Brockman Hall for Physics at Rice University

Project Overview

The Brockman Foundation provided substantial funding for the design and construction of the Brockman Hall for Physics at Rice University in Houston, Texas.

Announcing the gift in 2009, Rice President David Leebron said: “A state-of-the-art physics facility will enable our faculty to pursue successfully a deeper and more complete understanding of the fundamental natural forces which shape our world.

“This new building will help our scientists in their efforts to secure highly competitive grants, and it will help Rice recruit and retain the very best in the field. Rice is very thankful for this gift, which supports both the recently launched Centennial Campaign and the goals of Rice’s Vision for the Second Century.”

Brockman Hall is home to dozens of experimental, theoretical and applied physicists from Rice’s departments of Physics and Astronomy and of Electrical and Computer Engineering. The building supports research in atomic, molecular and optical physics; biophysics; condensed matter physics; nanoengineering and photonics.

Designed, constructed and occupied in just 33 months, the four-storey, 110,000-square-foot building was dedicated in March, 2011 and brought together faculty and students who formerly worked in five separate buildings scattered broadly across the campus.

The building is composed of two parallel, rectilinear, spatial “bars” that are oriented east to west and connected by glass-enclosed bridges across an open passage that admits natural light and outdoor breezes. This orientation also mitigates heat gain and maintains precise light and temperature levels inside.

The larger south bar houses laboratories, faculty and research offices, a 150-seat lecture hall and a rooftop astronomical observatory.

The elevated two-storey north bar houses faculty, student and departmental offices and meeting spaces.

The open space beneath the north bar is framed by a “loggia” of tapered concrete columns that form an outdoor room, with shaded areas for class meetings, casual gathering and circulation.

Beneath this serene outdoor oasis lies a sensitive and sophisticated complex of laboratories. Designed for vibration-sensitive atomic, molecular and optical physics and condensed-matter research, the hermetically controlled basement laboratories are stabilised on a two-foot-deep concrete slab and isolated from all the building’s mechanical systems. State-of-the-art equipment supplies these labs with “clean” electrical power, chilled water and filtered air that is cleansed of submicroscopic dust.

Because they are located below ground, the physics laboratories can now run experiments 24 hours a day. In their former homes, labs had to run sensitive experiments late at night to avoid vibrations from nearby streets.

One of the primary challenges faced by Philadelphia-based architect Kieran Timberlake Associates was to provide such specialised and sophisticated research facilities within a context that could meet the United States Green Building Council’s standards for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). The building’s clever and elegant design met LEED Silver certification standards upon completion, and today the facility meets LEED Gold standards.

Energy saving and environmental features of Brockman Hall include an energy recovery system – the largest in a single air unit in Texas – that saves as much as 30 per cent of the energy needed to cool the building in the summer. Another green innovation is the building’s de-humidification system, which turns Houston’s legendary humidity into an asset by capturing and returning 100,000 gallons of pure, clean water to Rice’s central plant each year. In addition, domestic water consumption was cut by 48 per cent through the use of high-efficiency water fixtures.

Project Highlights

  • Funding For: 110,000-square-foot building
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Project Outcome

Brockman Hall has been recognised with design awards from the Society for College and University Planning, the Texas Society of Architects and the American Institute of Architects’ (AIA) Houston, Pennsylvania, and Philadelphia chapters.

In 2015, the AIA named Brockman Hall as one of 11 international winners of its Honor Awards. The AIA jury said Brockman Hall “is a total knockout in every way – from the incredible planning to the spectacular detailing – yet it is extremely simple and very flexible”.

More than 150 people gathered for the building’s dedication ceremony, including Rice Board of Trustees Chair Jim Crownover, Rice President Mr. Leebron and astronaut and Rice alumna Shannon Walker, who presented the university with a plaque that flew some 118 million miles with her aboard the International Space Station. The plaque, created by the Department of Physics and Astronomy at her request, depicts “Schrodinger’s cat”, a well-known paradox in quantum physics.

“Brockman Hall enhances Rice’s status as one of the nation’s premier research universities, and it ensures that Rice will remain a leader in fundamental and applied physics research for years to come,” Mr. Leebron said.

“The impact of Brockman Hall goes beyond bricks and mortar. This facility forges new pathways between science and engineering, between theory and practice and between Rice’s first and second centuries.”