Academic buildings are familiar ground for Carol Ross Barney, FAIA. But when the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD) commissioned her to design a classroom and lab facility for its new Department of Civil Engineering, she recognized a chance to do something different. Rather than simply design a building to house educational activities, she’d go one better: Make a building that teaches on its own.

“This building is an architect’s dream, because it is about materials,” says Ross Barney, principal of Chicago-based Ross Barney Architects. Built just a short distance from the rugged Iron Range—a region in northeast Minnesota that spawned a vibrant iron ore mining industry—the James I. Swenson Civil Engineering Building not only celebrates the raw beauty of locally available materials such as Cor-Ten steel, reclaimed taconite rocks, repurposed wood, and concrete, but does so in a way that creates teachable moments for the department’s 190 undergraduate students.

At every turn, the building functions doubly as a pedagogical tool, revealing the structural systems, connection details, and stormwater management techniques that are core to the civil engineering curriculum. Among them: oversized scuppers (made from reclaimed pickle barrels) that channel stormwater from the roof to a trio of Cor-Ten steel drums, two 15-ton gantry cranes located in the main testing laboratories, and a precast concrete wall with tilt-up braces and kickers left in place to demonstrate the construction process.

The two-story, 35,300-square-foot building houses classrooms, instructional and research laboratories, and office space for the new department (which admitted its first students in 2008). The floor plan is organized around two high-bay testing laboratories: one for structural tests, another for hydrology. Intensive use of the building called for a robust infrastructure, including a strong wall and floor system. It also incorporates three 36-foot-by-24-foot operable doors that allow the cranes to be moved through the building.

Ross Barney sited the building intentionally to reinforce established pedestrian circulation patterns on the UMD campus, which are planned so that students can find relief inside during the region’s brutal winters. A main campus walkway slices through the civil engineering building along a sheer glass wall that allows views into the structural lab. This connection to campus circulation is key to the building’s role as a promotional tool for the department. “The visibility of the building and the ability of students to look into the lab are tremendous,” says department head Andrea Schokker. “It is a great student recruitment tool.”

The central hydraulics laboratory serves as a main node of activity to which other spaces relate visually and functionally. Students walking along the adjacent main stair, for example, can watch the tests happening inside or linger on the observation deck. Faculty offices and graduate student workspaces are interspersed throughout the building to encourage interaction among the various groups. Schokker also had suggested the addition of a student lounge to the original program. Her rationale: This new group of students needed a place to congregate. The lounge, in fact, has become a much-used meeting area where students collaborate on team projects.

Inside, as out, the details of construction are left open to view as teaching aids. Weld plates are visible. Ductwork is exposed. And spaces are divided by gabion walls filled with raw taconite rock. “It’s like being in a giant educational tool,” Schokker says. “It gives us great examples to show the students firsthand.”

UMD’s civil engineering program stresses environmentally responsible design, and the building scores high in that regard, achieving LEED Gold certification. An elaborate stormwater collection system—which collects water that feeds the flume used for student experiments within the building—sets the tone, but other means such as low-emitting materials, advanced thermal-comfort control, access to daylight and views, and an underfloor air distribution system provide a healthy environment and additional talking points for the curriculum. All told, this building-as-teaching-tool reaps the benefits of a direct approach to architecture in delivering hands-on lessons in materials and methods.

Project Credits

Project James I. Swenson Civil Engineering Building, Duluth, Minn.
Client University of Minnesota Duluth—Kathryn Martin (chancellor emerita); Gregory Fox (vice chancellor, finance and operations); John King (director, facilities management); John Rashid (associate director, facilities management); James P. Riehl (dean, Swenson College of Science and Engineering, professor of chemistry); Andrea Schokker (professor and head of civil engineering)
Major Donor James I. and Susan Swenson
Architect Ross Barney Architects, Chicago—Carol Ross Barney, FAIA (design principal); Michael Ross, AIA (principal-in-charge); Monica Chadha (project manager); Jonathan Graves (project architect); Kimberley Patten, AIA (sustainable design and interiors); Marc Anderson; Ricardo Nabholz
Associate Architect SJA Architects, Duluth, Minn.—Ronald Stanius, AIA (specifications and contracts); Rickard Stanius, AIA (construction administration); Brian Morse, AIA (project manager and project architect); Corey Beste, Ryan Weis
Mechanical, Electrical & Plumbing Engineer Dunham Associates
Structural Engineer Meyer Borgman Johnson
Civil Engineer MSA Professional Services
General Contractor Stahl Construction Co.—Deborah Aldrich (project manager)
Landscape Architect Oslund.and.Assoc.—Thomas Oslund
Consultants Hallberg Engineering
Size 35,300 square feet
Cost $12.1 million

Materials and Sources

Building Management Systems and Services Siemens Corp.
Carpet Shaw Contract Corp. (Prisma Tiles)
Ceilings USG Corp. (Millenia ClimaPlus)
Precast Concrete Hanson Structural Precast Midwest
Exterior Wall Systems Anderson IronWorks (Cor-Ten steel rainscreen panels)
Flooring Haworth (TecCrete access floor)
Furniture Haworth
Glass PPG Industries (Solarban 60)
Gypsum Georgia-Pacific (ToughRock)
HVAC McQuay International (air-handling units)
Displacement Ventilation Diffusers Halton
Insulation Certainteed Corp.
Precast Concrete Insulation System Thermomass
Lighting Control Systems Lutron Electronics Co. (EcoSystem)
Lighting Bega (exterior bridge lights and entry bollards); Metalux by Cooper Lighting (high-bay spaces); Focal Point (Avenue A in corridors); Corelite by Cooper Lighting (Stellar, in classrooms and offices); Delray Lighting (entry stair)
Metal Anderson Iron Works (Cor-Ten Steel)
Millwork Environ Biocomposites Manufacturing (Dakota Burl); St. Germain’s Cabinet (fabrication)
Paints and Finishes Sherwin-Williams
Plumbing and Water System Zurn (plumbing fixtures, dual-flush flushometer, EcoVantage urinals, Aquasense sensor faucets)
Roofing Henry Co. (modified bitumen system with white roof coating and vegetated covering)
Seating Haworth; Kielhauer (lab stools)
Structural System Duluth Steel Fabricators (structural steel)
Walls Premier Block Corp. (Ultra Burnished Masonry Units)
Windows, Curtainwalls, and Doors Kawneer (1600); Wilson Doors (bifold exterior door); Hufcor (interior operable partitions, oversized natural-steel-and-glass partitions)