Norm Asbjorbson Innovation Center – A&E Architects
With a generous donation of $50 million from Montana State University (MSU) alumnus Norm Asbjorbson, MSU announced in 2014 that it will build an innovative laboratory and classroom facility that will foster collaborative, hands-on learning and leadership. As part of MSU’s College of Engineering, the new building will be known as the Norm Asbjornson Innovation Center (NAIC) and will promote dynamic interdisciplinary engagement, meaningful student-faculty interaction and accelerated innovation that responds to and anticipates emerging trends in education, industry and society.
In creating a facility that would encourage innovation and collaboration, MSU commissioned A&E Architects in partnership with ZGF Architecture, to design a building that sparks the interest of all students on campus. “The idea is to create a facility that will foster the kind of multidisciplinary collaboration that will help students solve unique problems by bringing together a variety of skill sets and areas of study,” says Dusty Eaton, project principal for A&E. “Interestingly enough, the building houses not only the College of Engineering, but also the Honors College.”
A collaborative space
NAIC is a three-story building with an open collaboration-commons that links every floor. Approximately half of the facility is comprised of mechanical and engineering labs, while the other half is made up of classroom and study space, including some of the most innovative classroom and presentation areas on the MSU campus. Included in the building is a classroom in the round, designed to fit 150 students as well as a high-tech presentation hall with a collapsible seat system — allowing for a variety of functions, such as a dining space, a lecture format, or small concert venue. “This really emphasizes the core idea of the building by creating that true cross-disciplinary flex space,” says Eaton.
Unique design aspects of the building include a transpired solar collector on the south side of the building as part of the wall system. This device will preheat incoming air, significantly reducing energy costs. “It’s completely integrated into the design of the facade,” Eaton explains. “We’re not trying to hide the system. It’s exposed and will be on display as an educational tool. It was very important to be honest with our building systems, to expose and highlight the innovation happening throughout the building.”
Also implemented in the building is a comprehensive heat pump system that is designed and manufactured by AAON, a company founded by Asbjorbson. The system reduces the use of duct runs and allows a more efficient method of conditioning the space as needed. “It’s a really efficient system because it consists of pumps distributed throughout the building rather than one centralized system,” Eaton explains. “We are expecting this to be the most energy-efficient building on the MSU campus.”
One of the major challenges faced by A&E and ZGF in the design phase of NAIC has been the inclusion of complex user groups. “It’s was a very involved programming process,” says Eaton. “When we started the project, we started from ground zero as far as who was occupying the building, what it was going to achieve, and the programming of it. A great deal of time was spent creating the collaborative process on campus. It was important to make this building a reflection of the vision of both the donor and MSU students, faculty, and staff.”
Building for the future
The construction and implementation of NAIC begins a new phase of development for MSU. The facility is the first academic building to cross Grant Street, a major route running through campus, extending the growth of MSU to the south. “We had a lot of responsibility in the early planning process to ensure that this building sets a successful growth pattern for the future of the campus.”
Eaton says that one of the most rewarding aspects of the NAIC project is the opportunity to help shape and transform the future of MSU’s campus, especially because he is a graduate of the university. He has also enjoyed the experience of working closely with Asbjorbson. “He has been involved in every step of the design process to make sure that we are implementing his vision,” shares Eaton. “To have the donor be able to look at the building and tell us that he is thrilled with the way that we are implementing his vision is very impactful.” While NAIC has not achieved any certification yet, A&E is pursuing a LEED Platinum certification.
Looking back on each project, A&E measures the success of each project by ability to bring a concept to realization. Implementing the original concept for a building — while fulfilling the owner’s goal — remains a key indicator of a job well-done by the architectural firm. With the satisfaction of Asbjorbson with the implementation of his vision, The Norm Asbjorbson Innovation Center is a strong addition to the portfolio of A&E Architects and the campus of Montana State University.
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