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Above and Beyond: Oakton’s Science Center Reaches Toward Sustainability

Posted By Matt Baker On October 1, 2015 @ 9:28 am | No Comments

By Matt Baker

Oakton Community College [1]’s new science building is a study in buoyancy. It has a deceptively small footprint as stilts lift much of the structure up off of the ground; a spectacular cantilever gives definition to what might have been a conservative design and suggests that the building is set to dive nose first into the nearby lake. But these aren’t merely aesthetic choices. They have much to say about the building, its use and its sustainability.

The Margaret Burke Lee Science and Health Careers Center was dedicated this past March, named in honor of the college’s recently retired president. The 93,000 square foot structure is the latest and largest piece of a five-year, $65 million master plan and has expanded the Des Plaines campus by the greatest extent since it first opened in 1980.

Designed by Legat Architects [4] and erected by Turner Construction Company [5], the Lee Center allowed the school to consolidate their science and healthcare programs. After modeling solar heat gain, stormwater management and other factors, the initial design concept called for a three-story, rectilinear building.

Organizational consultations with Oakton faculty determined that kindred disciplines like biology and anatomy as well as those with similar space needs like prep stations, labs and classrooms should be co-located. It then became evident that one floor would require more square footage than the others. “In a traditional aspect, if that floor wants to be biggest, you put it on the first floor and let the building grow up like a pyramid,” said Michael Lundeen, Principal and Associate Director of Higher Education at Legat. Except that Lee Center also contains a division office that Oakton wanted to be easily accessible, meaning it too would be on the ground floor. The dilemma then was to expand the first floor (and the building’s footprint) even more or move those sciences to another story.

Which is why it is function more than form that the third floor cantilevers over the building site. Every elevation features an overhang, but a large, dramatic one takes over the west side. All of the overhangs help with sun shading, limiting the amount of solar heat gain on the windows. As heat generated by the afternoon sun out of the west is the hardest for a building to manage, the massive cantilever was positioned to the west.

While cantilevering is a passive method of sun shading, the Lee Center features other, more active strategies. A sun shade on the south façade blocks some sunlight from impacting the third floor, but it does double duty as the shade is made of photovoltaic panels. Architectural blinds, manufactured by Solarmotion [8], are installed on the outside of the third story windows. “They are a lot like mini blinds that you would have on the inside of your house or in an office,” Lundeen said. “Except when you put them on the inside, by the time light gets through the glass, all the energy is inside already.”

These exterior shades don’t radiate to the inside of the building, keeping the glass, and interior, cooler. They are also automated. The blinds can recognize the outside temperature as well as the time of day or year. They also communicate independently with a weather service so that they can anticipate cloud cover or precipitation. In response to the latter, the blinds are designed to retract up into a protective housing.

Permanent, immobile shades could do the trick, but they would also blocks views. Oakton is surrounded by forest and the administration considers it a part of the college’s identity. “You see it in their logo with the oak leaf,” Lundeen said. “You hear it with the board members [who say] that they’re willing to tie themselves to trees.”

Another quirk of the third floor is a wraparound corridor. Because the chemistry, biology and anatomy departments share resources, they are all backed up to each other for easier interdepartmental movement. This moves the corridor to the floor’s perimeter. “It became almost a programmatic issue which we turned into a design element of the building, simply by trying to figure out an interesting way to solve it,” Lundeen said.

Being an institution of higher learning, one of the goals of the design team was also to improve the teaching experience. “When I was a student, you kind of position yourself and don’t move at all,” said Mark Hartmann, Architect and Senior Science Planner with Harley Ellis Devereaux [9]. “Learning today is much more interactive than it used to be.” Harley Ellis Devereaux acted as the science and health careers planner, programmer and design consultant for the Lee Center. One idea they brought to the project was a hybrid oval lab station. By modifying the long, linear benches that science students have long been used to, the class can easily switch between lecture and lab. “With these oval stations, we were able to focus everyone to a central focal point,” Hartmann said. “I think the objective is to help students learn, to help faculty teach and make better students. That’s a tall order for a fixed element.”

