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Building Envelopes: Greater Performance from Fewer Materials

A month or so ago I gave the kick-off talk at the Building Enclosure Council National Symposium, taking a very quick and dirty look at two kinds of history of building enclosures.  I have had a keen interest in building enclosures since I co-chaired the Technology Conference for the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture with Andrew Vernooy in 2001, which we titled “Building Skins:  Where Design and Technology Meet”.

One of the first projects I did in my career was an addition to a 19th century stone house in Austin that had 20-inch thick limestone walls.  I really admired that old house with its single-material walls and high thermal mass that actually performed beautifully without insulation or a vapor barrier.

As I have traveled I have admired a very long lineage of single-material walls. Ancient stone or brick walls acted as the structure, thermal barrier, and enclosure as well as interior and exterior finish.  I love the ruins of the ancient Hittite city of Hattusa in central Turkey where massive stone walls constituted virtually all construction—from dwellings and markets to gigantic ramparts.  Another great example is Machu Picchu in Peru, which is made almost entirely of carefully crafted stonework.

Ancient City of Hattusa, Turkey

Ancient City of Hattusa, Turkey

Stone walls, Hattusa

Stone walls, Hattusa

Machu Picchu, Peru

Machu Picchu, Peru

Centuries later, at the beginning of the 20th century, Cass Gilbert designed Battle Hall at UT Austin with very similar construction.  Its walls are just one thickness of stone all the way through, but they have performed very well both aesthetically and thermally for more than a century.  Even when air conditioning was added, Battle Hall’s high thermal mass has helped keep it temperate even during our hot Texas summers.

Battle Hall, UT Austin,  1910

Battle Hall, UT Austin, 1910

Battle Hall interior.  Photo (C) Nathan Sheppard

Battle Hall interior. Photo (C) Nathan Sheppard

There is a second history of walls that conceives of them as layers of various materials, each of which accomplishes a particular function.  Early versions of this can be seen in Roman buildings, like the Pantheon, that have a structural core faced with very different materials for the inside finish and the outside skin.

The Pantheon, Rome

The Pantheon, Rome

The Pantheon interior

The Pantheon interior

Over the last 20-30 years we have become very adept at making walls out of layers with many materials where each material is performing a separate role: one for structure, one for insulation, one for water-proofing, one for vapor barrier, another for interior finish, and another for exterior finish.  We are interested in getting the best performance out of each material with its own specific characteristics.  The coordination of so many materials may not be so great, with different  people doing each installation, often months apart in the building process.   A lot of glitches can happen at the intersection of those various materials, and the result is often not perfect.

Might we get equal or better performance out of fewer materials?  We have experimented with this idea in several projects we have done at Page, learning lessons from older single-material walls.  At the Torcasso residence, located in New Mexico, we used only rammed earth for some of the walls.  They are thick and solid and that single material provides everything needed: structure, vapor barrier, insulation, interior finish and exterior finish.

The Torcasso Residence, New Mexico.  Photo (C) Robert Reck

The Torcasso Residence, New Mexico. Photo (C) Robert Reck

Torcasso Residence interior, New Mexico.  Photo (C) Robert Reck

Torcasso Residence interior, New Mexico. Photo (C) Robert Reck

robert reck

In Austin, we designed a small office building for Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates.  It features thick, unreinforced concrete walls, which serve as both the structure and the environmental barrier, and we used the walls’ thickness to significant thermal advantage.

casey dunn

Construction of Wiss, Janney, Elstner Building, Austin.

Construction of Wiss, Janney, Elstner Building, Austin.

I am not a building science nerd, and I certainly continue to be interested in walls made up of layers of materials capped by a rainscreen.  However, it also seems appropriate to explore another longstanding genre of wall construction that optimizes simplicity of construction and high thermal mass.



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Thinking about Building Technology, Buildings in Landscape, Campus Architecture, Contemporary Practices, Sustainability, Texas Architecture
Posted June 12, 2016

Architecture is Frozen Music at UT Rio Grande Valley Performing Arts Center

In a March 2014 blog, I discussed the construction and design of the new University of Texas Pan Am Performing Arts Center in the Rio Grande Valley.  Now the building is complete and this spring saw its first concert.  Following a punch list that was accomplished over the summer, the complex has opened full blast this fall.


