Vassar College Completes Integrated Science Commons, a Group of Four Dynamic Buildings to Advance Scientific Instruction, Inquiry and Collaboration

After over a decade of planning and three years of construction Vassar College has completed the Integrated Science Commons, a group of four technologically advanced facilities for instruction and research. The project designed by Richard Olcott of Ennead Architects encompasses the significant new 82,000 square-foot Bridge for Laboratory Sciences, as well as 75,000 square feet of extensive renovations to New England Building, Olmsted Hall of Biological Sciences, and Sanders Physics Building. Together the four now form a vibrant science hub that strengthens the college’s interdisciplinary approach to the sciences, while the buildings weave together within the natural landscape, scale and acclaimed architectural aesthetic of the 1,000 acre campus.

First among the numerous benefits of the Integrated Science Commons is access for faculty and students to a new array of forward thinking resources. Design throughout the Integrate Science Commons breaks down the old divide between the classroom and the lab and features many new integrated scientific spaces where instruction, experimentation, and discovery can be fluidly accomplished.  New “wet” and “dry” labs are equipped for specialized faculty-led research in such varied subjects as ultra-thin materials, behavior genetics, and health psychology. Other labs are designed to serve the needs that intersect among multiple disciplines. Improvements also make possible more extensive use of advanced experimental equipment such as Phytotron growth chambers and an X-ray source diffractometer.

Importantly, points out President Catharine Hill, “When the building designs were being developed we also asked our faculty to anticipate changes in their fields and what they will mean for instruction and research. As a result, the facilities in the Integrated Science Commons are built to be flexible to needs that lie ahead.”

Another key outcome of the project is centralizing most of the locations for the Vassar science curriculum, which were previously scattered across the campus: the departments of Biology, Chemistry, Cognitive Science, Computer Science, Physics and Astronomy, and Psychology, as well as the Biochemistry and the Neuroscience and Behavior programs all reside now within the Integrated Science Commons. By bringing these departments and programs into close campus proximity Vassar aims to support greater collaboration among their faculty and students.

Because the ambitious new Bridge for Laboratory Sciences was actually designed to be much more than an exceptional academic facility, it has immediately made a special impact on the entire campus. With its eye-catching curvilinear design the Bridge spans a ravine to provide the first accessible walking path at grade between the central campus and popular destinations to the south, such as the Skinner Hall of Music. Its atrium is also a campus destination with a popular café and ample seating (indoors and on the outdoor terrace).


Formal discussions among the Vassar faculty began more than a decade ago about the need to bring the college’s facilities more in line with its vigorous science curriculum. With the help of Ennead Architects it became apparent that one failing building was beyond repair and needed to be replaced, while three others had architectural staying power which merited thoughtful renovation.

The New England and Sanders Physics buildings originate from the early twentieth century (1919 and 1926 respectively), and their “gut” renovations struck a careful balance between old and new, providing an extensive upgrade of infrastructure and mechanical systems as well as reinforcement of fine heritage features. While the renovation of New England, for example, brought fundamental improvements to electrical, ventilation, data, and life safety functions, it also re-created the building’s original combination of a magnificent skylight and laylight above the building’s central section -- architectural flourishes which had been removed during work decades earlier.  As the new home of the Psychology and Cognitive Science departments, New England now includes observation and testing suites with sophisticated audio and video recording equipment for conducting research.

Complete renovation of these two historic buildings also made it possible to fully reconsider the best use of their entire square footage, including previously underutilized spaces in their old floor plans. In Sanders Physics over 4,600 square feet of attic space has been repurposed and transformed with a sizable new skylight into an airy instructional and research floor for the computer science department. Meanwhile the lower level of the building was redesigned for three new advanced physics labs for professors who study, respectively, ultra-thin materials, optics, and acoustics.

The renovation of approximately 30 percent of the floor plan in Olmsted Hall resulted in fully updated classrooms, new group study and meeting spaces, and facilities that better serve the complementary interests of biology and psychology scholars in the Neuroscience & Behavior program. Far more natural light pours into the building’s expanded lobby, which provides additional informal study spaces. And in an inspired design stroke Olmsted is now beautifully dovetailed with the new Bridge for Laboratory Sciences, creating connections between the two buildings on three levels through which faculty and students in several disciplines flow in both directions.


With the Bridge for Laboratory Sciences, Vassar and Ennead have realized a leading-edge facility in a variety of important ways. As the new home of the Chemistry Department the Bridge makes possible experiments using an extensive array of state-of-the-art instrumentation, for molecular structure determination, spectroscopy, chromatography, and other specialized techniques. In the Bridge’s role as a multidisciplinary site, chemistry faculty and students also share the new Earth and Environment Lab with cohorts from biology, environmental studies and earth science, in a space specially designed to serve their common scientific needs.

