The Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin is one of the leading engineering programs in the country. In order to maintain its competitiveness, the school needed a facility that would support its high educational standards while simultaneously addressing the complex needs of its students and faculty. Ennead Architects and Jacobs achieved just that in their design of the Engineering Education and Research Center (EERC) — the new, $310M beating heart of the program opened to students in the fall of 2017. The 433,000-sf, LEED Silver building launched the Cockrell School into the 21st century, and has become a destination for students across the UT campus.
The EERC is composed of two limestone-clad, nine-story towers connected by an enclosed, three-floor, public atrium. The atrium negotiates a 35-ft drop in the site grade through a variety of unique staircases. The south tower is home to the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, while the north tower houses The National Instruments Student Project Center, as well as rooms for interdisciplinary studies and research. The facility also includes the Mulva Auditorium and Conference Center and connects directly to the neighboring Civil, Architectural, and Environmental Engineering building. This connection is one of many forged by the axial design of the facility, which, in cardiovascular fashion, reaches beyond its walls to assert its position as a center and transfer point for the campus. The west entrance is set along a north-south walkway that links the school’s primary engineering blocks. The formal but inviting front lawn extends across a number of science and engineering buildings, while the east entrance of the EERC opens onto Waller Creek, which is spanned by a footbridge. These exterior pathways and connections flow through the atrium, which functions as an extension of the campus itself as opposed to an isolated, hermetic environment.
The multidisciplinary nature of the EERC prompted the architects to make use of transparency to achieve meaningful relationships among all departments. Each floor connects physically and visually to the central atrium to create one cohesive home for the many disciplines who share the building.
The first three levels house the atrium, a sprawling interior social space that cascades down the site grade and is flanked by glazed meeting rooms, libraries, and a 23,000-sf fabrication lab. The lab provides undergraduate students with state-of-the-art technology while also showcasing building engineering strategies through exposed mechanical ductwork, sprinklers, and electrical conduits. Structural engineering is also on display throughout the atrium in such features as a staircase that spirals around a custom plasma-cut steel tube column, a bow-truss-supported skybridge, a “flying stair” supported by a V-shaped column structure, and a heroic, free-span roof, whose folded structure alternates between glass and acoustic plaster panels. The glass maintains visual connectivity between the atrium and the research levels in the towers above, while the opaque sections are calibrated to mitigate low-angle sunlight.
The atrium transitions from indoor to outdoor on the fourth level. Here, the two research towers are connected by exterior planted terraces. Interior and exterior walkways, which put structural elements such as trusses and cantilevers on display, connect each subsequent floor. The tops of the towers are spanned by a perforated steel sunshade. Over 7,000 scenarios were run in order to arrive at the design, which provides optimal shading and comfort for the building throughout the year. It allowed the floor-to-ceiling glass walls that clad the research spaces, labs, offices, and conference rooms facing this central space to be minimally treated with low-emissivity coatings, making them more transparent. Views into neighboring departments as well as into the social space within the atrium below are all available through this strategic glazing strategy and inward orientation of the building.
Each design decision within the EERC was made to achieve the central goal of the project, which was laid out more than a decade ago: to foster a sense of community for the Cockrell School. As noted by Ennead’s Emily Kirkland, “The architecture really becomes the armature to support this idea of community.”
Sophie Aliece Hollis is a student at The University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture.