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Houston’s Rice University opens the largest research facility on its core campus

University Buildings

Houston’s Rice University opens the largest research facility on its core campus

The five-story engineering and science building features state-of-the-art labs and a design that fosters collaboration.

By Novid Parsi, Contributing Editor | January 18, 2024
Student research facility on campus
Ralph S. O’Connor Building for Engineering and Science. Photo © Dave Burk, courtesy SOM

Houston’s Rice University has opened the largest research facility on its core campus: the $152 million Ralph S. O’Connor Building for Engineering and Science.

Designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), the 251,400-sf, five-story O’Connor Building provides students and researchers with state-of-the-art laboratories, classrooms, offices, and a cafe, in addition to multiple gathering spaces. On the top level, a multipurpose event space with an outdoor terrace offers views of the campus and the Houston skyline.

A five-story central atrium serves as an activity hub, connecting to seminar rooms, break areas, and informal gathering spaces. On the atrium’s ground level, a transparent glass façade displays this activity to the larger campus. At the building’s main entrance, brick walls and a fritted glass wall frame a cantilevered sculptural stair.

fritted glass wall frame a cantilevered sculptural stair.
Photo © Dave Burk, courtesy SOM

Passive and Active Design Strategies for Research Facilities

SOM’s design intends to foster collaboration in four research areas: advanced materials, quantum science and computing, urban research and innovation, and the energy transition. Promoting this interaction, the stair tower and the central hub connect a series of stepped double-height collaboration areas on different levels. Conference rooms and break areas offer more opportunities for informal learning and connection.

In line with the historic campus’s aesthetics, the O’Connor Building’s façade features brick and punched windows with angled brick pilasters and fins. Along the western edge, a covered arcade is shaded by a brick and stone veil. The arcade veil comprises alternating bands of brick and cast-stone modules, with rotated bricks in between, so light can enter between the gaps.

Both passive and active design strategies include maximizing daylight, strategic placement of the angled pilasters and vertical fins, and the use of skylights to soften the strong Texas sun. As a result of the passive design strategies, as well as an energy-efficient HVAC and lighting system, the laboratories use 50% less energy than a comparable research space. 

student research floor
Photo © Dave Burk, courtesy SOM

On the Building Team:
Architect: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill
Structural engineer: IMEG Corp.
Local architect, programmer, laboratory planner: Scientia Architects
Lab consultant: Jacobs Engineering Group, Inc.
Civil engineering: Walter P Moore
Mechanical, electrical, plumbing: Wylie
Landscape: OJB Landscape Architecture
Contractor: Anslow-Bryant Construction

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