There are two things I particularly love about this project.   First, it is very much a campus building.  Houston architect Ken Benson designed the UT Pan Am campus in the 1970s, and it has something of a bizarre history.  Benson grew up in the Rio Grande Valley and was inspired, not only by the local south Texas vernacular (which produced an impressive collection of distinctive brick buildings), but also by Lou Kahn’s brick buildings in the similar hot, humid climates of India and Bangladesh (see images, below).   The fact that I was familiar with and admiring of both the regional vernacular of South Texas and Kahn’s buildings in south Asia may have been one of the reasons we got the job.  From the very start we were inspired by the very unusual context of the UT Pan Am campus.


In order to re-establish the Arts Complex and bring it up to current performance standards we removed two buildings and restored two others around an existing courtyard.  We also added an entirely new structure that includes a 1,000-seat performing arts auditorium, and four rehearsal halls–one each for band, mariachi jazz, vocal, and orchestra (as illustrated in floor plan, below).


The new complex feels great on the campus: it creates a prominent and contextual gateway that the campus never had before.   This also gives a particular significance to the arts.  The seminal idea for the complex was to make big masonry volumes  - much like Kahn –  with bold, strong openings.  The openings are here are more lyrical than elsewhere on campus in deference its occupants.


The second thing I love about the building is the sequence of movement through it.  Both reading the plan and in actual experience, one readily understands the slow transitions – both in terms of space and scale – that develop as you move through the building.  There is an exterior layer of deep, welcoming porch with a broad wood soffit that is beautifully detailed and executed.  Inside it, a second layer of lobby space wraps around the very strong brick volume that marks the performance hall.


The next layer, inside the brick volume, is full of passages to seats on the upper levels and is lit dramatically from above.  The center of all these donut layers is the hall itself, which is full of warm word and rich color. The acoustics are fantastic.  The entire space is highly tunable and can be altered according to music type.


Behind the main performance hall, on the campus side, are the rehearsal halls–four solid brick “ducklings” nested up against the big brick volume of the main hall.  UT Pan Am was already well known for its music program.  The new building will allow it to take another leap forward.  The new complex serves not only students and faculty, but also neighboring communities.  It will be the home of the Valley Symphony Orchestra directed by Peter Dabrowski.



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Thinking about Campus Architecture, Contemporary Practices, Texas Architecture
Posted October 1, 2015

Learning From What We Build

In a data-driven world, why don’t we, as architects, gather more data about the performance of our buildings—particularly in the form of post-occupancy evaluations?  Wouldn’t it be a potent tool for advocacy of the importance of our profession if we could demonstrate the positive impact of what we do in a language our culture is accustomed to using?

Our office recently conducted a post-occupancy evaluation (POE) of 2400 Nueces, a student housing complex at the University of Texas at Austin.  Completed in 2013, the 13-story building was developed by EdR in partnership with UT and includes academic spaces, study spaces, recreational and fitness facilities as well as UT’s International Student Offices.  Of the current residents,132 answered the POE questionnaire which addressed all sorts of issues about their satisfaction with the building–what was done right, what fell short, and what they would recommend.


From that survey, four key findings emerged:

1.  A full 26% of respondents said their GPA went up since moving to 2400 Nueces.  A primary goal in designing the building was to create a fun, wonderful place to live, but not Animal House.  Much of the student housing the West Campus, where the project is located, is notorious for environments that are not conducive to work and study. Along with EdR, we paid a lot of attention to making a place where social life is tempered by an emphasis on good live/work environments. For example, we intermingled various unit types so that the 4-bedroom units (which tend to be dominated by the more raucous male population) would not be clustered on one hallway and reinforce a “party” lifestyle.  Diverse neighbors tend to temper extreme behaviors.

2.  Another question asked, “How about your friendships – are they better, the same or diminished compared to other places you have lived?”  Here, 44% said their social relationships were better.  This is what college is about: friendships and connections.  How does a building support these?  In part, through making all of the shared/social spaces great places to hang out and interact—mixing in single-loaded corridors and outdoor passages, creating memorable social and recreational spaces with great views and good indoor/outdoor access.  At 2400 Nueces those places where casual encounter occurs generally have good daylight and ample space for sticking around and not just passing through.