To efficiently accommodate the oval lab stations, each lab is octagonal. But since the floorplate is a rectangle, a cluster of octagons is going to create unused space. Unless you find a way to use it. “Free space, that’s like a gold mine,” Hartmann said. The designers seized the triangular nooks between the labs and the perimeter corridor as an opportunity to create useful space. In these interaction alcoves, students waiting for or leaving a class can prepare, debrief and gather, all with a view of the surrounding forest, framed by the over-engineered structural support of the cantilevered third floor. “These type of spaces seem to be critical and yet have been so lacking for decades,” Hartmann said.

Oakton’s Assistant Vice President for Academic Affairs, Dr. Michael Carr, agrees. “The labs create a more collaborative and interdisciplinary work environment that’s consistent with where science is headed,” he said. “Instructors can transition seamlessly between lecture and lab in a single space.”

The second floor is more traditionally laid out, with a double-loaded corridor down the middle of classrooms and labs. This floor is devoted to healthcare studies, and features a simulated hospital with nurse’s station, patient rooms and more. “One of the problems that healthcare education has today is getting hands-on experience,” said Hartmann. “The first time a student interacts with a real live human patient, that’s a pretty intense moment for that student. Hopefully the patient doesn’t necessarily know it. The more you can simulate that before it actually occurs, the better.”

Just as building organization directed how the Lee Center would be constructed, so too did location. The college’s locale is not just arboreal, it is also riparian. The nearby Des Plaines River is prone to flooding, to a point that Lake Oakton cannot always contain.

Oakton Community College is bisected by two of the river’s flood impact zones. The west side of the campus falls in the floodway area and the east part of the campus, including the Lee Center, falls in the floodplain. While construction in a floodway is prohibited without Army Corps of Engineers [12] approval, floodplain development is possible with very careful considerations.

Compensatory water storage, for example, can offset the stormwater retention lost to any new building. In this case, the designers dug out an amphitheater just west of the lake. The venue can accommodate outdoor classes or concerts until it is called upon during a significant storm event to hold excess water. The Lee Center itself is partially raised on piers, creating nearly eight feet of space beneath the building in some places for the flow of flood waters.

As a result of crafting the master plan, the college identified a number of strategies to improve their sustainability and best practices, including the purchasing of renewable energy and the use of green cleaning. Oakton also identified a number of construction projects including upgraded classrooms, a new enrollment center and infrastructure improvements across the campus. Turner was able to divert close to 80% of construction waste out of landfills and implemented practices to out-gas the building prior to occupancy.

The building location also affected efforts to install geothermal power generation for the building. The presence of the Des Plaines River creates heavy clay in the surrounding area, making ground-based geothermal wells difficult to install. The team also considered a pond loop installation in Lake Oakton, but the idea was scuttled over concerns that putting excess heat into the lake during the summer might encourage algae growth.

The Lee Science and Health Careers Center is an open and inviting building. The first floor is cut away allowing ease of movement around the campus, and features a wall of reclaimed barn wood that draws students, faculty and visitors in. A glass-clad, exterior staircase provides views of the forest and college grounds. The building’s truss work, which is robustly designed to carry the weight of all those cantilevers, is visible from the inside, giving the structure a sense of uplifting. Which, after all, is entirely accurate.

Photos: James and Connor Steinkamp

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URL to article: http://www.sustainable-chicago.com/2015/10/01/above-and-beyond-oaktons-science-center-reaches-toward-sustainability/

URLs in this post:

[1] Oakton Community College: http://www.oakton.edu/

[2] Image: http://www.sustainable-chicago.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/occ6.jpg

[3] Image: http://www.sustainable-chicago.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/occ4.jpg

[4] Legat Architects: http://www.legat.com/

[5] Turner Construction Company: http://www.turnerconstruction.com/

[6] Image: http://www.sustainable-chicago.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/occ3.jpg

[7] Image: http://www.sustainable-chicago.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/occ2.jpg

[8] Solarmotion: https://www.c-sgroup.com/sun-controls

[9] Harley Ellis Devereaux: http://www.harleyellisdevereaux.com/

[10] Image: http://www.sustainable-chicago.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/occ7.jpg

[11] Image: http://www.sustainable-chicago.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/occ1.jpg

[12] Army Corps of Engineers: http://www.usace.army.mil/

[13] Image: http://www.sustainable-chicago.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/occ5.jpg

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