Similarly, the college’s longstanding Interdisciplinary Robotics Research Laboratory now has a permanent and custom home in the Bridge; this first-of-its-kind collaboration at a liberal arts college brings together biology, cognitive science, and computer science professors and students for an array of projects.

Finding the right site for this very large structure was crucial to help advance the academic goal of collaboration across scientific disciplines. At the same time Vassar wanted the “footprint” of the building to fit in well with the scale of adjoining buildings, and with its wetland location. Built like a bridge, it rests on two 20-foot tall concrete piers to span nearly 400 feet across a campus ravine. These piers support a pair of curving trusses at the topmost level.  In turn the two floors below are hung from 6" steel pipes, creating a very lightweight and open structure for its size, thereby minimizing the building’s impact on its natural surroundings. This is only one of several significant environmental aspects of the Bridge and the overall Integrated Science Commons.

Vassar and Ennead worked with Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates to establish a landscape plan that will help rehabilitate the wetland ecosystem surrounding the Bridge, and improve the water quality of the wetland’s signature stream, the Fonteyn Kill. Facets include naturalized features that form an extensive storm water management system for the stream. The overall design ultimately knits together the four buildings of the Integrated Science Commons within ten acres.

Because the Fonteyn Kill wetland is a haven for numerous bird species, the building also incorporates innovative façade features to minimize bird collisions, championed by Ennead’s Guy Maxwell with whom Richard Olcott led the design team. Notable among these features on the southeast façade is the first major application in the U.S. of Ornilux Mikado glass, with a patterned ultraviolet reflective coating that is visible to birds while remaining virtually transparent to the human eye. Similarly, glass on the northwest façade has an innovative coating and custom frit pattern designed by Ennead.

Frits in glass are also a tool for modulating solar glare and heat gain within a building, and are among the many elements used to improve energy performance throughout the Bridge for Laboratory Sciences.  In fact energy efficiency, use of natural light, water use reduction, and bird-friendly features -- all strengths of the Bridge -- are significant criteria used by the U.S. Green Building Council when evaluating for LEED certification, the industry standard for measuring a building’s sustainable construction and function. While LEED evaluation of the Bridge is still to be completed, the renovations of Sanders Physics and New England are on target to be Vassar’s first buildings with LEED certification.

“The Bridge for Laboratory Sciences is an experiential building,” says Ennead’s Olcott. “From the birch tree pattern of the building’s façade to the central corridor with panoramic views out to the natural landscape below, this is a true building in the trees. Its curvature withholds a full view of the entire building, prompting visitors to slowly experience each part of the building as it unfolds.”


College founder Matthew Vassar insisted on prominence for the sciences in a liberal arts curriculum, and he invested in it from the very outset. Vassar hired internationally renowned astronomer Maria Mitchell as the college’s first professor and had built for her a state-of-the-art campus observatory, in which Mitchell began working several months before the college enrolled its first students in 1865.

That tradition will remain strong with the completion of the Integrated Science Commons, notes President Hill. “This marks an exciting moment in the history of the sciences at Vassar, and will be a linchpin for the college as the sciences evolve in the coming decades,” she says. “These new and enhanced facilities ensure that Vassar students will continue to learn in a current and dynamic hands-on environment. And they equip our outstanding faculty, all of whom are active scholars, to teach and conduct research to the best of their abilities and to serve as the best possible mentors for our students.”


Ennead Architects is an internationally acclaimed architecture firm based in New York City with an office in Shanghai. Renowned for cultural, educational, scientific and governmental building designs that authentically express the progressive missions of their institutions and enhance the vitality of the public realm, Ennead has been a leader in the design world for decades. Recipient of the prestigious AIA NY Medal of Honor, the Smithsonian Institution-Cooper Hewitt National Design Award and the National AIA Firm Award, as well as numerous design awards for individual buildings, the studio has a portfolio that is diverse in typology, scale and location and includes new construction, renovation and expansion, historic preservation, interior design and master planning.


Vassar College is a highly selective, coeducational, independent, residential, liberal arts college founded in 1861. Vassar is renowned for its long history of curricular innovation, and for the natural beauty and architectural distinction of its campus. More than 50 academic departments and degree programs -- from Africana Studies to Mathematics to Religion to Urban Studies -- encompass the arts, foreign languages, natural sciences, and social sciences, and combine to offer a curriculum of roughly 1,000 courses, including numerous interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary subjects.

Posted by Office of Communications Wednesday, May 4, 2016