3. When asked, “What effect has living in 2400 Nueces made in your life compared to other student housing”, a resounding 67% said it made their lives better.  Many of the respondents stated they like the strong architectural character, the large windows and the colors of the building.

4. And, tellingly, in response to the question, “Would you recommend 2400 Nueces as a place to live with at UT”, a full 100% said Yes.


This specific POE gave us some very positive responses and, thus, some evidence to take to the next project about the potential for architecture to make lives better.  But even if the news it not so good, it can often be very instructive and a tool for learning how to make our buildings more supportive and productive.

EdR is one of the most enlightened developers of student housing in the country.  They have done an impressive job both in building and operating 2400 Nueces, and the survey supports that.  Our office will benefit from their expertise and from the POE’s assessment of its impact in designing future student housing projects.


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Thinking about Campus Architecture, Contemporary Practices, Life as an Architect, Texas Architecture
Posted March 13, 2015

Low Budget, High Impact: The New TDECU Stadium

As the University of Houston Cougars complete their first season in the new TDECU Stadium, I’m reminded of a Houston Chronicle article on the project a couple of months ago that posed: “How do you take a big pile of concrete and make it look good?”  Good question, and one that is all the more relevant when the budget is extremely low.  The Chronicle went on to conclude the way we did it at TDECU Stadium is a winner.

Photo ©Tim Griffith

Photo ©Tim Griffith

The University of Houston (UH) is a lean and mean university.  A lot of its students are from families with modest incomes, and the university offers many strong, but affordable programs.  They have an excellent School of Architecture, with a faculty that is really outstanding.  I recently reviewed a promotion portfolio for Matthew Johnson, a younger faculty member there who worked for both Steven Holl and for Allied Works, and whose firm just won a TxA Design Award this year.  Donna Kacmar is another outstanding faculty member who has just completed a book on the virtues of small houses and was instrumental in the outstanding “Women in Architecture” exhibit currently on display at Houston Center for Architecture.

Photo ©Tim Griffith

Photo ©Tim Griffith


Photo ©Tim Griffith

Photo ©Tim Griffith

I’m very keen on UH, especially as a place where people of ordinary means can get a very good, education. The efficiency required for this kind of affordability applies in spades to the new football stadium.  The university did not have a lot of money for the building, and from Day One they said we would have to stir up some magic.  They needed us to make a significant building with a very small budget.

Photo ©Tim Griffith

Photo ©Tim Griffith

Stadiums have a lot of specific, complex requirements, including clear sight lines, concessions that feed hoards of people in short spans of time, TV access that must be flawless, ability to load and unload thousands of people in and out all at once, luxury accommodation for premium seating and suites, team and visitor security, locker rooms for pampered athletes, etc., etc.  Just storing the amount of ice for beverages to serve 40,000 spectators (while keeping it fresh and distributing it all at once) is an astonishing task.  This is one of the coolest things about architecture—dealing with how to make things work.

Photo ©Tim Griffith

Photo ©Tim Griffith

In addressing these issues, we worked with a handful of extraordinary sports designers from DLR Group: primarily Greg Garlock in Omaha and Don Barnum and Bob Carlson in Kansas City.  All of them are great to work with, and they essentially eat and live sports.

Photo ©Tim Griffith

Photo ©Tim Griffith

In addition to making a fine-tuned sports machine, we had to make the building fit in the campus and into the larger city on a site that is prominently located on Cullen Blvd and is at a gateway to the campus from the new light rail line.

Above all, the stadium had to be a nexus.  This is where tens of thousands of people experience the UH campus in a very intense setting that leaves a strong impression of what this school is.  Kids may grow up with their only exposure to UH being a football game they attended, and their decision about where to go to college may be significantly shaped by that.  I think when they leave this stadium they will come away with a sense of a place that is vibrant, alive, and promising. To quote again from the Chronicle’s article, for University of Houston, “the new TDECU Stadium is a game-changer.”

I am a long-standing advocate of creating outstanding architecture built on a shoestring budget.  Much of the world has to work within tight budgetary constraints, and we need to be able, as architects, to deal with those constraints skillfully and powerfully.



