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Designing for academics and student life in the middle of a city

Designing for academics and student life in the middle of a city

By William Ketcham | Stantec | June 30, 2017

North Park University is in the midst of dramatic transformation. Founded in 1891 by the Evangelical Covenant Church, the Chicago area liberal arts school has gradually instituted major changes in its master plan. When the Johnson Center for Science and Community Life opened in September 2014, it was the latest in a series of landscape and campus design initiatives started in 1999, many completed in 2005, transforming North Park from a loose grouping of buildings on a city grid into a classic, united, pedestrian-friendly college campus. Stantec has a long relationship with the university, having touched nearly every building on campus.

In 2005, as North Park University was redesigning its landscape and planning a student center with Stantec, it realized that its science buildings were outdated and potentially a detriment to recruiting. Meanwhile, the school saw enrollment in physical sciences increase by 35 percent during the past decade. Wisely, it chose to combine student life facilities and science classrooms under one roof.

Stantec, teaming with HE+RA Lab Planners, further developed the organization for the new building with another set of charrettes. Through conversations with the scientists, faculty, and administrators, Stantec developed guidelines to support the pedagogy and research objectives of the chemistry, biology, physics, math, psychology, and engineering departments. Labs are designed by discipline, aligned by relevant commonalities, and adjoined to flexible faculty research stations. Lab support is located to optimize for efficient sharing of equipment and supplies. The student union component unifies the building and the campus beyond with attractive meeting and circulation spaces. Participants wanted a building positioned to take advantage of attractive outdoor space and daylight, which would also put the facility on track for LEED Gold certification, which it received in 2015.


lounge area at the top of a stairwell


In visioning sessions for the new Johnson Center for Science and Community Life, our team championed splitting up the science faculty and the student services administration to broaden the range of ideas available between the two groups.

Both faculty and administration desired a new building that would be welcoming and foster collaboration but also comforting and suited to the serious pursuit of knowledge. The new building would need to be sustainable and contemporary in style but also meet the standards for quality and detail set by existing campus buildings.


The results

The Johnson Center for Science and Community Life opened September 2014 and now fulfills two roles at the university: as a science building with basic and interactive classrooms and labs for chemistry, biography, physics, and engineering as well as a lecture hall/screening room and as a center for student engagement.



To facilitate nurturing relationships between faculty and students, we placed faculty offices between suites of laboratory classrooms and made them accessible to primary circulation paths. Community spaces within the office suites provide casual conversation areas for unstructured interaction.

Laboratory spaces are designed to promote flexibility. Workstations in dry labs are movable; resource rooms can be used for lectures, team learning, and research. The design team worked with North Park’s scientists and Registrar to design the appropriate number of labs to maximize utilization through realistic scheduling. The south-facing labs and upper level spaces are designed to be bright, inviting, and to afford views of the campus and the city.


Kitchen and lounge space


Centralized student services

Students access services and off-campus programs in Chicago and beyond on the Johnson Center’s entry level. Centralized student services include University Ministries, student development, career development, internships, and international studies. A café and two-story atrium lounge with an all-glass façade serve as major gathering and study spaces. The generous lounge, which can accommodate nearly a third of the student body at once, has an important role as “a campus living room for conversation and interaction,” explains Carl E. Balsam, executive vice president at North Park. The lobby’s bright colors and lighting will beckon to students at night and in winter.



The Johnson Center’s warm masonry and terra cotta facade rises from a stone base in the tradition of 1891 Old Main, North Park’s first building. This contemporary building’s generous ribbon windows provides solar shading and meets the request for a “forward-thinking” building, delivering ample natural light to the interior.


Integrated Project Delivery

The building was designed, planned and constructed through the Integrated Project Delivery method, with Mr. Balsam overseeing the entire process.

The Johnson Center’s unique environments for social activity and student engagement further North Park’s mission to educate the whole person. The Johnson Center continues North Park’s emphasis on collaborative student-faculty research and accelerates North Park’s leadership in science education. It also serves as a model of the University’s commitment to sustainability. Aided by this new facility, North Park is positioned to prepare graduates to further their education in medicine and science.


William has more than 43 years of architectural experience and is a designer for numerous well-known projects and the principal in charge of the Higher Education and Residential sectors.

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