Creating the Gates and Hillman Centers

Looking to the Future, Respecting the Past

Genius--Thomas Edison said--is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.

Architecture--Mack Scogin says--also relies more on old-fashioned hard work than on bolts of creativity that descend like lightning from the heavens.

"You first have to establish all of the knowns--all of the necessities of the project," says Scogin, co-principal of Atlanta-based Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects, designers of the Gates Center for Computer Science and the adjoining Hillman Center for Future-Generation Technologies, slated to open this fall.

Establishing the "knowns" includes analyzing everything from the amount of land available to the number of offices and classrooms required to the soil conditions. "It's not rocket science, but there is a significant level of research necessary and there's a kind of tedium to it," he says.

But architects also have to interpret what their clients mean when they ask for certain features. In the case of the Gates and Hillman Centers, Scogin says, there was a strong desire for the buildings to embody the culture of the School of Computer Science and the university. "You have to understand how computer scientists interact together, how they think, how they study," he says, "and then try to weave that understanding into some sort of a physical response."

That research received a big boost from the preliminary work done by the SCS program committee. Beginning in September 2004, the committee chaired by computer science professor Guy Blelloch surveyed more than 300 faculty and staff members and students to determine not just their space needs but their quality of life concerns. They visited more than 20 other academic buildings and set short- and long-term goals for the new complex. One of their main goals was promoting interaction and collaboration between faculty, students, researchers, visitors and members of the Carnegie Mellon community outside of SCS.

"These people were visionaries in terms of their goals and expectations," Scogin says. "If these buildings are successful, it's because of them."

Ralph Horgan, Carnegie Mellon's associate vice provost for campus design and facility development, says the Gates and Hillman Centers as designed should answer all of the requests made by the university and the SCS facilities committee. "The degree to which the buildings adhere to the original intent is enormous," Horgan says. "Even the more subjective things we asked for were met or exceeded."

Because of Carnegie Mellon's commitment to green practices in new construction, keeping the buildings environmentally sensitive was an important objective--but keeping them functional and comfortable was equally important. Scogin's firm designed the buildings to the planning committee's checklist and then compared the resulting specifications to the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards of the U.S. Green Building Council.

The design team was aiming for a silver LEED certification, but will be within range of a gold award, Horgan says. Materials and methods were chosen specifically for their sustainability and low negative impact on the environment, like the gray water system that will collect rain and melted snow from roofs and use it to flush toilets.

The construction process has employed environmentally friendly methods, too. All construction waste is being sorted and separated, and between 50 and 75 percent has been recycled, not sent to landfills. Even the rock excavated for the foundations was reused--some 40 tons of stone were taken down to Panther Hollow, crushed into gravel, and then brought back up for use as construction material. "It was a wonderful way to preserve what was there," says director of construction Joe Greenaway.

All of the technologies being deployed in the Gates and Hillman Centers are efficient but proven, Horgan says. "We were not interested in seeking 'bleeding-edge' technology," he says. "We want very comfortable spaces that will work for a long time. We're trying to balance effectiveness with efficiency."

Many of the energy-saving technologies deployed in the Gates and Hillman Centers are passive (no moving parts) to cut down on mechanical and electronic failures.

Others features of the building may seem to look to the past for inspiration. Until recently, most "modern" office buildings were climate-controlled and hermetically sealed. Unfortunately, that left some occupants too hot, others too cold and everyone breathing stale air. In the Gates and Hillman Centers, all 310 offices are getting a window that opens to admit fresh air. Ventilation systems will draw additional fresh air from outdoors and exhaust the stale air; rotary heat exchangers called enthalpy wheels will use the exhausted air to help raise or lower the temperature of the incoming air as appropriate without requiring additional energy. And people using classrooms, offices and labs will be able to control the volume and temperature of the air being delivered to every space. (Motion detectors will close air ducts when rooms are unoccupied.)

The desire to make every office "a room with a view" dictated the unusual shape of the buildings, with floor plans and exterior walls that vary from story to story. The resulting design is unconventional, Scogin says, but it fits into the landscape despite the steeply sloping terrain while allowing the complex to have multiple entrances facing Forbes Avenue, the Cut and Wean Hall. Besides, a straightforward "brick box" with 310 offices would have been foreboding--up to 14 stories tall, he says.

In many ways, the Gates and Hillman Centers is coping with the problems--uneven terrain, tight spaces, multiple groups of users--that Henry Hornbostel faced when he designed the original Carnegie Tech campus in the 1900s. Scogin, who has admired Hornbostel's work both at Carnegie Mellon and at Atlanta's Emory University, says his buildings may seem traditional but are far from classical architecture. At Carnegie Tech, Hornbostel disguised the smokestack of what's now called Hamerschlag Hall with a temple-like rotunda and put sloping corridors inside Baker and Doherty halls to conform to Pittsburgh's steep slopes.

Those ideas were as unusual in their day, Scogin says, as the exterior of the Gates and Hillman Centers may seem to some eyes today.

By putting the power plant at one end of campus and the art school at the other end, Hornbostel also forced engineers and artists, scientists and craftsmen, to share ideas and interact with each other every day. With its bridges to the Purnell Center for the Arts, its proximity to the Heinz College, and its creation of a new east-west corridor on the Carnegie Mellon campus, Scogin hopes the Gates and Hillman Centers will encourage the same kinds of interdisciplinary interactions for years to come. "That kind of dialogue between these seemingly disparate conditions has been what Carnegie Mellon has been about throughout its entire history," he says.
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Jason Togyer | 412-268-8721 | jt3y@cs.cmu.edu