Rethinking How We Learn: A new teaching and research facility at the University of Calgary

Photo © Tom Arban
Photo © Tom Arban

By Rick Piccolo, MRAIC, LEED AP
Over the last century or so, the facilities being built to provide how and where one learns have undergone extreme changes. From isolated classrooms along corridors to open, unprogrammed forums, and from education by rote and repetition to learning through discovery, chance encounters, or direct experience––how and where people learn has shifted radically. Society is looking to find better ways to both impart knowledge and foster the essential curiosity that continues to expand education.

Energy Environment Experiential Learning (EEEL) is a new undergraduate teaching and research facility at the University of Calgary (U of C), designed by Perkins+Will Canada and Dialog Design. It was created with this challenge at the very heart of the project. The university urgently needed new space to support its rapidly growing population, but it also wanted these facilities to make a clear statement. The building had to be about the students, be the best possible environment to allow them to learn individually and collaboratively, and had to integrate the two streams of learning and research.

Project goals
In the first meetings with the university’s working committee, discussion centred exclusively on how students would experience learning, how the building was going to assist in and enhance learning, and how mixing various faculties residing in the building were going to achieve the desired synergies sought by the faculty deans of:

  • chemistry;
  • biology;
  • civil engineering;
  • geo-science;
  • chemical and petroleum engineering;
  • mechanical engineering; and
  • Institute for Sustainable Energy, Environment, and Economy (ISEEE).

The goal of the university and design team was the building would be experiential; it needed to be as simple as possible, maximizing flexibility, interaction, adaptability, access to daylight, and energy and water efficiency. Out of these meetings, several basic principles affecting both the education material and the building
design emerged:

  • learning was to be hands-on and experiential;
  • science and engineering should be on display;
  • a promenade of attractions should be provided;
  • everything should ‘speak’ about its function; and
  • it should be nimble and adaptable.

From a design point of view, these principles were applied to everything about the building, including:

  • pedagogy of the teaching and course materials;
  • basic room shape and modularity;
  • building’s design and finishes; and
  • how the building’s systems were developed and detailed.

Building form
The EEEL takes the form of three parallel bars separated by access corridors. The outer bars house the exit stairs and the bulk of the teaching spaces where access to daylight can be optimized. The central bar is more diverse, containing the major public spaces, theatres, building services, and programs the university thought would be most interesting to display. Wherever possible, the space requirements of the various faculties within the building were dispersed to promote interaction and avoid creating isolated ‘territories.’ Where this could not be achieved due to adjacency needs or other factors, spaces were then organized to maximize their adjacency to the main social spaces so they could function much like neighbourhood parks or a village square.

At the University of Calgary's Energy Environment Experiential Learning (EEEL), students can look into the classroom to see what others are doing. Photo courtesy University of Calgary
At the University of Calgary’s Energy Environment Experiential Learning (EEEL), students can look into the classroom to see what others are doing.
Photo courtesy University of Calgary

Internally, the building is formally organized around the concept of ‘science and engineering on display.’ All undergraduate classrooms and labs are fully glazed to the spaces beyond, allowing daylight deep into the building and discovery of what is happening within these spaces to passersby. The promenade is the setting for this as from here, everything taking place in the building is on display. It also contains a program of displays. Whether in permanent cabinets hung from the walls or ceilings, or presented on interactive monitors, displays illustrate the work being done or research being carried out within, effectively turning the labs and classrooms inside out.

One of the concerns, however, was much of the benefit of having learning on display would be defeated if lectures and presentations were done on opaque screens. The university agreed, and, after testing, translucent projection screens were used in all labs and classrooms. These have proven to be very effective in both facilitating teaching and permitting passersby to learn what is going on.

On the campus, EEEL was imagined as a building that ‘connected the dots,’ linking together a series of otherwise disconnected buildings on the northern edge of the campus. EEEL connects to and extends the internal circulation loops of engineering, earth and math science buildings, and Urban Innovation Research Park, and parts of each department will also reside within EEEL. The point at which these loops intersect sets the location for the main entry hall, with the internal promenade originating from this point.

