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University of Tennessee, Knoxville proud of new "Home of the Sciences"

KNOXVILLE -- The University of Tennessee (UTK) recently opened its new "Home of the Sciences". The S/L/A/M Collaborative (SLAM), in association with the Lewis Group Architects, designed the iconic 268,000-square foot Strong Hall Science Laboratory Facility. True to its “Earth, Life & Time” theme, the project captures the spirit of the Earth and Planetary Sciences, Anthropology, Chemistry, and Biology disciplines within a vibrant and synergistic teaching and research community.

strong hall science lab
Stepping gracefully with its sloped site toward the heart of the University, the Strong Hall Science Laboratory Facility welcomes visitors on several levels, including access from a pedestrian bridge spanning Cumberland Avenue. By siting the majority of the building’s footprint on the western section of the site, generous green space is preserved to the east, featuring a dozen old growth oak trees. From background to foreground, the building’s massing elements include an 8-story laboratory wing, 3-story atrium, and 2-story oval lecture hall mass. Image by Alain Jaramillo.

UTK embarked on this major $114 million initiative in 2013, marking the first major step in their “Journey to the Top 25” nation’s research universities.

“The new classroom and lab building is going to totally remake how we teach and what we are able to offer our students,” says Dave Irvin, Associate Vice Chancellor for Facilities Services. “It’s really an exciting time to be here, as we remake the campus in such a dramatic way.”

Located along the atrium, The Visualization Lab is housed inside a repurposed remnant of the existing 1926 Sophronia Strong Hall dormitory, creating a dynamic juxtaposition of old and new. As part of the Earth and Planetary Sciences department’s ‘science on display,’ large flat panel screens project real-time imagery such as NASA feeds from outer space. Image by Alain Jaramillo.

The new building style is predominantly collegiate gothic, with design elements layered in a rich blend of colors and materials consistent with the campus standards and compatible with its campus context. There is also a careful introduction of modern details that infuse a “state-of-the-art” appearance to the building that reflects an innovative building of today.

Overall, the look of the building celebrates and contrasts the old with the new, as does the transition from traditional learning methodologies to innovative and collaborative research models within. The building is monumental at eight stories, with a rooftop penthouse. It is capped with a large gable roof that will become a signature feature for this facility, visible from many points on campus and in the city. Elements of the building, such as the nave-like atrium, the two-story classroom volume on the southeast corner, and the remaining portion of the original Sophronia Strong Hall, all provide places in which students can engage the building at a human scale.

Interactive Teaching and Collaborative Spaces

The nave-like atrium provides places in which students can meet before and after classes, allowing a variety of group breakout space opportunities. Image by Alain Jaramillo.

Collaboration and public space throughout the building are key components to its success. The spaces are branded to reflect the theme through the finishes, artwork, and three-dimensional science displays. The atrium, designed to serve as the “Heart” of the building, has a distinct image, greeting people with its spacious grand style and will also serve as the definitive destination for learning and collaboration outside of the classrooms and labs.

“We are excited to achieve the major design goal for this new facility, which was to create an environment that enables inter- and trans-disciplinary learning and research, supporting an experiential/collaboration-based curriculum and, in some ways, transforming the culture of the departments,” says Will Stelten, AIA, design principal, SLAM.

The teaching labs accommodate both lectures and laboratory activities. The large lecture halls include a tiered collaborative 250-seat lecture hall, a 125-seat team-based learning (TBL) lecture hall, and five large Scale-Up classrooms with advanced A/V capabilities. The large lecture halls are designed with removable tiers, allowing for future flexibility of the spaces. In many labs, furniture located at the center will be moveable to accommodate different teaching modalities. Within these lab set-ups, teams of students will be able to occupy individual tables for lectures and discussion, work at island benches, or at the perimeter on special apparatus set-ups or in fume hoods.

Adjacent student/faculty research labs will be able to provide opportunities for more intensive work, while offering a glimpse into the world beyond undergraduate education. Shared instrument labs equipped with industry standard analytical tools are designed to bring students and faculty together within and across disciplines.

The Department of Anthropology, located on the fourth and fifth floors, and includes diverse types of research spaces to support archaeology, zooarchaeology, biological anthropology, human anatomy and anthropology fields of study. Laboratories include computer modeling, data collection, wet labs, DNA lab, Gross Anatomy Lab, as well as extensive skeletal and cast mold collections.

The Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, located on the fifth, sixth, and seventh floors serves a diverse range of programs including Geophysics, Geomicrobiology, Environmental Sciences, Paleontology, Petrology, Planetary Geosciences, and Sedimentology. Supporting each of these programs are several sophisticated research labs and equipment.

The large lecture halls include a 125-seat team-based learning (TBL) lecture hall designed with removable tiers. Breakout space is provided within the room, enabling students to quickly move from lecture to small group mode yet benefit from the dynamics of multiple groups working together. While all students can face front for individual testing, terraces allow group work at tables, and the knee wall at each terrace step is faced with a whiteboard, giving each group access to writing space. Image by Alain Jaramillo.

In preservation of the historic site, a portion of the Sophronia Strong Hall was repurposed and houses the Visualization Lab, as part of the Earth and Planetary Sciences department’s ‘science on display’, where large flat panel screens project relevant real-time imagery, such as NASA feeds from outer space.

“It is a time of celebration for the opening of Strong Hall, a landmark building that captures the innovative vision of the University of Tennessee that will serve as a benchmark for 21st century STEM learning and research across our nation,” says Sidney Ward, AIA, principal, SLAM.

In this premier facility, designing for flexibility was a crucial aspect in allowing a variety of science disciplines to be integrated within universal lab and classroom space, creating very diverse outcomes in the way students will learn and discover. The collaboration, inter- and trans-disciplinary learning, and unity of this new facility will help the University of Tennessee Knoxville reach greater heights as a teaching and research university.

Rentenbach Constructors, Inc and Messer Construction Company were joint-venture construction managers on the project.

As a fully-integrated, multi-disciplinary architecture firm, The S/L/A/M Collaborative (SLAM) has a national presence in programming/planning and designing professional schools of medicine, pharmacy, nursing, public health, law, business, science, engineering, and technology. SLAM has recently completed noteworthy projects with clients from the University of Notre Dame, Johns Hopkins University, Emory University, Duke University, University of Texas at Austin, University of Tennessee, Rutgers University and the University of Cincinnati, among others.

SLAM offers architecture, planning, interior design, landscape architecture and site planning, structural engineering and construction services that focus on various market sectors. SLAM has offices in Atlanta, Boston, Glastonbury, CT and Syracuse, NY. For more information on The S/L/A/M Collaborative please visit

Published November 27, 2017

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