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Thinking about Building Technology, Campus Architecture, Texas Architecture
Posted December 2, 2014

Comparing and Contrasting Two New Museums In Michigan

While in Michigan recently, I paid a visit to two new and strikingly different museums, both designed by well known architects: the Broad Museum by Zaha Hadid at Michigan State University, and the University of Michigan Art Museum by Allied Works. After visiting both, it reminded me why it’s important for architects to find opportunities for work that are sympathetic to what they do.

Located on a primary thoroughfare that runs by the campus, the Broad Museum is relatively small and it sits on its site as a pristine object, almost as a piece of sculpture would — like a really big Calder.  The buildings around it are traditional campus buildings and the Broad creates a stark contrast to all of its neighbors.  It’s a very constrained site, so it could probably never grow.  It will likely always be the object it is.

Broad museum 2 Broad museum 3

As one would expect of a Hadid project, it’s a very aggressive design– angular and full of drama.  It is totally “in your face”, and this seems about right for this type of museum which is all about “in your face” contemporary art.

Inside, one of the galleries is long and thin, with a mix of light and dark spaces that would certainly not readily accommodate a pre-conceived show very well because the space is so particular.  The piece that is in there is gorgeous–a really long, thin assemblage of denture-making materials that is just perfect in its spot.  It was clearly made for its location and allowed the artist to play off of the eccentricity of the space.  The architecture seems to be leading and the art within is reacting. Hadid’s work is good for that: her buildings are strong and demanding and the artist is responding well.

Broad installBroad stair

There are few neutral zones in the building so art needs to be commissioned and made specifically for the spaces to really work.  I think it would be difficult to show anything but contemporary art there. A conventional exhibit might be lost or overwhelmed. This is a museum that’s meant to provoke a response, and it is one kind of legitimate museum architecture.

At the University of Michigan, it’s an entirely different experience in the substantial recent addition to a large pre-existing museum building.  This distinguished institution has an extraordinary established collection full of history and tradition.  Here the architecture, designed by Allied Works, needs to give way to the collection.  The architecture is orderly and quiet, and the art, which is beautifully displayed in light-controlled spaces, is resonant.  The architecture is respectful of the art and is often deferential to it.  The extraordinary art collection that represents centuries of values and ideas is not about to change itself and accommodate the building.

Michigan museum 2Michigan 1

I have great respect for this building.  It is an elegant, impeccably detailed enhancement to a splendid university campus.  It fits into the context of the existing building and the larger campus gracefully, but without being cloying or invisible.  It has a real presence; it is certainly not egocentric or just about itself.  It acknowledges beautifully both the world around it and within it.

Univ of Mich 2Univ of Mich 3

I am delighted that the people at Michigan State understood that what they were doing was creating a provocative event that artists could play off of and respond to.  They got the right architect for that task.

I am also glad the people at University of Michigan comprehended the value of their campus context and their distinguished art collection and got an architect who would respect that and make a strong building that had the confidence to support a larger and longstanding enterprise.  They got the right architect for that as well.

I have been on a number of architect selection committees where the institutions did not understand the importance of finding an architect whose work would be sympathetic to their organization’s mission and values.  It is not just important to get good architecture, but it is also important to get the right architect.



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Thinking about Building Technology, Buildings in Landscape, Campus Architecture, Contemporary Practices, Life as an Architect
Posted September 28, 2014

Thoughts on Sol LeWitt: The Visionary and the Makers of His Art

It really irks me when I hear someone talk about some piece of architecture that “rises to the level of art.”  Although I have a lot of respect for art, from my modest perspective, architecture operates at a much richer and more complex level.  It involves many more people and must address a myriad of technical and functional issues as well as visual and sensory ones. It requires getting outside oneself and creating something bigger than just personal expression.

Is it possible that sometimes art might “rise to the level of architecture”?  There is something in the work of Sol LeWitt that makes me think so.

I made several visits to a great exhibition at the Blanton Museum at UT Austin this spring that made me see Sol LeWitt’s work in a slightly different way.  The show emphasized the relationship between him and Eva Hesse and seemed to take the art out of the realm of just self-absorption and make it something that addressed issues the two of them were working on together.  This is like the kind of collaboration that often occurs in architecture, and which has always seemed to me much more a team sport than art.

