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    The covered arcade is shaded by a brick and stone veil composed of alternating bands of brick and cast-stone modules and spaced with rotated bricks in between. - photo by Dave Burk © SOM

Members of the SOM project team take us on a technical dive into the facade design for the Ralph S. O’Connor engineering building at Rice University.

Project Ralph S. O’Connor Building for Engineering and Science, Houston
Client Rice University
Architect Skidmore, Owings & Merrill
Local Architect/Laboratory Planner Scientia Architects
Design Team Javier Arizmendi, FAIA, Craig Hartman, FAIA, Michael Oerth, AIA, Keith Boswell, FAIA, Danielle McGuire, AIA, Carrie Byles, FAIA
General Contractor Anslow Bryant Construction
Structural Engineer IMEG
MEP/Fire Protection Wylie
Lab Consultant Jacobs Engineering Group
Civil Engineer Walter P Moore
Landscape Architect OJB
High-Performance Design Skidmore, Owings & Merrill
Acoustics Salter
Graphics Skidmore, Owings & Merrill
Wayfinding Ulrich Diederich Design
Vertical Transportation Edgett Williams Consulting Group
Lighting Loisos + Ubbelohde
IT, AV, Security Stanton Engineering Group
Geotechnical Ulrich Engineers

Upon its completion in September 2023, the 250,000-sf Ralph S. O’Connor Building for Engineering and Science, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, became the largest research facility on Rice University’s historic core campus. Located on the site of the former Abercrombie Engineering Lab, the technology-rich facility helps to ensure that the university remains at the forefront of scientific discovery while attracting top engineering talent. 

The building includes state-of-the-art laboratories, classrooms, offices, a cafe, and interactive gathering spaces throughout. A flexible, multipurpose event space with an outdoor terrace sits at the top level. Drawing from the campus’s Mediterranean Revival style light-colored brick facades, the O’Connor Building reinforces the tactility and dynamism of the ubiquitous, locally sourced, handcrafted St. Joe’s brick through unique and innovative ways of using masonry.

Recognizing that, as a lab building, the project would require substantial mechanical systems, we designed an exterior facade with a low window-to-wall (glass-to-insulated masonry) ratio to offset the operational energy of the building. Along the main facade, wide brick pilasters allow for a flexible arrangement of interior demising walls, while angled pilasters comprised of the Rose Blend St. Joe’s brick are recessed up to 18” to mitigate solar heat gain, reflect natural light, and reduce glare inside. Solar radiation studies of the facade design for the summer months (when energy use is highest) indicated a 41% reduction in direct solar heat gain when compared to an unarticulated facade. 

The primary facade uses the same brick by St. Joe’s Brick Works that is found throughout the campus. Here it is reimagined as a dynamic surface, bringing texture to the solid walls required for the lab spaces within. – photo by Dave Burk © SOM

A covered arcade off the engineering quad creates a network of connections that shade pedestrians from the Texas climate and invites students into the lab building. A brick “veil” suspended off the main structure of the building creates a haptic interplay of light and shadow, enhancing the building’s performance and functionality. Utilizing a Universal Thermal Climate Index (UTCI) thermal comfort analysis, our team demonstrated that a brick veil could reduce temperatures in the arcade by 14 to 25 degrees during summer.  

To further enhance student comfort, the arcade soffits are designed to reflect indirect light bouncing off angled ceiling baffles, while the veil itself mitigates glare and direct thermal exposure on the western-facing ground-floor facade. The veil was also designed with environmental impact in mind, with the masonry assembly using sixteen times less embodied carbon than a conventional aluminum shade screen. 

To design the veil, we created multiple mock-ups and material tests, starting with a half-scale wood mockup to evaluate engineered stone stretcher courses and alternative rotations of the brick. A series of full-scale mock-ups using actual materials, developed in conjunction with the general contractor Anslow-Bryant, allowed us to iteratively find the optimal assembly and material combination while evaluating constructability as well as the craftsmanship of the masonry team (led by Camarata Masonry Systems). 

Mock-ups revealed that in the initial design, black, high-density polyethylene spacers would be visible at the outer brick-supporting rods, and that the non-uniform surface of the St. Joe’s brick made it difficult to level the courses. We explored another brick option, deviating from St. Joe’s to find an alternative that could offer more uniformity to ease the concerns of the masons. We also investigated options that incorporated more cast stone elements in the veil composition. A final, full-scale mockup helped us to evaluate three options: the original all-brick design, an alternative consisting of a combination of brick and horizontal cast stone stretchers, and a third made of all cast stone (bricks and stretchers) with crisp, clean edges. Additionally, different spacer materials were tested, including mill-finish aluminum, clear and black anodized aluminum, and stainless steel.

After careful review, we settled on a combination of these alternatives: a series of repetitive panels framed in galvanized steel and composed of limestone-colored, horizontal cast stone stretchers alongside an alternative hand-crafted brick supplied by Belden. This solution also revealed ways to enhance the original design intent by dividing the brick-colored, horizontal cast stone stretchers into thirds (instead of halves), preventing the need for vertical support rods at the end of the frame, clarifying the visual effect, and simplifying the construction. This assembly also allows for simple replacement of individual bricks in the future, if necessary. 

The veil’s successful construction is a credit to the skillfulness and adaptability of the construction and masonry team. With brick veil panels constructed in the field, all connections to the main structure were bolted for ease of assembly, eliminating the need to weld the exposed galvanized steel supports. With the main supporting structure in place, the masons could then fasten vertical threaded rods in place, adjusting the overall length as they set the initial row of bricks and cast stone. With each course, the masons verified levelness, swapping out any bricks that were too dissimilar in height and using the spacers as a guide before locking each rotated brick row or cast stone stretcher in place. Mill-finish aluminum spacers were cut in the field to accommodate brick tolerances and to level between panels. The spacers were placed back on top, and sand was then packed into the spacers, locking them in place. This process continued until the top row, where the wall was capped with a steel plate that was bolted into place to create some compression in the final assembly. 

The final veil assembly not only enriches the building’s aesthetic and provides thermal comfort for pedestrians; it also provides a sense of scale to one of the campus’s largest buildings while remaining resonant with the detailing of many of the traditional buildings on campus. Its impact extends beyond the building itself, strengthening the historic engineering quad through rich architectural tectonics. The building has been transformative to the historic campus core, becoming a dynamic new academic and social hub.   






Javier Arizmendi, FAIA, is a design principal at SOM in San Francisco. Michael Oerth, AIA, is a technical architect at SOM in San Francisco.

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