Engineering Education Innovation

Classes aren’t only taught at Norm Asbjornson Hall in Bozeman, Mont., they are on display via exterior and interior glazing applications, and open interior spaces.

Energy-conserving building serves as teaching tool and interdisciplinary magnet

By Christopher Brinckerhoff

Photo: Lara Swimmer

Furthermore, the building itself is an instructive model of its operations and energy conservation. Mechanical rooms are displayed and systems are labeled throughout. Numerous energy conserving design and construction strategies contributed to Montana State University’s energy efficient and LEED Platinum-certified facility.

In terms of Norm Asbjornson Hall’s role at the university, it houses the college of engineering, honors college and common use spaces. It’s designed and programmed to promote cross-disciplinary collaboration among students.

Photo: Lara Swimmer

The facility is also an anchor building in the university’s developing South Campus. Its prominent floating box entrance clad in weathered steel and large, glowing windows communicates its importance.

With respect to building materials, in addition to supporting energy conservation strategies, they were selected to communicate innovative activity is happening inside. They were also chosen, in part, to relate to older campus architecture.

Learning on Display

In terms of designing the classrooms so people can see what’s happening inside, every lab space and working space in the building is transparent to an open commons area. The building is organized into two parallel masses, a north bar and south bar, with a commons area bar in between them. Every lab has a wall of glass with views to the commons area.

Photo: Lara Swimmer

Dusty Eaton, CEO at A&E Design in Bozeman, Mont., and principal on the project, says Norm Asbjornson, donor and namesake of the building, was passionate about changing the way engineering is taught, so it’s more collaborative and on display to passersby. “[Asbjornson] believed in the importance of putting engineering on display, letting prospective students come through this building and see what engineering is about, see what engineering students do, see what you can make and build and create if you’re studying engineering. This was an opportunity to say, let’s put it all on display. There’s a visual connection between all of the labs and the common space, and that was a very intentional move, and it’s very unique.”

Teaching Tool

Similar to its display of learning activities, Norm Asbjornson Hall is designed as a teaching model. Mechanical system rooms have full-height glass walls. Labels are attached to exposed hot/cold water piping, sprinkler lines and other systems throughout the building.

Photo: Lara Swimmer

“This is an engineering building, so we wanted to be able to show the systems within the building,” Eaton says. “And to take that one step further, we exposed as much as we could in the building, and we labeled a lot of it so you can see what’s happening up above you.”

To add to the mechanical room glass walls, A&E is designing some translucent vinyl graphics with explanations of mechanical system functions. The firm is also developing, with building controls specialists, a building performance dashboard that will go on a large touch-screen monitor at the entrance of the facility, Eaton says.

“[The dashboard is] going to be constantly rolling with current data, and then the user will be able to interact with that screen to go to different points and find out different information about the building. It’s going to be talking about outside weather and how the weather is impacting the performance of the building, energy draw and energy saving. It’s intended to be an educational tool, a real-time interactive tool that will educate the common public walking through this building about its operations and how it’s an innovative building from an energy use standpoint.”

Energy Conservation

The building has numerous energy-conserving elements and systems. The most impactful ones include a large, transpired solar collector wall that preheats air before it enters the building, thermochromic glass on all the south-facing windows and sunshades. There is also an enormous photovoltaics array on the roof, and the facility is connected to a geothermal well system with other nearby buildings.

Photo: Lara Swimmer

To construct the perforated solar collector wall, Belgrade, Mont.-based Battle Ridge Builders LLC installed 5,500 square feet of Buffalo, N.Y.-based Conserval Systems Inc.’s Solarwall SW150 in Black. OnSite Engergy Inc. in Bozeman installed the photovoltaics.

Also on the roof, a light monitor that runs the entire length of the building was clad by Battle Ridge Builders with 6,600 square feet of Bristol, Conn.-based Morin Corp.’s 22-gauge, concealed fastener, F-12-S metal wall panels in a weathered zinc finish.

Interdisciplinary Collaboration

Another primary driver of the design was to maximize collaboration among students studying different subjects. Eaton says, “[Asbjornson’s] vision was to create a cross-disciplinary building that fosters collaboration between different disciplines. To create a building that brings different disciplines together, we can build a kind of conduit to merging ideas. For example, this building should be a conduit to bring students from the college of business, from architecture and from mechanical engineering all together to solve a unique problem that’s cross-disciplinary. One of the goals was, we have to change the way engineering is taught so that no college is taught in a silo because that’s not the way industry works.”

Photo: Lara Swimmer

Interior spaces are designed to foster collaboration, Eaton says. “This entire building is absolutely filled with collaboration spaces, spaces for impromptu meet ups or places to grab three other students and go to a white board, or a plug-in where you can pop up on a flat-screen whatever you have on your tablet or laptop. But the spaces also have to be really great, comfortable spaces for students to want to hang out in. And you’ll see that throughout the building if you walk through it, at any point, there are students everywhere, and they’re not engineering students necessarily; they’re students from all over campus, and that’s how we knew we were successful. The building is now a true magnet for students from all over campus just to simply hang out, study, be with other students.”

Anchor Building

As an anchor building on the developing South Campus, Norm Asbjornson Hall features a large, box-shaped entrance clad in weathered steel and projected out over foot traffic space at a main roadway intersection at Grant Street and 7th Avenue.

“There were a couple of key design features that we used in this building to help set up the success of a future master plan, the first one being in that the building is up tight to the street. It’s got a more urban presence to it. It was important for the campus development that we start to create a more urban feeling campus that’s more walkable and more engaging to the pedestrian. So the building is up and there’s a corner plaza. One of the key entry points lives under this weathered steel box.”

Photo: Lara Swimmer

To emphasize a sense that the weathered steel box is floating, weathered steel continues through window openings into the interior of the building. “You step into the building and you experience that same move going all the way through, so it really is a true jewel box that sits floating into that corner, whether you’re inside or outside,” Eaton says.

To clad the weathered steel feature, Silverdale, Wash.-based Dissimilar Metal Design LLC fabricated, and Battle Ridge Builders installed, 12,800-square feet of 3/16-inch-thick rusted steel.

Innovative, Complementary Materials

Another aspect of the weathered steel and other building materials to consider is they were specified, in part, to communicate that innovative activity is happening inside Norm Asbjornson Hall, Eaton says. “The overall material palette was really about being durable and a long-term solution for the campus, but also being innovative in materials. It was really important to [Asbjornson] and university leadership to say this is an innovation center. And in order to be that, the building needs to reflect that in its aesthetics. It needs to be innovative in its design and materials, so when someone just quickly walks past that building, they’re going to realize the level of innovation that’s happening in it.”

Another property of the weathered steel that made it appropriate for the project was its orange-brown color, Eaton says. Much of the older campus architecture is red brick buildings, and the weathered steel has a warm, reddish color without being a direct match to the red brick.

“The opportunity was to create a palette of materials that is sensitive to the context of the campus, that responds positively to all of the beautiful historic architecture on campus, but it sets itself apart as a building that reflects the innovation that’s happening inside it,” Eaton says. “In order to do that, our design team, in conjunction with the university, pivoted slightly from the historic red brick on campus, still was sensitive to that in the palette, but innovative in the material used and what we set for the future development to the south.”