Study in Engineering
The new building is actually an addition to an existing engineering building, Voss-Kovach Hall, and creates a new face to the campus entrance on University Drive. Swenson is now the first building you see when entering campus from the northeast.
The exterior seems to have all the traits of a place where students design, construct, and test structures to withstand stresses and strains. The elevations are distinguished by corten steel, precast and poured-in-place concrete, concrete block, and scuppers on steroids, clad in reclaimed wood.
If you look at the north elevation straight on, the building seems to be flexing its muscles, holding up gargantuan troughs of concrete and wood, which balance delicately on perforated corten panels.
Barney also used steel road plate for the building's exterior walkways. Corten extends inside the building, too, but of course here it is not exposed to the weather, so students can see how the material responds to different environmental conditions.
The raw material from which iron ore is extracted is called taconite — a grayish, silica-rich rock found in abundance in the region. Taconite is used in the civil engineering building in inventive ways, such as gravel in landscaping, and also in gabion walls inside and outside. These walls are essentially steel wire frames into which the taconite is poured loose.
You can also find taconite in the large corten drums that collect the water delivered by the scuppers. Here, it is used to filter the water so that it can be collected and pumped into the hydraulics laboratory flumes for use in experiments. (Most of the rest of the rainwater is carried away via French drains and retained onsite, or absorbed by the intensive vegetated roof, which accounts for about a third of the roof surface.)
The south wall, which wraps around to connect to Voss-Kovach Hall, is a puzzle of precast-concrete panels that were purposely designed in a variety of interlocking shapes (interspersed by long, narrow windows) to demonstrate the material's versatility.
As an added lesson, the steel braces and kickers used for lateral support while the precast panels were tilted up and connected during assembly have been left in place to demonstrate part of the construction process.
On a sunny day, the building's materials contrast with each other — the rich, dark-orange surface of the corten next to the gray, rough surface of the concrete, beside the warm, distressed appearance of the cypress scuppers.
This last material was recycled from old pickle barrels, and teaches a lesson about the use of salvaged materials in a new building. (The boards also exude the scent of pickles under certain conditions, recalling the material's history!)
And on a rainy day, the building is a demonstration of hydraulics and kinetic energy, as water pours from the scuppers and splashes into the corten cylinders.
The interior is just as pedagogic as the exterior, letting all of its mechanical systems and architectural features hang out. The building is clearly organized around a circulation spine that runs basically east-west (adjusted for the campus grid).
Double-height lab spaces are on the south side of the corridor, and most of the single-story rooms, such as classrooms and offices, are to the north. Layers of clear glass permit penetrating views from one end of the building to the other, and across slices of space from the north side through the hydraulics and structural laboratories. Sunlight pours in through the generous glass walls and clerestories found throughout.
Materials are on display here, too: precast concrete panels have articulated connections so that students can see how the panels are held together; there are tall gabion walls of taconite rock; one of the wood-clad rain scuppers barrels through the building and comes to rest on a glass wall; and glass used in the staircase landings overlooking the two-story labs demonstrate how this material can be used as flooring.
Perhaps the most theatrical display is a pair of 15-ton (13.6-metric ton) gantry cranes that roll on tracks through the aligned hydraulics and structural labs. It turns out that you can buy two 15-ton cranes cheaper than one 30-ton crane, and the dual gantries can be teamed to move objects over 15 tons.
The cranes roll right through the labs and out onto the loading dock. This is accomplished with an airplane-hanger door that folds up and completely opens the lab to the dock. It's also lots of fun to watch.
Swenson Civil Engineering is a LEED Gold-certified building, and the highlights of its sustainable features are the stormwater management strategies, materials with recycled content (about 30 percent of building materials), locally sourced materials (a little over 20 percent), and underfloor conditioned-air distribution, which is more efficient and keeps the 30-foot- (nine-meter-) high labs comfortable without having to condition the total air volume. Water recycling and conservation cuts the use of potable water by about 56 percent compared to a code-compliant building.
The civil engineering department intended this building to serve as a recruiting tool, and the design supports that mission. As an aspiring civil engineer, how could you resist a building that spouts water, corrodes constructively before your very eyes and has the biggest toys on campus?
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Architect Michael J. Crosbie is chair of the University of Hartford's Department of Architecture, editor-in-chief of Faith & Form magazine, and a contributing editor to ArchitectureWeek. More by Michael J. Crosbie