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Vassar College – Integrated Science Center


With scientific discovery being a symbol of progress and future-focused thinking, the leaders of Vassar College want their havens of scientific education to properly reflect that notion. For decades, Vassar’s sciences have been scattered across the campus – taught in nine different buildings. The school says that over the years, closets and storage rooms had been transformed into labs and offices and the separation stagnated the open dialogue that allows scientific ideas to flourish. In their heydays, the buildings were models of their respective disciplines, but many of those facilities are ill-equipped to 21st-century tasks. 

“Vassar scientists and science students today are engaged deeply in work that crosses disciplines,” Dean of the Faculty Jonathan Chenette said in a recent Vassar interview. “Bringing multiple disciplinary perspectives together is fundamental to majors such as biochemistry; neuroscience and behavior; earth science and society; science, technology and society; environmental studies; and cognitive science, which draw from various fields.”

In 2011, Vassar embarked on a major project that will bring its science disciplines into one area and update them to the needs of today’s research professionals. The $90 million Integrated Science Center includes a new 80,000-square-foot teaching and research building and the renovation of three existing facilities: a partial renovation of the Olmsted Hall of Biological Sciences and complete renovations of its New England and Sanders Physics buildings. 

“This will create a real science quad for Vassar,” says Robert Nilsson, project manager. “In the center will be a beautiful green space, and this landscape will be an important link between these buildings. The big idea is to integrate the sciences and develop a strong focal point for science on the campus.” 

Bridging the Gap

The new building, dubbed The Bridge, quite literally serves as a connector on the campus. It will span two pieces of campus terrain across the Fonteyn Kill and connect to Olmsted Hall with a two-level skywalk. The building will house a modern-day wet lab, faculty office suites, flexible classrooms, and gathering places such as a coffee shop and an outdoor seating area. Excavation for The Bridge is complete and the construction team, led by Daniel O’Connell and Sons, is getting ready to pour concrete foundations. Steel setting will begin in February. 

“With this being a new building, we are able to accommodate sophisticated labs for chemistry, biochemistry, earth and environmental science and activities that require ample hood space, bench work, large air turnover, ventilation and so forth,” says Marianne Begemann, dean of strategic planning. “It’s a wet lab building for teaching and research with shared resources that include a new robotics laboratory and a phytotron with climate controlled growth chambers. So it will be used by multiple departments.”

Because this building doubles as infrastructure in creating a new campus bridge, Nilsson says it requires a construction method more fitting to the bridge side of things than a typical building construction. This approach also addressed the unique environmental facets of the building’s location.

“We chose to do a top-down framing system,” Nilsson says. “The curvilinear form of the building is supported by only two large concrete piers as it stretches 300 feet horizontally across the ravine and wetland below. The curved trusses required to span between the concrete piers are in the mechanical penthouse at the top of the building and steel hangars are used to suspend the different levels of the building. In this way we minimize the impacts on the wetland and adjacent stream underneath.”

In the past, Nilsson explains traversing this section of the campus required crossing a ravine on a footbridge on one end and walking uphill on the other. The new building offers an ADA-compliant link that will be used by everyone on campus, not just science students, faculty and staff. 

Much-Needed Renovations

As for the other three buildings squaring out this new science quad, the construction team is nearly 50 percent complete with the full renovations of New England and Sanders Physics. The interiors were completely gutted. The team is expanding Sanders’ underutilized attic space to create an additional floor of usable space without changing its footprint or much of the envelope, making room for the computer science department to join the physics and astronomy department in the building.

“The New England building is also going to be completely renovated for the psychology department,” Begemann says. “It’s a beautiful Italianate design from the early 20th century and while being gutted it’s also being restored. Some of the original building elements have been mistreated over the years by being carved into smaller, ill-thought-through spaces, and by various other renovations. It’s exciting that while gutting it out we’re both reviving the original building and bringing it up-to-date.”

Next online for the company is the partial renovation of the Olmsted building, which Nilsson says will begin next summer and continue into 2015. Because of their respective years of origination, the buildings making up the Integrated Science Center will differ from one another, architecturally speaking. 

The design firm, Ennead Architects, does link the buildings through interior materials and color palates, but Begemann says the buildings’ true alignment comes through common goals. 

“The two full renovations are early 20th-century buildings and Olmsted, our partial renovation, was built in 1972 so it has a heavy, dark brick look compared to the early 20th-century buildings,” Begemann says. “The new building, too, will have a totally different look. From an architectural standpoint, they are quite different from one another but they are connected through the activity housed there and through being able to see the science at work and scientific objects on display.”