After two years of construction and anticipation, the Fred Pirkle Engineering Technology Center opened early last spring. The innovative learning center houses state-of-the-art classrooms, specialized labs, and faculty and staff offices for the Agricultural Sciences and Engineering Technology departments at Sam Houston State University (SHSU). Made possible by a generous donation by SHSU alumnus Fred Pirkle, the building is already enhancing learning for the programs’ 1,500+ students.
I chatted with Lawrence Group’s Earl Swisher, principal-in-charge of the project, to learn more about the design process and the creative influences that went into the new home of the Agricultural Sciences and Engineering Technology departments of SHSU.
Claire: What was the inspiration behind the design of the Fred Pirkle Engineering Technology Center?
Earl: All inspiration for this building was drawn from the life and work of Fred Pirkle. An alumnus of SHSU, Fred Pirkle was a high school shop teacher that, through hard work and dedication to learning and innovation, became a successful and well-known inventor. He dedicated his life to inventing, designing and manufacturing innovative safety valves for the locomotive industry, all based upon the known physical properties of the expansion of alloys of paraffin to open and close valves. Following Fred’s lead, we “invented” a building with its beauty derived from its functional parts in the same way that Fred’s valves derived their beauty and simplicity from their function.
Claire: What is your favorite design element of the project and why?
Earl: The open fire stair at the rear (south) facade, balancing on a single point connection at ground, is a functional, cost effective and interesting element that helps to scale the 4-story high service side of the building. To create an open air and ventilated enclosure for the stair and to support the industrial aesthetic of the building, we utilized standard off-the-shelf perforated walkway planks spanning vertically between floors.
Claire: What was one design challenge your team encountered and how did you overcome it?
Earl: At around $300/SF, the budget was challenging through all phases given the programmatic requirements of the building. The use of rational geometric form, repetitive structural bays and simple and off-the-shelf building materials and systems, enabling us to achieve the total program size and more. The building was completed under budget, which allowed the University to purchase additional equipment for students and faculty.
Claire: How did you and your team ensure the building will be adaptable, lasting and functional for future classes of SHSU students?
Earl: As teaching methods and technologies have continued to progress, so have the environments in which students and educators work. With this is mind, the building was designed to be flexible throughout. Multi-purpose instruction spaces and informal gathering areas were used throughout the building to meet the ever-changing needs of students, and the adaptable design of the building ensures that the spaces will continue to serve the University as their academic programs evolve in the future.
Claire: Can you talk a little about the unique lighting feature suspended above the building’s collaboration lab?
Earl: The building was designed to encourage students to observe the learning happening around them. For example, there are observation windows surrounding the open area above the collaboration lab which let in natural light and provide the opportunity for students to get a glimpse at the learning happening below them without causing disruption. The suspended track lighting in the open area provides additional lighting and serves as a partial barrier to provide a sense of privacy for the students working below. Above the suspended track lighting, an abstract, lighted art element is visible from the observation windows. Making their way around the windows above the collaboration lab, observers are eventually treated to an inventor’s “eureka moment” when the twisting, abstract light culminates as three perfect rings when viewed from the museum’s final observation window. This element truly represents Pirkle’s passion for continued learning and discovery and serves as a charming visual treat for students and visitors of the building.
Claire: Lastly, what feelings do you hope the building will evoke for the students of Sam Houston State University?
Earl: I hope the students appreciate the functional elegance and permanence of the building and that they draw inspiration from their surroundings and the legacy of learning left by Fred Pirkle. I hope that the building inspires many generations of young “Fred Pirkles” by providing them with a sense of what is possible. The building in itself is not the answer, but it is in the building that the answers will be found.