• Vertical fabric “sails” on the building’s west wall provide much-needed shading from the afternoon sun for those inside without compromising exterior views at eye level. The sail-like forms also serve as a sculptural feature that sets the building apart from others on campus and helps visitors find the main entrance. - photo by Keith Isaacs

A campus building in Maryland puts a new twist on STEMM education.

Location Rockville, Maryland
Client The Universities at Shady Grove
Design Architect Lake|Flato Architects
Architect of Record Cooper Carry
Contractor Gilbane Building Company
Lab Planning Research Facilities Design
Mechanical/Electrical Engineer Affiliated Engineers
Structural Engineer Cagley & Associates
Landscape Architect Mahan Rykiel Associates
Civil Engineer Site Resources
Plumbing Engineer Global Engineering Solutions
AV/IT/Security Consultant Convergent Technologies Design Group
Geotechnical Engineer Schnabel Engineering

Located on the campus of the Universities at Shady Grove (USG) in Rockville, Maryland, the award-winning Biomedical Sciences and Engineering (BSE) Education Facility employs principles of biophilic design to unify and enrich a setting for interdisciplinary education, primarily in the fields of science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medical sciences (STEMM). 

Under the one roof of this six-level, 228,000-sf building are computer science labs, a children’s museum, a game design studio, an exercise room, a fermentation lab, and a dental clinic. (When the COVID-19 pandemic was at its peak, part of the ground floor was even used as a testing site.) Architecturally, the building combines elements of a medical center, research institute, urban shopping mall, museum, and student union, but it is clear that its main mission is teaching. Its classrooms and lab spaces are designed to accommodate dozens of programs leading to jobs in fields such as nursing, social work, addiction counseling, exercise science, dentistry, web design, data science, cybersecurity, mechanical engineering, biotechnology, biological sciences, electrical engineering, environmental science and technology, and more. 

The result is a different kind of building for a different kind of teaching institution. Every part of its design is a direct response to the surrounding campus and the nontraditional curriculum offered there. “This building really does fit many different purposes,” says Joyce Fuhrmann, the director of BSE operations and STEMM initiatives. “It’s not one-size-fits-all.”

USG is a consortium of nine public universities within the University System of Maryland USM), which has 11 campuses around the state. It was established in 2000 to give residents of Montgomery County, where the campus is located, the opportunity to take courses at USM campuses elsewhere in the state without leaving the county where they live. The BSE facility, which replaced a 500-car parking lot, is the fourth academic building on the USG campus. 

Due to its nontraditional mission, USG is different in other ways as well. There is no student housing on campus because all the students commute. It doesn’t have a stadium, performing arts center, or student union. And the courses taught at Shady Grove all tend to have one common theme: They’re designed to prepare undergraduate and graduate students to fill jobs for which there is a strong local demand. “The programs on this campus are designed very intentionally to meet the needs of the workforce,” Fuhrmann explains. “Designing the building for highly technical programs is really important in terms of growing the workforce here — the biotech industry [and] the tech sector in general.”

The program called for the BSE building to have 20 teaching laboratories; 12 active learning classrooms; two large, tiered lecture halls; product design laboratories and maker spaces for student research; academic and administrative offices; student support centers; building systems and support; and a dental clinic with 20 dental chairs and four surgical offices that serve patients from the community. But campus planners at USG wanted the building to meet other objectives as well: They wanted it to be a new front door to the campus. They needed it to protect and help rehabilitate the Piney Branch Watershed, a wetland just east of the construction site and a tributary of the Potomac River. And they wanted it to achieve a LEED Platinum rating for energy-efficiency and eco-friendly design, which it has done. 

The challenge was to meet this unique set of goals with a building that would satisfy USG’s immediate needs yet remain flexible enough to adapt to changes in the curriculum and in technology. As Ryan Jones of Lake|Flato Architects sees it, the task was to give USG “the tools that they need to be successful today, but in a space that is flexible for tomorrow.” In response, the design team created a building that provides a strong framework to contain and support the different courses and activities taking place inside. Five levels are above grade, and one is partially below grade. 

The plan is straightforward. There’s a wing for faculty and administrative offices, a wing for classrooms and labs, and space in the middle for faculty and students to come together. The common space is the building’s “wow” feature: a five-story skylit atrium conceived as a “central living room.” Besides separating the offices from the teaching spaces, the atrium serves as the main gathering spot in the building and includes a cafe, lounge areas, the mailroom, and other student services.

