It was an ambitious but deceptively simple goal: Design a building that tells a story.
Like most stories, the 150,000-square-foot Environment and Natural Resources Phase 2, or ENR2, building is an immersive experience that went through many rewrites.
"Everything really came down to one question for us," said ENR2 lead architect Jim Richard of richard+bauer architecture. "How can we create powerful, memorable moments for people as they move through the building?"
Those moments came about through years of painstakingly detailed collaboration among UA Planning, Design & Construction, GLHN Architects & Engineers, Hensel Phelps Construction Co. and countless other contributors.
If the ENR2 building was going to serve as an effective storytelling device, Richard believed it needed to be a work of art as much as a feat of engineering.
"The finished project is really close to our original vision," UA Planning, Design & Construction senior architect May Carr said. "We wanted a building with a sustainable design that reflected its desert environment, while providing a home for all of the UA researchers working on environmental and sustainability issues, and I believe we hit the mark."
Carr, the building's design manager, has been involved in the design of a variety of UA buildings and led the discussions on ENR2's sustainability initiatives. Richard has served as a key designer for many buildings on the UA campus, such as the College of Optical Sciences building, and was instrumental in devising a number of ENR2's most innovative, Sonoran-influenced design elements.
"Our goal is always to design buildings that reflect the institutions they house," Richard said. "Between the vertical slot canyons, the exterior transition spaces, the Sonoran desert plant life, the overhangs and the canyon ledges, we wanted to make this the definitive home for sustainability in the Southwest."
Preliminary planning for the ENR2 building started in 2003, with the first concepts drawn up in 2010. But Richard began brainstorming long before the facility ever had a name or a location. As an undergraduate student at the UA majoring in architectural design in the mid-1980s, he explored the potential for creating sustainable exterior spaces in the framework of a university setting.
"It was a really exciting time to be studying architecture and design," Richard said. "There were all these state-of-the-art ideas about thermal cooling and self shading, and the ENR2 building is the logical evolution of those ideas we were coming up with back then."
Richard, who graduated from the UA in 1985, has implemented sustainable design elements on other projects, but nothing quite on this scale. Carr, a UA alumna, sought input from throughout the UA community for ways to seamlessly and practically integrate the sustainability initiatives that will save the UA as much as 30 percent in energy costs.
The end result is a building that is simultaneously an example of cutting-edge sustainability and an atmosphere that generates interdisciplinary connectivity between the brightest minds in environmental research with the UA's Institute of the Environment, the School of Geography and Development and the School of Natural Resources and the Environment.
"The reaction has been incredibly positive," Carr said. "Everyone is really happy to be in the building and working together. Just these few weeks working in the same building has really helped foster collaboration between these researchers who used to be scattered all over campus."
Late in the design process, the ENR2 building was reconfigured to include a 575-seat lecture auditorium for undergraduate students, broadening the facility's reach beyond the research community and easing the burden on other large lecture halls on campus. Richard sees the lecture hall as key to developing ENR2's relationship with the general UA population, as it will result in more student engagement and increase foot traffic throughout the facility.
So what is the story the ENR2 building wants to tell those who walk through it? It says that the UA is an international leader in sustainability, and the ENR2 building furthers the University's commitment to environmental awareness. The 2016 Princeton Review ranked the UA among the top colleges in sustainability/"green" initiatives with a score of 93, and the ENR2 building is the culmination of these efforts.
"People have this sense of awe when they walk into the building," Richard said. "We hope it's a jaw dropper."