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UMSL’s Oldest Campus Building Receives New Life

by Rebecca DeZeeuw

After 18 months of renovations and increasing expectations, students and faculty settled back into the restored Benton Hall at the University of Missouri St. Louis (UMSL). Home to the Departments of Biology, Chemistry, Biochemistry, Physics, Astronomy and joint engineering program, the building sits at the heart of UMSL’s science complex. Originally constructed in 1964, Lawrence Group worked to bring the historic learning center into the 21st century.

I talked with Cole Hoffarth, project architect, to learn more about the different design pieces and inspirations behind this multi-million dollar project.

What was Lawrence Group’s role in the Benton Hall project? What was your specific role?

Lawrence Group was the Architect of Record. Services we provided included: programming, schematic design, design development, construction documents and construction administration. I was a Project Architect.

What was the main goal of this project?

Our main goal was to provide a full interior renovation of UMSL’s Benton Hall, an academic building dedicated to the study of sciences. The building is comprised of lecture rooms, classrooms, labs and faculty offices.

What was your personal favorite part of this project?

The cross-disciplinary working with our consultants to overcome building challenges was my favorite part of this project. Our biggest challenge of integrating a new mechanical system into the building despite a low structure height (8’-8”) made for a much more involved process that required high levels of teamwork across all areas.

Can you talk a little about the unique lighting fixtures suspended above the stairwells? 

Benton Hall was originally constructed in 1964, designed by HOK. A series of pendant-mounted glass globe light fixtures were used throughout the original building and largely intact when we were introduced to the project. Through the course of demolition, we requested these light fixtures be salvaged for reuse. When we were handed seven remaining globe fixtures, we conceptualized a unique lighting fixture that could be used as a feature component in the final design. The fixtures were refurbished and individually pendant mounted from a single base. Stem lengths were chosen based on numbers from the Fibonacci Series. The fixture was mounted within a communicating stair, giving an opportunity to be viewed from above or below.

What was the inspiration behind the design of the mural in the 3rd floor corridor?

It was decided early in the project that graphic wayfinding was going to be a top priority, especially within the main corridor of the three-tower building. We found an interesting product, Heath Ceramics, which provided a high-quality handmade wall tile with a multitude of variations. Their hexagonal tile shape lent itself to a molecular schematic. We worked closely with the chemistry students in the building to develop a pattern of a caffeine molecule that could be diagrammed using the found wall tile. Paired with a floor demarcation sign, this rendering has transformed the corridor into place-making space.

What was the biggest challenge that came up during this project?

The integration of a modern, ducted, mechanical system within the constraints of a heavy concrete structured building. With low beam heights, duct routing had to be thoughtfully designed to create minimal impact within the spaces.

Lastly, how did the Lawrence Group team work to overcome that challenge?

The design team worked through multiple options with the owner, especially the mechanical system. Multiple concepts were developed and presented over the course of many meetings. It took several iterations before landing on the final design as was constructed. In the end, each aspect of the system was custom fabricated which resulted in 6-8 individual pieces that luckily wound up all fitting perfectly together.