• Perspective section drawing illustrating the hidden underground reactor core and the connected spaces interacting with it—the grand overlook, the lobby, and monitoring stations.

Abilene Christian University explores new research opportunities with its molten salt nuclear reactor.

Project Gayle and Max Dillard Science and Engineering Research Center
Location Abilene
Client Abilene Christian University
Architect Parkhill
Design Team Brian Griggs, AIA, Brandon Young, AIA, Amber Buscarello, AIA, Melissa Walker, AIA
Contractor Linbeck
Civil, Structural, and MEP Engineer Parkhill
Nuclear Energy Nuclear Energy Consultants
Fire Protection Jensen Hughes
Interiors Parkhill
Landscape Architect Parkhill
Photographer Chad Zellner

“It’s not about the building; we just need a box.”

Phrases like this are common at initial project meetings. Clients often present a project by outlining the specific functional needs of the building they feel will dictate design decisions. They are less concerned about opportunities for formal expression. The structure must meet their technical criteria, and beyond that, any aesthetic or experiential results are merely unnecessary and unexpected benefits.

Celebrating its grand opening in September 2023, the Gayle and Max Dillard Science and Engineering Research Center (SERC) on the Abilene Christian University campus is an example of a project that started down this path. However, with a talented design team and a supportive, engaged client, the end result is much more than a technical success. The new building is a container for a molten salt nuclear reactor and its associated laboratory and testing rooms. The reactor space is the literal and metaphorical “core” of the design—the centerpiece of both the nuclear fission process and the research and development of energy sources that could transform energy generation.

The concept of a molten salt reactor is not new; its scientific foundation dates back to a time when water-based nuclear reactors were more commonly constructed to generate power. Both molten salt and water-based reactors operate in the same manner, using fission to produce steam that powers energy-generating turbines. Compared to their water-based counterparts, molten salt reactors have higher efficiency, produce minuscule amounts of waste, and enable drastically safer production with no chance of catastrophic accidents. They also allow the harvesting of radioactive isotopes that have become vital in the detection and treatment of some cancers and have resulted in the refinement of large-scale desalinization techniques that could help solve worldwide water scarcity problems.

This is only a brief overview of incredibly complex processes that incorporate physics, chemistry, engineering, medicine, and mathematics into the ongoing exploration of renewable energy options. The hope is that once the technology involved in the molten salt reactor is advanced through research efforts conducted at the SERC, it will drastically change how energy is produced, bringing countless other benefits with it.

How does a design team prioritize the technical requirements of such a building while still creating something worthy of an endeavor that could change the world? The architects at Parkhill were both challenged and inspired by the problem of the “simple box”—an idea that, in reality, is not that simple at all. 

Even the simplest modern buildings are much more complex than meets the eye. A modern “box” must address an endless list of requirements related to client needs, codes, accessibility, budgets, site, and context—not to mention broader ideas like environmental concerns and public opinion. As the architects learned the unique demands of this project, as laid out by researchers, government authorities, and university officials, it became apparent to them that this “container” could successfully interweave functional needs with conceptual ideas through its built form. The final structure embodies years of scientific progress and represents the envisioned impact of current and future research efforts. 

One of the first key decisions was site selection. At first, the client proposed a secluded off-campus location, but a more suitable site was sought out. The chosen site provided the necessary EPZ (Emergency Planning Zones) and allowed the SERC to become more outwardly focused in an effort to engage and educate people beyond the campus. The end result is a structure that engages people from outside the university, announcing that exciting research is happening inside. The exterior is composed of a large warehouse-like space built with concrete tilt-up panels with striking patterns inspired by nuclear chain reaction diagrams. Five unique panels are randomly arranged, interwoven with flush panels to enliven what could have been a monolithic concrete wall. The lobby extends through the length of the building, poised to welcome public visitors on one end and university personnel at the other. This linear lobby axis is pointed toward the science quad, which has recently been embellished with several other new structures.

Inside, the main reactor hall is a vast space currently occupied by a massive 40-ton crane that will be used to hoist the large reactor components into an 80′-long x 15′-wide x 25′-deep void built to hold the reactor. This below-ground cavity is where all the action will take place; when completely installed, the reactor will be fully encased in concrete and hidden from view. The floor itself is another design element that hides its complexity. The 7,000-psf concrete floor is designed to withstand a wide range of possible impacts and to resist movement from potential threats, such as tornadic wind force (a key concern in the region). The rebar bed concealed within is an intense mesh that provides a solid foundation for the reactor to sit on. The placement of the reactor is a staged process that requires major testing beforehand, extensive coordination, and approvals from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to meet stringent government regulations. This process is currently ongoing, and the reactor is on course for a 2025 installation.  

The idea of incorporating an educational component for the public into the SERC led to the development of a few key features, each designed to make the complex inner workings of the reactor more transparent to the outside viewer. One such feature is a large upper-level window that offers visitors a grand view into the reactor space. What seems like a basic window had to be designed with the ability to be shuttered with metal panels in emergency situations. Although unnecessary in the design of a “simple container,” this window is an example of an element that the researchers did not realize they could have—or would even want—but they now appreciate its role in providing a view of the science being conducted under their supervision. It is already a favorite spot for staff and visitors to overlook the trench and experience the magnitude of the reactor space.

The other educational space is the lobby, where an open stair leads up to the viewing window and offices. The lobby and upper floor areas are illuminated by a linear light monitor that brings natural light into windowless inner offices. Large display walls in the lobby illustrate the molten salt nuclear process, explaining what visitors might see through the viewing window above. Additional displays use inspiring visuals to highlight key donors, with a few colorful Einstein references mixed in.

As evidenced, this “simple container” is not that simple, despite its straightforward elements. Inside, there is a rectangular hole. Outside, there is a concrete skin wrapped around a warehouse space, with a linear lobby and offices added on. Yet the sum of these parts is a place where energy solutions impacting the entire planet will be developed; the SERC is poised to foster the advancement of critical new sources of renewable energy and support the exciting endeavors of the people inside. The bold, talented researchers working toward life-changing scientific advancements now have a home for their ideas to flourish and be shared with us, the beneficiaries of their groundbreaking work.  

Darwin Harrison, AIA, has a one-person firm in Austin but sometimes teams up with others.

Leave a Comment