In University of Michigan’s New Sciences Building, Visitors Will Find Labs and Dinosaur Fossils

The 312,000-square-foot complex—designed to create “productive collisions” among researchers—anchors the new Science Neighborhood.

The 312,000-square-foot complex anchors the university’s new Science Neighborhood. “We wanted to create a more intimate community,” says Ennead’s Todd Schliemann of the project, which sought to disaggregate building volumes and programs. Courtesy © Bruce Damonte

After much anticipation, this spring much of the University of Michigan’s science community relocated to a brand-new complex, and the dinosaur skeletons now displayed in the sunny twin atria weren’t the only things that were rearranged. The opening of the $261 million Biological Sciences Building also brought with it an overhaul of the way scientific work is communicated to the public, merging practitioners and novices under one dynamic, collaborative roof.

In describing the project, one can’t avoid speaking in litanies: All told, there are 84 labs, four classrooms, a planetarium, and a striking domed theater. The 312,000-square-foot structure houses not only two of the university’s biology departments but also three museums, including the Museum of Paleontology, from which those looming fossils were culled.

Architecturally, the sprawling building, designed by the New York firm Ennead with SmithGroup’s Detroit office, is actually three five-story buildings connected by those sun-drenched atria. The distinctive exteriors of the blocks are crafted from 38,500 individual strips of terra-cotta; these tiles, imported from Germany, recall Detroit architect Albert Kahn’s use of brick in his texturally rich buildings that have come to define the U. of M. campus.

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“Research environments have a tendency to be quite dense. People are looking for small things and focusing, and to be able to flood the space with natural light and give them a communal set of space was welcome,” says Schliemann. Courtesy © James Haefner

But where the Biological Sciences Building really shines is its dramatic departure from the kind of closed-off, isolated environments academic research usually finds itself in. Teams of white-coats are assigned to one of 11 “neighborhoods” and share research spaces, plant-growing rooms, specimen artifact collections, and imaging equipment. Previously, the molecular, cellular, and developmental biology department, along with the ecology and evolutionary biology department, was located in the 104-year-old Edward Henry Kraus Building, where supporting an increasingly large staff of researchers had become a challenge. The university’s board of regents approved the transfer to a new facility in 2014, and in 2017, the Museum of Natural History announced plans to vacate its Kahn-designed digs. It would join the biology departments in one consolidated site, adjacent to the Life Sciences Institute, forming what Ennead calls a “Science Neighborhood” for the university.

But such a large building had the potential to redirect campus circulation paths in negative ways. “What we realized was that there were a lot of different departments, a lot of different research focuses,” says Ennead design partner Todd Schliemann. “We created gallery spaces and circulation spaces for the museum that essentially spread themselves through the lower levels of the research program.”

The Vertebrate Fossil Prep Lab. At one point, the architects consulted with 85 principal investigators, each giving input into laboratory needs. “We took the typical linear laboratory and folded it in half to create exterior faces,” says SmithGroup’s David Johnson. Courtesy © Aislinn Weidele

For instance, rather than being in one central location, the Museum of Natural History’s exhibits are dispersed throughout the building—among them a show-stopping pair of mastodon skeletons. Visitors can also peer into labs to see science unfolding in real time, and can even communicate with researchers in the ground-floor Vertebrate Fossil Prep Lab.

“We delivered the social choreography we promised,” says David Johnson, higher education design strategist and vice president of SmithGroup. “It’s really the intersection of learning, community outreach, and knowledge creation.”

In addition to opening up the world of science to the public, the building was designed to increase collaboration among the researchers themselves, creating “productive collisions,” as Schliemann puts it. He is particularly proud of the way his team managed to bring natural light deep into the research labs by minimizing corridors and relying heavily on glass partitions.

So far, it’s worked out well, says Bill Sanders, the head of the Fossil Prep Lab, who has been with the University of Michigan for three decades. “Before we came over here, I had never met a single person in genomics, I had never had a conversation with someone from molecular, cellular, and developmental biology.” Now, Sanders says, “my office is surrounded by these departments. I meet colleagues I never met before.”

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