Along with this organizational armature, the designers sought to emphasize the links between the building, its purpose, and its setting. Many of the courses taught in the building are related to nature in one way or another. In addition, the neighboring Piney Branch Watershed, a natural habitat and flood plain, is a signature feature of the campus and must not be disturbed. The design team concluded that the best way to tie together the project’s diverse elements was through a design that celebrates the building’s connections with nature, and that meant exploring and incorporating strategies of biophilic design. “The attitude that we took, and the attitude we have as an office, is that there is nothing more inclusive than nature,” Jones says. “That was why biophilia became the central theme around this project as a whole. We felt that if we could create a truly biophilic environment, we would naturally create an inclusive place.” 

The building itself marks a new entry point to the USG campus, with a material palette that fits with other structures nearby. Its exterior is clad in a contextual brick veneer, with Pennsylvania bluestone at the base and reclaimed sinker cypress wood — an “old growth” material known for its resiliency — used at protected entrances. The bluestone was introduced, Jones says, to “elevate” the building by giving it more than just a brick vocabulary, and also to suggest a connection with the land, “as if you’re bringing the subterranean earth up above grade, to showcase the geology of the site.”

Environmentally friendly features include a green roof above the entrance that captures runoff water and provides a habitat for native species, and a series of vertical fabric “sails” on the building’s west wall designed to provide much-needed shading from the afternoon sun without compromising exterior views at eye level. Just outside the atrium’s east wall is a work of public art by Michael Singer Studio entitled “Piney Branch Water Garden.” It is a sculpture and water feature that activates an outdoor plaza and provides a transition between the building and the landscape. An elevated boardwalk weaves through the wetland to connect the BSE building to a nearby garage, giving people a way to visit the natural setting without treading on it. 

Ties to nature abound on the interior, too — from the oak reclaimed from shipping containers that’s used on certain walls to a polished concrete floor on the first level that looks like stone. Two direct links to the natural environment are the views to the wetland from the atrium’s east-facing glass wall and the abundance of natural light that comes through its skylight. According to the designers, 87 percent of the occupiable spaces in the building have access to daylight and exterior views.

The atrium is one place in the building where the design team worked hard to make sure occupants feel “visually and experientially” connected to nature, says Jones. In fact, the desire to drive home the building’s connections to nature is one of the reasons the atrium is designed as it is. “Whether it’s through the use of texture in the wood surrounding the drum [around the lecture hall], the reclaimed wood that is used for the drum, the color palette, the daylight, the views, or the use of structural wood for bridging, everything that we did in the atrium of the building was really focused on connecting people back to the wetland and back to nature,” he says.

Beyond the more literal connections to nature, the designers introduced metaphorical references as well. The corridor that leads from the main entrance on the west side of the building to the water garden and wetland curves like a nature trail, taking visitors on a journey from the hardscaped outer world of suburban Washington to the greener inner realm of the USG campus. The architects refer to it as an “ecological spine” that is an extension of the natural environment moving through the interior and calling attention to the biodiversity of the adjacent wetland and forest. 

The building doesn’t reveal itself all at once. The same concourse that cuts through the building also leads to the atrium and the teaching spaces that frame it. But because of its gentle curve, relatively low ceiling, and controlled lighting, moving from the corridor to the bright five-story atrium feels like meandering along a path in the woods and suddenly coming upon a sunlit clearing in the forest. That sense of surprise and discovery is repeated in various ways throughout the building. As with nature, nothing about the architecture is static. There’s always something around the bend, about to be revealed. Some features and spaces are subtly reminiscent of nature and its geometries, while others more openly mimic biological environments. “We wanted to create what we term a ‘culture of curiosity,’ which is that you’re being drawn through the building just for the sense of mystery and curiosity and exploration,” says Jones. “You’re exploring a building while at the same time you’re exploring nature.”

A secondary theme explored by the designers was the idea of putting “science on display.” Throughout the building, walls lining the hallways have interior windows to show what’s going on in the different classrooms and labs. One wall facing the atrium is entirely made of glass, exposing computer labs and other activities. Meanwhile, video screens in the hallways support this theme by providing technical information about how the building works, such as the amount of water and electricity saved by incorporating the features that contributed to the LEED Platinum rating.

The BSE building had its ribbon-cutting in November of 2019 but was forced to shut down a few months later, in March of 2020, due to the pandemic. Of all the buildings forced to close, Fuhrmann says she regretted the BSE facility shutdown the most because of the way it was designed to be experienced in person. According to Fuhrmann, 2022–2023 is the first time that students and faculty members have been in the building for a full academic year, and that’s giving USG’s directors more ideas for how it can be used. It may still seem like a work in progress in some respects, but that’s as it was meant to be. For campus planners as well as students and faculty, a living building becomes a teaching tool, the ultimate metaphor for nature. “This building is meant to be learned in,” says Fuhrmann. “But it is also meant to be learned from.”

Edward Gunts is the former architecture critic of The Baltimore Sun.

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