From the ground up

Spring 2007 Interaction

Courtesy of BOORA

Architectural rendering of SoEC
The architectural rendering shows the eastern approach toward the hexagonal rotunda of the School of Engineering Center, which will contain the new Engineering Library, a cafe and many shared facilities.

Talking about building academic buildings can take as long — longer, in fact — than building them. There are arduous conversations about research collaboration, links among disciplines, proximity to shared facilities such as workshops and libraries, likely areas of growth and the image of their field that scholars want to project.

The second building to go up in the second Science and Engineering Quad (SEQ2) will be the School of Engineering Center (SoEC), whose planners are involved in precisely those sorts of conversations with faculty members.

L.A. Cicero
The Energy and Environment Building, which should be up and running in October, is the product of many months of meetings among planners, architects, faculty members and researchers to ensure that the building's physical design meshes with its scientific objectives.

The building has a hard act to follow: the Environment and Energy Building (EE), which will open its doors in October.

"We're interested in the experience of a building," said Sandy Meyer, director of facilities and planning for the Engineering School and program representative for SEQ2. "Instantly when you arrive at EE, you understand what it's about. We need the same to happen with this building."

The SoEC will house the Management Science and Engineering Department (MS&E), the Institute for Computational and Mathematical Engineering (ICME) and the dean's office. The adjacent rotunda, which the architects call "the signature building of the quad," will house the library and a host of common areas including an exploratorium for exhibits, classrooms, an auditorium (used principally by the Stanford Technology Ventures Program), a research gym, breakout rooms and a café.

This spring, planning entered the schematic phase. Members of the Portland, Ore. architectural firm BOORA met with users and faculty members to figure out how they operate and move, where their research and teaching takes them in a building, how much space they need and how it should be distributed.

Beyond the needs of the individual units, planners grappled with the peculiar structure of the School of Engineering and SEQ2. The new building will contain just one of the school's nine departments; some of the rest will be in other SEQ2 buildings (which will all be connected through their basements), but others will be elsewhere. Yet SoEC must be hub for them all. So their task is to create a home for MS&E and ICME and a symbolic center for the whole school.

Their top priority is to "create an interdisciplinary community" that is sustainable, transparent and visually describes the history of innovation associated with the school.

And it has to be flexible. "When the Main Quad was built, they didn't know what the university would be like in 100 years," architect Jamie Sinz pointed out during a meeting with faculty. "When we say the SoEC is a 100-year building, it means it will adapt, but it will survive."

Tomorrow's libraries

Possibly no component of any university is undergoing more adaptations these days than its libraries. While ICME and MS&E must factor in space to grow, libraries expect negative growth in terms of stacks space and less activity on their loading dock. The new engineering library will occupy around 6,000 square feet in the rotunda, serving the entire quad.

"It's open, glassy, transparent, the iconic center of the building," said architect Isaac Campbell, "analogous to the church in the Main Quad." With a nod toward the Clark Center, planners also want people outside to be able to see inside. "Windows on creativity," in fact, is one of the building's themes.

Courtesy of BOORA
The Energy and Environment Building, which should be up and running in October, is the product of many months of meetings among planners, architects, faculty members and researchers to ensure that the building's physical design meshes with its scientific objectives.

One issue raised at a meeting in early March was how to create a sense of flow from the quad to the library. Visibility from the outside is one thing; leading people inside is another. There were several potential entrances to the library, and the group discussed which was the most logical.

"I can't envision the natural flow," said Bob Street, an emeritus professor in the Department of Civil Engineering. "It doesn't feel obvious to me. Is there an obvious front door?"

And once you go through that front door, what do you find? How do you interact with librarians? Does checkout have to be where it always is?

The follow-up meeting in April was attended by University Librarian Michael Keller, whose enthusiasm must be every innovative architect's dream.

By that time, Sinz had worked up a fairly detailed sketch of the library. Aided by Adobe Illustrator and an agile mouse, seating, shelves, couches, tables and offices were dropped in and out of the projected image, scooted to one side or another depending on light, noise and use, all with the goal of saving space and maximizing functionality.

Michael Keller

"That's terrific!" Keller murmured.

"But do we really need a desk at the entrance?" he asked. "We're in a new age now. Don't we want a more collaborative feeling about how we treat our patrons? It's the fence I'm objecting to. We need to get out of the fence mode. We need to be as flexible as possible."

He was preaching to the choir. "We'd certainly be interested in thinking about that in another way," Campbell said. "Our goal is for the library to be as open as possible."

