New Bridge to Education

Penn State University's new Information Sciences and Technology Building spans a busy roadway, connecting old and new parts of the campus.

September 01, 2004 |

Nine hundred feet long and shaped like a slender, undulating S, the Information Sciences and Technology Building at Penn State University winds through the campus like a serpent, its gleaming metallic panels and transparent glass curtain wall scales seducing students inside, to expose them to the new high-tech courses of study being offered there.

Spanning a busy and dangerous four-lane roadway that bisects the campus's historic bounds and its newer sciences campus, the building is a gateway not only for learning and research, but also for transportation. A 24-foot-wide public pedestrian and bicycle bridge runs through the building, connecting the old and new parts of the campus and providing students, faculty, and visitors with a safe means by which to traverse the roadway.

To provide the proper clearance over the thoroughfare, state transportation officials required the concrete slab walkway to rise from grade to a height of 17 feet, 6 inches above the street. An agreement between the university and the state department of transportation gives Penn State a 99-year lease for the air rights over that section of the roadway.

Seeking a higher profile

Completed last December, the building is a result of the university's emphasis on career-based education, says James Thomas, dean of the School of Information Sciences and Technology. The school, which had occupied space in a hodgepodge of buildings since its founding in 1999, shares the new IST building with the Computer Sciences and Engineering Department.

"IST is not a well-known acronym," says Thomas. For that reason, the building "had to have class and, in a sense, be sexy. Our motto is 'Building Leaders for a Global Digital Economy,' so we wanted a facility that would help us provide that type of education."


A 24-foot-wide, 1,000-foot-long public walkway integrated into the Information Sciences and Technology Building at Penn State University provides safe passage for students, faculty, and visitors.

The original program called for the building to be built on one side of Atherton Road in conjunction with a bridge spanning the roadway. But architect Rafael Viñoly proposed integrating the building and bridge. "[The building] has really become a piece of infrastructure for the campus," says John Majewski, project manager for Rafael Viñoly Architects, New York. Integrating the two structures added little to the overall cost of $51 million, Thomas says.

Although the design eventually won approval by the university and the city of State College, the building's unusual shape and appearance worried some officials, including some who were unhappy with another long barrier-like building on campus. The Building Team — Pittsburgh-based Perfido Weiskopf Architects, New York-based CM Turner Construction Co., the New York-based structural engineering partnership of Dewhurst Macfarlane & Partners Inc. and Goldreich Engineering, and Viñoly — "opened up" the IST building, says Majewski, making it act as a filter instead of a barrier.

Now "everybody brings visitors to the IST building," says Thomas. "The building is beginning to represent what is going on at Penn State."

Two buildings in one

At 200,000 gross sf, the three-story building houses a mix of administrative offices and classroom space on the first floor, with the majority of classrooms, the computer-friendly auditorium, which is called the "cybertorium," and the public walkway on the second floor. The main entrance of the building is located in an atrium space in the center of the second floor, just off of the public walkway.

In keeping with the traditional aesthetic of the campus, the first two floors, which comprise the orthogonal base of the building, are clad in brick masonry and are aligned on an axis with the campus grid. The third floor, which is devoted to research, offices, and 28,000 sf of laboratories, breaks from the grid and is clad in the serpentine ribbon of metal panels and glass curtain wall.


A daylit stairway leads from the building’s second-floor bridge level, which houses classrooms and a main auditorium, to the third-floor.

"The third floor cantilevers out from the building, appearing to curve through space," says David Jones, senior mechanical engineer for ARUP, New York. "The only real visual connections are the brick box columns and curtain wall." The box columns were the only spaces through which electrical and plumbing could be fed from the second floor to the third floor and be concealed from view.

On the second and third floors, an underfloor air distribution and supply system meets HVAC requirements and provides housing for wiring and cabling for the many computers in use. The underfloor plenum system provides easier access for maintenance, repair, and replacement of HVAC and wiring and cabling than if the systems were installed in the ceiling, says Jones.

A unique aspect of the building is the use of active chilled beams, which work by blowing air over coils through which chilled water is pumped, to provide two-thirds of the building's cooling. According to Jones, the IST building is one of the first active chilled-beam installations of this size in the U.S. "There are about 300 offices in the building, and they're all using it," says Jones. Dean Thomas says the researchers like the system because they can control their own environments.

Fostering collaboration

A crucial goal of the university was to generate greater interaction between the School of Information Sciences and Technology and the Computer Sciences and Engineering Department. With that in mind, spaces for collaboration and chance encounters were provided throughout the building.

Although the third-floor offices for information sciences are located along the opposite outer walls of the building from the computer sciences offices, collaborative rooms were inserted after every six offices. A collaborative lounge is located in the center of the floor. The cybertorium and an atrium café near the main entrance also provide meeting space.

"We have a very interdisciplinary program," says Dean Thomas. "Students need to work in teams at the undergraduate level, and there's a lot of need for collaboration outside the classroom."

"I don't build a $50 million building very often," says Thomas. "The building is there for functional as well as aesthetic reasons and the team was cognizant of the needs of the academic program."

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