I’ve long admired Sol LeWitt’s discovery that what he did as an artist was not to make the art, but rather to produce the idea for it and to create instructions for others to actually fabricate it.  At a certain stage of his career, when you bought one of Sol LeWitt’s works, you received a few pages of instructions detailing how to make it.  There are hundreds of wall drawings in existence now that involved active participation by their owners who purchased the instructions and sought out fabricators who then followed the directions.

The instructions go something like this:  “Have a person draw a non-straight line at the top of the wall in black crayon.  Then red, then yellow…” etc.  The result is that dozens of people might actually be involved in making the art and would receive credit. (LeWitt insisted those makers get acknowledgement for their contribution.)

Lewitt instruction1Lewitt result1

Lewitt instruction2Lewitt result2

Some friends of mine had a house in which they, in consultation with LeWitt’s studio, hired a bunch of art students to produce one of his pieces for a specified wall.  When they sold the house, the buyers had the option of buying the house with or without the art, even though it was on a permanent wall.  The buyers chose not to fork out the extra bucks for the art, so the wall was painted over.  My friends still have the instructions and can re-create the art somewhere else if they like.

What is it that an artist contributes?  It’s not the actual making; it’s the idea.  LeWitt established this notion as a breakthrough idea in the 1960s.  Since then, many artists now have their stuff made by fabricators, particularly in sculpture.  The hand of the other maker is evident, along with the ideas of the artist.  In LeWitt’s mind, this approach expanded the art, as the maker’s hand is evident as well as the artist’s.

Isn’t this art “rising to the level of architecture”?  We as architects seldom actually make our buildings ourselves.  We are responsible for producing the ideas and creating a set of instructions so others can actually fabricate the artifact.  In the end, the artifact shows the imprint of the architect, but also of the many people who were part of the making process.

It occurred to me in that Blanton show that Sol LeWitt was aspiring to make something that I find very beautiful in architecture.  He was making instructions and giving them to someone else who would actually produce the final result.  In the process he was growing beyond the traditional controlling role of the artist and acknowledging a collaborative role with both the user and the fabricator. That’s what architects do!

The University of Texas at Austin purchased the instructions for a Sol LeWitt piece in 2011 from Madison Square in New York and rebuilt it at the Austin campus. “Circle with Towers” was originally created in 2005, and then again at UT in 2012.  Here is art aspiring to be architecture.  (There is even a space inside that can be occupied, and it is meant to have people interacting actively with it.) This is art rising to the level of architecture.  It is truly getting those two hands to come together: the visionary and the maker.

Lewitt UT2Lewitt UT

(For more on the “Circle with Towers”, click here: http://landmarks.utexas.edu/artistdetail/lewitt_sol)



Thinking about Campus Architecture, Cultural Identity
Posted July 9, 2014

Constructing the UT Pan American Performing Arts Center

A couple of weeks ago, I visited the construction site for our new UT Pan American Performing Arts Center.  We’re using load-bearing masonry walls, and at this stage, with the project half-complete, the building has the look of a modern-day Roman ruin.  I love this stage of construction when the structure is coming out of the ground and turning into interesting forms and spaces.  The whole building process is incredibly exciting and inspiring.


This will be a big building and a real landmark.  It will serve as the campus gateway and will feature a 1,000-seat performance hall as its centerpiece.  It is part of a complex for the arts on a campus originally designed by Kenneth Benston in the 1980s.  His work was inspired by Louis Kahn’s buildings in Dacca, Bangladesh and Ahmedabad, India.  Those Kahn buildings were masterpieces of masonry construction, and Bentson did a good job of learning from them.


South Texas is a very hot, semi-tropical climate where the terrain is absolutely flat—not so different from Dacca and Ahmedabad.  Masonry has long been a prominent building material in the region.  As a kid, my grandparents lived in this area, and I have keen memories of the powerful brick buildings in a landscape full of citrus and palm trees.


From the start, we wondered if we could make a real masonry building here—not brick veneer on a steel or concrete frame, but thick, strong load bearing walls.  In fact, real masonry walls turned out to be a very practical and economical structural system for this building in this region.

In the end, the walls will be a hybrid system—much like Kahn used and much like the Roman’s used in the precedents Kahn so admired.  We will use both brick and concrete block, and the block will often be employed to create formwork for concrete lintels, piers and arches.  This general construction technique is quite common in Mexico, just across the border, but is not so common elsewhere in the United States.   It is  fascinating to watch it go up.