The librarians at the meeting reported that the new City of San Mateo Public Library is experimenting with portable reference pods that can be locked up in the evening. Maybe, Keller said, the tabletop machinery also could be removed at night, leaving empty tables for all-night study sessions.

"Why not? he asked. "Just think about it!"

A new community

ICME director Peter Glynn, meanwhile, was thinking about community. His institute's graduate students and directors are in Durand, but faculty offices are scattered widely in around a dozen departments. SoEC must become a home for them all.

Because ICME faculty will still be dispersed, Glynn said, the top priority is to have a lounge, "to build community spirit," a place where they can all gather for colloquia and meetings. There has to be an adjacent kitchen with plenty of space for cooking, and — a nice touch — lots of whiteboards on wheels. Mathematicians need to show their ideas right away, he said, and if they're standing around doing muffins and coffee, they don't want to have to wait.

In March, Glynn told the architects he'd prefer that his allotted 6,000 square feet be all on one floor. "The split floors in Terman are a disaster," he said. "You can go weeks without seeing people."

True, Meyer acknowledged, but if they occupied the entire basement (the only whole-floor option) they'd lose access to a first-floor terrace. And, she pointed out, there are huge advantages to being on adjacent floors.

"We could make two floors visible to each other by using a mezzanine, creating vertical connections with opened-up spaces. You could look up from downstairs and see colleagues above," she suggested.

Glynn kept an open mind, and that was exactly the plan that was presented to ICME a month later. As in the EE Building, BOORA is organizing academic units around vertical light towers, the result of atria that allow natural ventilation, visual communication and a more open feeling. Departments don't have to huddle together on one floor; in fact, members will probably see more of each other if they are stacked.

At the second ICME meeting, the conversation dwelt mainly on how to ensure that first- and second-year graduate students could be in an open area with big tables, allowing them to bond, while more advanced students could have privacy and quiet. Faculty members must be near their students, Glynn insisted, which led the conversation back to the creation of good vertical linkages and community.

How to occupy space

The most challenging of the units to accommodate is MS&E, the product of a merger in 2000. At an early meeting, department chair Steve Barley and his colleagues were perplexed with the space assigned to them — on three floors.

Steve Barley
Steve Barley

"We need to coalesce," Barley told the architects and project director Meyer. "We're the result of a merger, so we're already interdisciplinary. We have to build our department."

Various suggestions for how they could divide up their allocated 21,000 square feet were projected onto the wall. None was perfect.

"These are options like which of your kids do you want to hurt?" said Ross Shachter, an associate professor. But he and his colleagues said they would take the proposals to the rest of the faculty and continue the dialogue.

A month later, the decision had been made about which blocks of space MS&E would occupy, but the distribution of that space internally was still wide open. Once again, the conversation returned to the department's organization. It comprises some eight focus groups, whose members often overlap, making a hypothetical physical arrangement of offices also an academic one. It is also, clearly, a political one.

There's an important social engineering issue here," Barley said. "This is the last hurdle in the merger that began seven years ago. The last thing we want is for this building to take us back in time.

"We have to involve all the faculty in these decisions or it's going to blow up in our face," Barley said.

Shachter agreed: "We need to give faculty a chance to choose up teams." But the architects insisted they needed to get some sense right then of what the distribution might be. So the group tried, listing the members of the focus groups and the number of graduate students each has, working out logical affinities, wondering if it made more sense to divide people by corridor or by floor.

And who's on first? That was easier to figure out. The architects were gratified when department representatives drew up a fairly exact list of the administrative personnel and offices that will greet people upon entering.


MS&E and ICME leaders are communicating in two directions, bringing the plans to their colleagues as they also explain to the architects what their needs are. There is a delicate balance at this stage regarding the specificity of a given space's purpose.

Stan Boles Stan Boles

"Once we give people a floor plan, we lose them, and they start seeing themselves in a particular office," Meyer said. Better to keep options open and make them think, as it were, outside the box. Designing the EE Building, in that regard, was "an inspirational experience," BOORA Senior Principal Architect Stan Boles told an audience at a public lecture in April, because the occupants were willing to do just that.

Boles' junior colleagues were as inspired as he. Pointing to the example of the EE building, architect Tom Bauer told the MS&E group in April, "We'd like to look for opportunities to break the model."

The Civil Engineering Department and the various environmental units occupying the EE building "took it as an opportunity to reinvent themselves," he said, to the extent that they formed entirely new affinity groups whose areas in the building are color-coded.

"They made the leap," Campbell said.

The schematic phase of the process should end in June, when the plans will be signed off. That's when the stone and the steel have to be ordered, project manager Wayne Kelley said: "This train has left the station."