The Zachry Engineering Educational Complex at Texas A&M University in College Station significantly increases the school’s footprint while providing more student-friendly spaces.
General Contractor Vaughn Construction
Associate Architect for Planning and Design Ayers Saint Gross
Associate Architect Harrison Kornberg
Civil and Structural Engineer JQ Engineering
MEP Engineer Shah Smith & Associates
Landscape Architect Coleman & Associates
As you approach the Texas A&M campus traveling east on University Drive in College Station, one of the first buildings that will greet you is the newly constructed Zachry Engineering Education Complex. This is the newest facility in a growing group of “showcase” buildings emerging along the University Drive corridor. The edifice expresses sympathy with the campus’ beige masonry context but distinguishes itself by means of larger expanses of glazing and an overarching solar shade that makes this transparency feasible in the Texas climate.
The Texas A&M College of Engineering has historically been one of the largest academic engineering educational facilities in the United States. When the expansion project got underway in 2013, 12,000 students out of A&M’s more than 53,000-strong student body were enrolled in the college. Perceiving a growing need for engineers throughout the country, the university established an initiative to increase that number to 25,000 by 2025. The new facility was tasked with accommodating this growth with additional square footage. At the same time, the university wanted a design that would support significant planned changes to the school’s approach to engineering education, as well as spaces to encourage more student engagement.
The project proved to be a learning experience for the architects at TreanorHL, whose Dallas-Fort Worth office designed the building. As one might expect, the aspirations of the client pushed against the budget. TreanorHL took the opportunity to think “inside” the box for possibilities — the box being the existing engineering facility, which the architects had considered removing as part of the original concept. Instead, they found a way to reuse the 1970s-era, 330,000-sf concrete framed semi-Brutalist building. In a sequence of delicate moves, the team kept most of the original structure while replacing the exterior precast concrete structural system with steel columns, placing them one at a time around the perimeter of the building, giving it an opportunity at a new life.
This decision was paramount to the increased programmatic space of the facility: It provided the additional square footage the college needed without breaking the budget. Altogether, the updated facility houses 530,000 sf of space for all things engineering, and the new programmed areas envelop the original structure to the point that it is barely recognizable.
The engineering school’s goal for the facility’s renewal was based on the idea of transformation, and the transformation of the existing structure certainly falls in line with these aspirations. While adaptive reuse was not part of the original plan for the project, it certainly added to the concept. However, the true transformation was intended to be within the curriculum itself — improving the education methodology and pedagogy for the students of the engineering school. This involved smaller class sizes, new “active” teaching principles, blending of laboratory spaces, and a more integrated approach to instruction.
In TreanorHL’s design, the learning spaces are interwoven with informal social spaces, along with various small, structured study spaces. This aids in the transformation of the facility into a location geared toward student life, even students’ non-academic pursuits. Previously, the building was deemed rigid and not overly friendly. By flipping the script — from strictly classrooms and labs to a mix of classrooms, labs, and hangout spaces — the school hopes to revamp its reputation and make it a place where students actually want to go — a place they want to inhabit no matter the time of day or academic workload.
A secondary goal of the project was based on the idea of transparency. In order to activate the facility and “expose” the engineering department to all those who enter, many of the spaces are literally transparent. A central, large open stair allows visibility as one ascends through the building. The majority of the surrounding classrooms, labs, and support spaces adjacent to this central, full-volume height are enclosed only with window walls, creating a sense of layered transparency. From the stairwell and central circulation areas, students can be seen working in labs, performing experiments, researching ideas, and participating in hands-on classes. This transparency also functions as a support for wayfinding as it makes the color-coded floors and departments more visible from circulation pathways.
The project also includes a new binding element for the entire College of Engineering: an outdoor plaza and green space uniting the engineering buildings in this part of the campus. The open area was created when two existing buildings were razed during the design phase of work. Now known as the “engineering quad,” or “e-quad” for short, this outdoor space provides common areas accessible by the surrounding buildings but also functions as a gateway to the Zachry building.
The Zachry Engineering Education Complex is now the heart of the College of Engineering for Texas A&M. The project strove to foster an innovative academic approach while also ensuring vibrant student activity and usage. As the largest academic building on campus, Zachry aims to push the role of engineering in a new, more people-friendly direction.
Andrew Hawkins, AIA, is principal of Hawkins Architecture in College Station and a visiting lecturer in the architecture department at Texas A&M.