Social spaces
The architectural premise for the promenade was interactive spaces connected so they encourage gathering with and among the various faculty groups, students and professors, visitors, and the generally curious. The promenade is the heart of the building. Taking the form of a large, top-lit, multi-purpose atrium, it functions as the primary means of vertical circulation in the building combined with a large seating area. Its uses are diverse:

    • interactive display;
    • social interaction;
    • interdisciplinary collaboration;
    • off-hours movie theatre; and
    • informal lecture hall.

In some ways, it is both a public mall and living room––it provides opportunity for large-scale gathering and movement, but at the same time it has smaller spaces for individual studying or informal learning.

The main entry, plaza, and forecourt of EEEL take both form and function into careful account. Photo courtesy O2 Planning + Design Inc.
The main entry, plaza, and forecourt of EEEL take both form and function into careful account.
Photo courtesy O2 Planning + Design Inc.

The building’s other social spaces are organized to pinwheel off this heart and provide different degrees and types of connection back to the main space. This permits students and other users to find specific places that accommodate their situational needs for more or less privacy, acoustic separation, or group numbers. Each of these social spaces is branded distinctly from the more formal teaching spaces of the building through the use of a specific set of materials, colours, and details.

Experiential learning
The building’s systems were designed to assist in ‘speaking science.’ This is achieved through display of the activities, results, and processes of learning, energy and water use and consumption, and resources to achieve learning. The building helps demonstrate the principles embedded in the teaching––everything has an impact beyond itself, its users, and the immediate landscape. Within the labs, micro-experiments are being used to reduce process water and material use, lab equipment was specified to be of low energy demand and within the classrooms, and lectures will be posted to the web after class as a constantly available resource.

When positioned in the atrium, all systems are available to view. Building systems, unless required to be concealed by code or due to undue risk, are on display; one can see where the air and water comes from and how it gets to a classroom or lab. A building management system (BMS) monitors building systems and provides visual feedback of the workings of these systems on an interactive dashboard located in the main entry lobby. The BMS provides continuous and detailed monitoring to eventually demonstrate building and individual use of resources, energy, and water to encourage friendly competition between users.

South and west elevation. Photos © Tom Arban
South and west elevation.
Photos © Tom Arban

Daylighting and the building skin
To improve the learning environment, the goal was for every space within the building to have access to and be preferentially daylit. However, the floor plate’s size––about 40 x 120 m (131 x 394 ft)––and issues with glare and low sun angles in a northern climate made achieving this a challenge, and additional massing and daylight management strategies were needed to achieve the goal. These took the form of a light scoop in the clerestory of the central atrium, highly glazed walls where the interior social spaces interacted with the exterior envelope, and clerestory glazing to the perimeter classrooms and labs.

In the atrium, the light scoop, or ‘belly,’ was carefully studied and modelled in profile to prevent the direct impact of heat gain and glare, while still reflecting light down onto the social stair and seating spaces. Its final material and colour was also carefully selected and modelled so it would appear to be soft and luminous, rather than a distracting source of glare. The social spaces at the building’s perimeter––as they were not as intensively occupied as the labs and classrooms––were free to be more highly glazed than the remainder of perimeter spaces in the building as they placed a much smaller energy demand on the mechanical systems.

However, since the building’s main heating and cooling system comprises radiant slabs––which do not have the ability to quickly adjust to large swings in internal building temperatures––some mitigation of the expected heat gain through the glazing was required. As such, large adjustable vertical louvres, whose bold colour is a recognizable signature of the building skin, were provided to control heat gain and glare.

The social stair serves as the heart of the building.
The social stair serves as the heart of the building.

The louvres have a perforated metal skin allowing a constant diffuse sunlight to penetrate into the social spaces, while also pivoting to track the sun’s position, overseen by the BMS. These spaces have become favourites of many users with laptops, as the resulting light levels within the space are very consistent and conducive to concentration. The motion of the louvres tracking the sun is almost imperceptible to the users, but provides a tangible example of a building adapting itself to its surroundings.

