Creating a Habitat Where Science Thrives
In the Mind of Design
In an interview with Karen Jones, lab designer Tony Alfieri, associate principal with Perkins+Will, provides insight into the strategic thinking and methodical planning behind the new science building’s design.
KJ: The Perkins+Will website says, “Our design philosophy distinguishes between buildings that are merely built and buildings that are lived in.” Please explain.
TA: Perkins+Will believes strongly in program-driven design: Our designs are built around the ways users will inhabit the spaces. At Susquehanna, this meant that we designed and planned the laboratories around the ways in which students and faculty learn and conduct their research.
The important thing to remember about a laboratory project is that these are spaces of inquiry and discovery. Whether in an introductory classroom or an advanced-level research lab, the spaces have to give their occupants the freedom to work safely, support them by keeping the tools they need close at hand, and, most importantly, allow them to build on each other’s knowledge by talking, debating and exchanging ideas.
KJ: How are the labs flexible in terms of their use?
TA: As a small liberal arts institution, Susquehanna has to cover a broad array of scientific inquiry in a limited number of spaces. It was therefore important that there be no redundancy and that the functions of one space dovetailed cleanly into those of the space next door.
The teaching laboratories were conceptualized without departmental ownership or course assignation. We worked to include a menu of class types ranging from fume hood–intensive wet labs to open dry labs, and smaller upper-level labs to large studio labs, all with a range of sink options, bench heights and casework options. While we don’t know what new course might be taught in the building 20 years from now, we can feel confident the university will have the kind of space in its inventory to support it.
Throughout the process, the design team was continually impressed by the support the process received from senior administration. There was very clearly a vision that the new labs should support new ways of working, and that they would carry the university from good to great, from the 20th century into the 21st.
KJ: Is there anything that makes SU’s labs unique or especially noteworthy?
TA: We tried to make the laboratories reflect what is special about the learning experience at Susquehanna. From what I saw, the Susquehanna experience was very much about collaborative relationships: faculty working with one another, students learning from students, and mentorship between a relatively young and vibrant faculty and an engaged student body. There was a strong belief in the value of creating lifelong learners and encouraging students to ask questions—inquire—and then discover. SU’s labs were very much conceptualized to be a springboard to that kind of activity.
KJ: The Perkins+Will website says, “Successful projects align strategy, architecture and planning with the widest, most imaginative definitions of the client’s vision.” What was SU’s vision, and how did you accommodate or even enhance it?
TA: SU’s vision was at once focused and yet expansive. In one sense, there was a strong desire to have better labs—safer, more attractive, more durable, and more in tune with modern learning and research styles and methodologies. At the same time, there was an awareness of the unique qualities of SU and a desire to weave that identity into the spirit of the place.
As the first new academic building to cross University Avenue, it was important for us that the building enter into a dialogue with the existing Fisher Hall. Our hope was to create a “science quad” supported by sympathetic landscaping between the two that would engage the faculty who remain in the older building. Similarly, we sought to tie the building to its place with strategic views out into the landscape to the north and the existing campus to the south. The atrium space that connects both wings was conceptualized as an outdoor room characterized by openness and transparency. It was most important that on entering, one could see through the building to the hills beyond.
Karen M. Jones is assistant director of media relations.