There are large, circular and arched forms in the walls.  These impart a great sense of strength and power that isn’t so palpable in the kind of frame construction we normally do.  There is a definite toughness about it, and it reminds me of the experience of seeing Kahn’s work in South Asia years ago.  There will be extensive glazed walls once the building is complete later this year that will provide a nice counterpart to the masonry in the finished building.


In addition to the main performance hall (which is clearly visible in its roofless form in the construction photos), there will be four rehearsal halls for choir, band, orchestra and mariachi.  They form a village of rectangular rooms behind the concert space.  When completed, the building will serve, not only as an important educational facility for the university, but also a cultural and performance center for the larger Rio Grande Valley.



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Thinking about Building Technology, Buildings in Landscape, Campus Architecture, Contemporary Practices, Cultural Identity, Sustainability, Texas Architecture
Posted March 24, 2014

On campus, student life is one big smash-up.

For most of my career, I’ve been associated with a university in one way or another, much of it at the University of Texas at Austin.  Over 35 years, I’ve observed major changes in the way students go about their routines, how they study, socialize, relax, gather information, and define their lives on campus.   And so, with Sam Wilson, professor and former chair of UT’s Anthropology Department and architecture graduate student, David Sharratt, I recently embarked on a study to chronicle exactly what those changes are in the ways students live in the digital age, and how buildings support their needs.

Using the new Student Activity Center (SAC) at UT Austin as a focal point, we queried 300 undergraduates about how the SAC facilitates their lifestyles.  They were asked to comment on the building in terms of its effect, both on themselves and on the university.  We posed similar questions to the building’s planners and operators and made extensive on-site observations.  The overall conclusion is that student life today is full of functions that are richly hybridized and overlapped in complex patterns.  What was once conducted in totally separate settings — studying, socializing, taking tests, reading, even exercising — is all done in one place now.  Laptops and smartphones enable students to access virtually everything without moving, whether conducting research, ordering food, taking a class, or connecting with friends and professors.  The SAC has open spaces whose use is determined by the occupants, not by pre-set rules.  Enclosed rooms can be equally claimed for a lecture or for a yoga class.  Having spaces not prescribed for a single purpose actually makes the building more attractive and useful.  In the words of Crystal King, director of SAC, “it’s a smash up… and it works wonderfully well.”

Typical open flex space at the UT Dallas Visitor’s Center & Bookstore; students assemble and utilize the area as they see fit.

A larger flex space at the Visitor’s Center. It, too, is planned for spontaneous adaptation.

I’m particularly interested in the evolution of student life, and how change must be accommodated in a new kind of building.  We dealt with this issue in designing the University of Texas Dallas Visitor’s Center, which opened this year.  The building connects directly to a recreational sports building with pool and gym, itself already a big part of campus social scenes.  The new building has spaces for exercise classes, but they can also be used for all types of meetings. There is a computer store and a bookstore, and the building is where first-time campus visitors land. It’s situated on a major circulation route, and there is an abundance of open space, so it’s where everyone hangs out.  Everything happens there from chess tournaments to graduation receptions to just everyday student activities.

The Visitor’s Center features tall spaces, ample natural daylight, broad hallways and lightweight, movable furniture.

From the day it opened, the center has been abuzz with student life.  Is it a student union?  Well, yes, but only partially.  Is it a cafe/coffee shop?  Yes, that too. A gym?  No, although gym stuff happens there.  Is it an academic building? Not really, but teaching and study go on there.  Actually, it’s all of the above and most importantly, it’s open for interpretation as students see fit.  This new building type is an exciting way for universities to relate and plan for student communities.  What’s next?  We’ll see, but most likely, these auto-adaptive, multi-purpose buildings will proliferate in the future.


Exterior view of the new UT Dallas Visitor’s Center & Bookstore, which opened earlier this year.

[For those interested, see my article, "Redeveloping Student Life," in the November/December 2012 issue of Texas Architect.]

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Thinking about Campus Architecture, Texas Architecture
Posted December 20, 2012

Gordon Wu Hall at Princeton University

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Thinking about Campus Architecture
Posted November 22, 2011

Hartford Seminary

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Thinking about Campus Architecture
Posted May 10, 2011