Within the labs and classrooms, fixed sunshades are provided to maintain a heat gain and glare-free environment from March to October. During the winter months in Calgary, when glare is an issue but heat gain typically is not, automatic window shades with 25 per cent open area are controlled by daylight sensors to deploy as needed to maintain optimal conditions within the space for lecturing or presentations. On the clerestory glazing panels, also protected by fixed sunshades, where light is encouraged to penetrate deep into the building through the glazed corridor walls, fixed shades with five per cent openings are used to mitigate glare, but maintain light access.

The pivoting louvres on the building skin are perhaps the most overt architectural example of the building being adaptable, but the principle is embedded in every aspect of the building design. Since it is expected the building, uses, environmental conditions, and surrounding context will change, and as EEEL is expected to have a useful life up to a minimum 50 years, adaptability is of primary importance. The building skin was developed as a modular system, repeatable and scalable from the basic repetitive planning grid used both for a laboratory or classroom. Internally, one space can easily be converted into another, with as little effort as possible and with minimal impact to the building’s operation. The only time this module was changed was at the locations where the internal promenade touched the exterior envelope.

Building sections through social spaces––a three-dimensional space diagram. Image courtesy Perkins+Will Canada
Building sections through social spaces––a three-dimensional space diagram.
Image courtesy Perkins+Will Canada

Wherever possible, EEEL is designed to have excess capacity within its mechanical, electrical, and structural systems. It was also planned as if the most onerous requirement for any of these systems was repeated everywhere. However, if not carefully considered, overbuilding can be detrimental to sustainability, budgets, and schedules. A prudent balance optimizing these sometimes-competing goals was used to evaluate each case on its own merit.

For example, an early design question was whether to size the supply and exhaust air systems to the current program mix, or to a future ‘worst case’ where all classrooms could be converted into lab spaces. Following the ultimate scenario would have significant impacts on the building’s size and volume, as well as the project’s cost. In the end, a combination of overbuilding and following the current program was adopted.

In the basement, the rooms enclosing the air handling units (AHUs) were sized to protect for this ultimate scenario, at the upfront cost of some additional walls and the potential loss of some long-term storage spaces. The units themselves were sized to provide sufficient air volumes for the current mix of spaces, but expandable through ‘plug-in’ modules to increase their delivery capacity if needed. Supply and exhaust mains were designed and installed to accommodate ultimate air volumes, but through three-dimensional modelling and system conflict software, the location of various systems within the ceiling space was optimized so typical floor-to-floor heights were no greater than those required in the initial program. As an additional benefit, the oversized ducts could now use very low-velocity air, saving the building a great deal of fan energy and improving acoustics.

Double-height breakout space behind movable shutters.
Double-height breakout space behind movable shutters.

Another essential difference between classrooms and labs was the latter had requirements for supplemental cooling, and the former for additional acoustic treatment. Despite these differences, it turned out the optimal location for the supplemental radiant and acoustic panels was in the same place––on the underside of the concrete ceiling. By detailing modular acoustic panels that could be mounted to the same brackets as the radiant ones, simple system switching could be achieved if required.

As a base assumption, acoustic panels were provided in combination with capped water lines entering the various rooms at each room module. If the room was a lab, or the use changed from classroom to lab, the acoustic panels would simply be removed and replaced with radiant panels in the same mounting, and the capped lines extended to the new radiant panels.

The Energy Environment Experiential Learning facility has been open for classes since September 2011, and the feedback received from the client, students, and professors has been amazing. Within a few short months, the building and social stairs have become one of the most popular places on campus to hang out. Spontaneous races of computer-controlled robots built by engineering classes have occurred, and the plaza in front of the main entrance has been host to numerous faculty introduction events to the university at large.

Rick Piccolo, MRAIC, LEED AP, is senior design staff at Perkins+Will Canada. With a bachelor of architecture from Montréal’s McGill University, he has 15 years of experience at the firm. Piccolo can be contacted via e-mail at

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