University of Arizona Renovations Support Collaborative Learning

Aging historic buildings pose a challenge to higher education institutions. While many venerable old buildings can be important to the character of the school, they may no longer be completely functional.

However, tearing them down and replacing them with modern structures may not be an option due to high construction costs and other factors. In addition, many beloved old college and university buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, part of a national program to identify, evaluate and protect America’s historic and archeological resources and any renovations may be subject to state and local regulation.

Old and under-functioning buildings are problematic for many reasons. Some may have deteriorated or sustained damage over the years, are now not energy efficient and may not be up to code. Some buildings may not have the features or configurations to meet the learning, social and accessibility requirements of today’s faculty and students. And they may not enable modern teaching and learning models.

In short, schools can’t live with these buildings, and they can’t live without them.

The University of Arizona found a solution for its historic chemistry building, preserving the structure’s exterior, reconfiguring the interior and replacing some sections with an addition. The result is a highly functional building that incorporates special features that support students and faculty.

The historic structure, The Chemistry Building – affectionately known as “Old Chem” – was originally designed by Roy Place and constructed in 1936 and is part of the university’s historic core. The building had gone through two additions during its lifetime, one in the late 1940s and one in the 1960s. Until recently, it functioned primarily as a center for research, with many cellular classrooms and hallways.

The University of Arizona wanted to repurpose the facility as a center for collaborative learning, with spaced and features that enable more hands-on, active learning. Project architects Shepley Bulfinch, along with partner architect Poster Mirto Mcdonald, collaborated with the contracting team at Sundt Construction to develop a plan to preserve and renovate the historic core of the academic building while replacing the previous additions with a brand-new space. The project also entails constructing a new building, called The Commons, that connects to the old building and will function as a collaborative learning facility.

“This required us to balance the historic importance and integrity of the building with a new program,” according to Alison Rainey, principal architect at Shepley Bulfinch. The architects went through several feasibility studies with the users of the building to decide how to configure the space, focusing on the school’s needs. Ultimately, the architects landed on the combination of historic preservation and new construction. “We preserved the original 1936 structure as well as a portion of the 1948 addition, and then added the new space as well.

The architects succeeded in preserving the historic building façade and character, while upcycling the interior to enable modern needs. Sundt Construction began demolishing some of the interior of the old building in May 2021, and construction on the new structure broke ground in October 2021.

The renovation of the Old Chem Building includes state-of-the-art core research facilities, including a visualization cave for immersive virtual reality learning. The building will be configured with four collaborative classrooms, departmental and advising offices and workspaces, and three teaching studios for online instruction.

“There were some big challenges,” Rainey explained. “The historic building did not comply with energy codes and is not a high-performing building. It lacked universal accessibility and the design was very cellular, broken up into small spaces.”

Shepley Bulfinch architect Pete Rasmussen said that his team needed to address the lack of energy efficiency in the old building, which added cost to the project but wound up saving considerable money in other ways. “We created a new building envelope inside the existing envelope, highly insulated, new wall finishes, new high-performance windows inside the existing windows,” Rasmussen pointed out. “These improvements drove down the required size of the building’s mechanical equipment, saving more than the cost of the improvements as well as bringing operational savings over time. So we were able to save the university three or four times the cost to upgrade the building envelope.”

When completed at the end of 2022, the two buildings will include a combined 78,600 square feet of academic space and will feature increased connectivity and accessibility to the rest of the campus and an array of features that support the school’s commitment to collaborative learning. Classrooms are designed to encourage cooperation, inclusive practices and active learning. In all, there will be seven collaborative classrooms that range in size from 30 seats to 200 seats. The two spaces are held together by a new, lofty, dynamic entry space where students and faculty can mingle while seeing the historic and new spaces.  About one-third of the building will be occupied by the chemistry department for research and faculty and student support spaces, and about two-thirds is for collaborate teaching and learning spaces.

The University of Arizona is working toward the goal of having nearly all undergraduate students taught in small groups. Right now, the school has 43 collaborative classrooms across campus, ranging in size from 24 seats to 264 seats. Most have tables and chairs on casters, and feature tables for two that come together to make tables for four students. They university also has flexible classrooms with large tables that can be moved for collaborative engagement.

According to Gail Burd, Senior Vice Provost for Academic Affairs, teaching and learning and distinguished professor in molecular and cellular biology, when the first four collaborative classrooms were completed, her department began a campus-wide plan. “We started working with the administration to be in sync with the university’s strategic plan: to create better teaching and learning spaces,” she said. “In concert with making these collaborative learning spaces, we formed faculty learning communities, groups of faculty, staff and more who come together in groups of up to 10 to work with a facilitator to discuss how collaboration works in these spaces.”

Building occupancy is expected to be in early 2023.