When Northern Arizona College gained university status in 1966, it was a commuter campus in the small mountain town of Flagstaff, population 25,000. Fifty years later, the renamed Northern Arizona University (NAU) is bursting with nearly 30,000 students. It spills far beyond its original quadrangle in the center of a city that has nearly tripled in size.
A sizable chunk of the school’s growth has come in STEM fields, where the university reports a nearly threefold increase in enrollment between 2004 and 2014. So when, in 2011, university leaders decided to pour resources into its natural science programs, including a new home for its chemistry department, it went in search of an architect with a complicated brief in hand: a building that could house labs, classrooms, and faculty offices inside, and outside could knit together different parts of the expanding campus—all the while sitting on a postage-stamp of a site.
Fortunately, university leaders didn’t have far to look: Richärd+Bauer, a Phoenix-based firm with two decades of experience designing educational and public buildings, working in a joint venture with GLHN Architects & Engineers. “The old campus core has been disengaged from the rest of the campus,” says James Richärd, AIA, who, along with Kelly Bauer, founded the firm in 1996. The site had sat cleared for years, awaiting the construction of a museum dedicated to Native American history and culture. When that institution was built elsewhere, the site continued to lay fallow, splitting the northern and southern halves of the campus. “We wanted to reconnect it,” Richärd says.
The result, the $57 million, 122,000-square-foot Science and Health Building, sits at the three-way intersection of the university’s historic quad immediately to the north, a complex of science buildings to the northeast, and the rest of the campus to the south. The V-shaped edifice—which is clad in a pattern of 13 unique profiles of terra-cotta-colored aluminum composite rainscreen panels—opens its arms toward the old quad, while its eastern wing lifts two stories off the ground, facilitating pedestrian traffic.
Richärd+Bauer was well positioned to respond to the university’s complex brief. Like a growing number of firms, it designs both the interiors and exteriors, with Bauer focused on the former and Richärd on the latter. “We work on projects together, from beginning to end, through design charrettes, gaming out configurations of space from the get-go,” Richärd says.
After winning the project through an RFQ, the team spent a week embedded at NAU, interviewing stakeholders and developing a proposal that they presented to members of the university. “The research informs and directs the path of the process, so that we’re presenting the conclusions of our study, not trying to sell an idea to a client,” says senior project architect Lee Swanson, AIA.
Spending so much time on the site before sitting down to the drawing board also helped them discover unforeseen challenges, like the need for isolated, protected pathways between the new building and an older chemistry building to the north for the movement of dangerous chemicals. The team decided to split that pathway in two, utilizing a tunnel below ground and a dedicated skybridge above.
The firm’s approach works particularly well for their institutional clients, who are almost always end-users with very specific and complicated requirements for interior spaces. Indeed, according to Richärd, the overall shape of a Richärd+Bauer building is in some ways the incidental outcome of the interior needs. “The organizing of space inside is often a key driver of how the building as a whole is organized,” he says.
Here, the team needed to make a 16,732-square-foot footprint, across five floors, accommodate 26 labs, five classrooms, three lecture halls, and 54 faculty offices. This presented a particular challenge, Richärd says, because usually the firm works in the large, flat spaces of central and southern Arizona, where creating a natural sense of flow and connectedness among individual spaces is easy. In a dense, vertical structure, though, that’s a problem. “Once you go vertical, you can end up with a lack of intercommunication,” he says.
To facilitate that vertical connection, the team created a soaring, 85-foot-tall glass atrium nestled at the intersection of the building’s two wings. Not only does it unify the space, it also facilitates movement among the different floors through a dizzying array of staircases and walkways. “It’s not just a large, empty space,” Richärd says. And, it reinforces the connection to the landscape around it, framing views of the San Francisco Peaks, a snow-capped range of extinct volcanic mountains to the north of Flagstaff, through an articulated curtainwall.
But the building is not simply a self-reflexive response to its internal program. The need for a unifying landmark at the center of campus meant that the architects had to make gestures to the rest of campus, and beyond. The building bristles with references to the region’s intense geological beauty. Illuminated white stairs zigzag across the atrium, a nod to the crystalline formations found in nearby caves; the composition of the exterior rainscreen panels references the rock strata in the mountains around Flagstaff. “We always try to bring back the nature of a place to the architecture,” Richärd says. “In some ways, it’s a shell that responds back to the rest of campus.”
Project: Northern Arizona University Science and Health Building, Flagstaff, Ariz.
Client: Northern Arizona University
Architect: GLHN Architects & Engineers | Richärd+Bauer joint venture
Design Architect: Richärd+Bauer, Phoenix . James E. Richärd, AIA (design principal); Kelly K. Bauer (interiors principal); Stephen J. Kennedy, AIA (principal architect); Lee Swanson, AIA (senior project architect); Maura González (interior designer); Nick Nevels, Mark Loewenthal (project architects); Brant Long, William Craig, Alex Therien (project team)
Architect/Engineer of Record: GLHN Architect & Engineers, Tucson, Ariz. . Henry Johnstone (principal engineer); Brian G. Hagedon, AIA; Miguel Camacho, AIA (project manager/senior project architect/CA); Kevin L. Miller, John McGann, Manny Ellsworth (civil engineering); R. Douglas Stingelin, James Hughes, Nathan Fullerton (mechanical engineering); Thomas A. Evans (electrical engineering, power); John Jolly (electrical engineering, lighting); Paul W. Norine (technology engineering)
Structural Engineer: Rudow + Berry
Lab Planning: RFD (Research Facilities Design)
Landscape Architect: T. Barnabas Kane, Environmental Designer Landscape Architect
Acoustical Consultant: McKay Conant Hoover
CMAR: M.A. Mortenson Co.
Size: 122,000 square feet
Cost: $57 million