology and physics departments, has been tucked, if so large a building can be "tucked," behind and between the Biological Sciences and Physics buildings. The building opened in December, though some of its space is still being finished.

From Science Drive, a series of terraces drop down toward the building, giving the front lawn the appearance of a grassy amphitheater. On either side rise the red-brick walls of Physics and Biological Sciences.

Inside, the five-story building's most impressive visual feature is an atrium that runs the length of the building, north to south. On either side are research labs and faculty offices. The research labs have been "built for maximum flexibility," says Randy Smith, department manager for biology, "while at the same time meeting the needs of individual researchers." Each biology laboratory space is large enough to hold two or three research teams. The idea is that there is always room for individual teams to grow or shrink with shifts in funding. Faculty offices are arranged in pods of four or five offices. There is also a lecture hall that seats 175, about half the capacity of Biological Sciences' largest lecture hall.

The lower level of the building features laboratories for physics, chemistry, and biology students. As part of the construction project, the sub-basement of Biological Sciences was renovated, replacing old labs that Smith describes as "dark, damp, unfit for teaching," with state-of-the-art upgrades. The two buildings are actually adjoined. In an interior stairwell where the new attaches to the old, the exterior brick from the back of Biological Sciences has been left exposed.

The new building was constructed with Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification in mind. LEED promotes sustainability by recognizing environmentally responsible site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection, and indoor environmental quality. One interesting feature added by designers is a pair of "green roofs," or planted beds that sit on top of low-standing sections of the building, providing effective, and energy-efficient, insulation.

Plants have sprouted through the dirt, but Smith says these—unlike the ones in the greenhouses—are not part of any research project. "They're just for decoration."