architecture - engineering - construction
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Newly Renovated Law Commons Appeals to Senses

  Subscribe to FREE newsletter  May 18, 2010

When University of Arizona law students returned to the Law Commons in August after its 15-month renovation, they barely recognized it. What had been a dark, dungeon-like building had been flooded with natural light and open space. The architectural firm Gould Evans (Phoenix) helped the James E. Rogers College of Law retain a sense of the original architecture, while modernizing it to create a sense of community and reflect the ways students study and interact today. "They really wanted something fresh and different that was uniquely theirs," says Tamara Shroll, project manager for Gould Evans.

The school also wanted to create "sticky space," places that students would want to spend time in and hang out - spaces that would nurture connections between students and faculty. "By having wide expanses, you can see students across the room and students outside," says Michael Chiorazzi, the College's Associate Dean for Information Services, who managed the project. College planners didn't want the rebuilt facility to have the feeling of a law firm. They did, however, want the building, which houses the law library, classrooms, and various gathering and study spaces, to feel "professional," says Chiorazzi. "A term that was used a lot was 'gravitas'."

On their way to achieving their goals, the architects found ways to bring natural light in on all three floors, using a central stairwell and light well and by replacing some interior and exterior walls with glass. To control all the sunlight, the Gould Evans design used Aerobrise sun louvers by Hunter Douglas. They also raised the ceilings to further enhance daylighting, using Natura wood ceilings, and Box 4 metal ceilings by Hunter Douglas throughout the spaces. "We chose those products very early on in the design process and almost let them guide us in terms of what the space wanted to be," says Shroll. Adds Chiorazzi, the Hunter Douglas products are "responsible for... dramatic changes in the building."

The entryway represents the most distinctive feature of the renovation, and sits at the heart of the one-block law school site that includes buildings for lecture halls, as well as a clinic. Approaching from a new pedestrian walkway through a lush courtyard and patio, visitors walk under a canopy created by the sun louver system, whose pitch is echoed inside by the Box 4 metal ceiling.

Because the louvers blend in architecturally with the first floor ceiling, "It looks like the spaces are merging," says Shroll. The blurring of space "brings the outside in," says Chiorazzi, adding that the architects updated the building "in a way that kept it consistent with the original architect's vision," by reinterpreting the shape of the exterior concrete panels as they designed the new ceiling. The seamless connection of inside and out is reinforced by new glass doors that can be opened to create indoor-outdoor events.

To create the visually expansive entrance, Gould Evans demolished many exterior pre-cast concrete panels on the north and south sides of the original building, replacing them with glass doors and windows to introduce natural light into the interior first floor, which houses the reference and circulation areas, student meeting rooms, and other gathering spaces. The Aerobrise louver system shades both the patio outside and blocks the sun entering the building during the most intense periods of the day, in accordance with a system laid out by the architects. The team used sun-angle simulations to determine the best position of the system for shading the glass, explains Hunter Douglas representative Dave Vanosdall. "Then we built the louvers to those specifications."

While the law school's first floor has a more modern design, the basement, which houses the heart of the library, provides a quiet, warm environment. The Natura wood ceilings allowed the law school to achieve an all-wood ceiling at a cost that fit its budget, allowing the old, low ceiling - which had "terrible" lighting - to be replaced, according to Shroll. Gould Evans raised the ceiling, introduced natural light through a light trough, installed compact book shelving, and replaced solid walls with glass for small group study areas. The result: a rich, airy space that allows for students to see each other across rooms. "Students want to be in there now," says Shroll. Chiorazzi describes the atmosphere inside the new basement as "almost reverential."

With so much open space, and with hard materials like wood, glass, metal, and tile throughout, sound absorption was key to the specification of the perforated patterns in the wood and metal ceilings. Without them, "you've got a big echo chamber," says Vanosdall. But with them, the sound passes into the ceiling's sound-absorbent backing material along with bagged insulation inside the plenum.

Chiorazzi has heard nothing but raves from alumni, students, and faculty on the renovation. "People like being in the place," he says. Even better, the reborn facility has become a recruiting tool for prospective students. Says Chiorazzi, "They come in and see this nice facility, and it's easier for them to visualize themselves in it."

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