Higher Education Case Study: Campus Capstone

By Anne Cosgrove
From the March/April 2015 issue

The central atrium in Johnson Center not only provides natural daylight to occupants, but also creates a generous space for interaction. (Photo: VOA Associates.)

Centrally located on the North Park University campus in Chicago, IL, the new Nancy and G. Timothy Johnson Center for Science and Community Life is at once a facility designed to propel the school’s science and health education into the future while representing a vision that administrators have been working toward for two decades. Completed in August 2014, the four level, 101,000 square foot building is the culmination of an effort to transform an urban campus into a more self-contained entity replete with green space and continuity.

In addition to 30 state-of-the-art science laboratories, collaborative space for student-faculty research, and technology enhanced classrooms, the building houses the Johnson Center for Student Engagement. This center is the home for student services, including Residence Life and Housing, Career Development and Internships, Student Success, International Office, and University Ministries, which were previously dispersed around the 33 acre campus. Meanwhile, the building’s two story atrium and a café offer new and inviting spaces for students and faculty to gather and interact.

“Anytime we undertake a project like this, we want to make sure it has a definite strategic purpose,” says Carl E. Balsam, executive vice president and chief financial officer at North Park University, who oversees campus development. “The strategy was to replace outdated science laboratory facilities on campus. We knew that if we wanted to maintain the momentum of our science education, we needed to provide new facilities for students and faculty. At the same time, we were taking advantage of the central positioning of the building to aggregate what we call community life functions—advising, residence life, and career planning, for example.”

Having worked at North Park for 27 years Balsam has overseen several significant additions to the campus, including the Anderson Chapel, Brandel Library, Helwig Recreation Center, and the Holmgren Athletic Complex. He also works on the development of the campus green space and landscaping. “From a programmatic and strategic standpoint, Johnson Center solidifies our presence in the sciences while also providing context for many of the student serving offices which heretofore had been spread around the campus,” he says. “It is the capstone of a 20 year campus development effort.”

Plans Take Shape

Founded in 1891 by the Evangelical Covenant Church, North Park is located on Chicago’s north side and enrolls approximately 3,200 students pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees in a range of majors. In the past decade or so, enrollment in the sciences and nursing had increased by 35% according to the university. Administrators recognized the need to improve science lab and related facilities, as many of the existing resources were over 40 years old.

Through Campaign North Park, a fundraising effort focused on a new science building (as well as supporting the annual fund, student scholarships, and Chicago based academic programs and faculty development), the university pursued the means to build Johnson Center. Construction on the building began in August 2012, with $42 million of the $57 million raised through the campaign going toward Johnson Center.

Dedicated in September 2014, the building is named in honor of Dr. Tim and Nancy Johnson, alumni and longtime friends of the university who, according to the Board of Trustees when it affirmed the naming decision, “define a life of exemplary service.”

To design the building, the university worked with the Chicago office of VOA Associates, a global architectural design firm with a history of work at North Park. Since 1995, VOA has completed all planning and architecture projects for the campus including master planning services. The firm has also worked on the university’s landscaping initiative, including street closings and renovation of athletic fields.

Speaking about Johnson Center, William Ketcham, principal at VOA and lead contact for the firm on the project, explains, “We had identified building sites as part of the master plan over time, and this particular site was identified for a science building for some time. The original plan called for two buildings, but as the program evolved it became clear one building would be best.”

With 30 state-of-the-art laboratories, Johnson Center is now the center of the sciences at North Park University.
With 30 state-of-the-art laboratories, Johnson Center is now the center of the sciences at North Park University. (Photo: VOA Associates.)

To arrive at the design, the VOA team held a series of charrettes on campus with university President, David Parkyn, and his Board; administrators; science faculty; student services staff; and student groups. “The initial objective was to identify what was important to them relative to the building,” says Ketcham. “And it was interesting how particularly aligned the goals of the building were with the mission of the university, in terms of fostering a sense of community and other values the institution stands for.” Stewardship of funds and the environment were important factors, and VOA and the other major firms involved kept this focus throughout design and construction.

Planning the laboratories included considering the type of work that would occur in each. For example, the physics labs were located on the basement level, because that work is louder and more impactful (literally), Ketcham explains. Chemistry was placed on the top floor, because that discipline has the most exhaust requirements. Having this function closer to the outside air helped economize the design of the building, in terms of the ductwork and energy needed to exhaust those spaces.

Another energy saver was to install variable flow hoods in the chemistry labs. “Users can vary ventilation based on use,” says Balsam. “In the old buildings, it was either on or off. Also, the engineers developed various heat recovery methodologies so that we recover part of the waste heat.”

The facility features ADA compliance for wheelchair accessibility in every lab. And along with the new equipment and facility, the university transformed its lab management program to include the creation of a new chemical hygiene officer/lab safety officer position.

Bringing the campus together was central to the Johnson Center design. Everyone who visits the building—students, faculty, maintenance staff, and visitors—enters through one main entrance; this entry point leads into the two story atrium with seating and a nearby café (Bickner Bistro).

With the new facility, the project team seized the opportunity to incorporate the latest technology in classrooms.
With the new facility, the project team seized the opportunity to incorporate the latest technology in classrooms. (Photo: VOA Associates.)

“The idea that the building needed to connect with the campus green and be transparent at the entry level was critical,” says Ketcham. The classrooms and faculty offices are interspersed to encourage interaction, and the boardroom on the top level affords views of the campus green as well as the Chicago skyline.

During construction, one major change involved technology in the classrooms. “We got caught in what I call a sea change in academic pedagogy,” says Balsam. “This includes lecture capture technology and the flipped classroom approach. When we started planning the building, those were not broadly embraced in higher education. But as the project progressed, we realized we needed to add more classroom technology.”

He continues, “Lecture capture requires having microphones that hang from the ceiling and video cameras. This allows a lecture to be captured in digital file. This leads to the flipped classroom, where you can assign the lecture materials before class. And then the class becomes an interactive classroom.”

Adding lecture capture technology to the building presented challenges, mainly in terms of acoustics. In the classrooms, the acoustic signature had to be such that the recorded content would be clear. “We also needed to consider the radiated noise of mechanical equipment on the roof,” says Balsam. “And that led to more acoustical evaluation. We had to raise some of the equipment on the roof onto grillage.”

Environmental Stewardship

In February 2015, Johnson Center was awarded LEED Gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. This was the first LEED project for North Park, though environmental stewardship is a longstanding principle there. “We know how precious our environment is, and we want our students to graduate from North Park with a sense of stewardship,” explains Balsam. “There are limited resources, so we should be careful how we use them.”

The Bickner Bistro adds a dining option for students and faculty as well as a place to study or socialize. (Photo: VOA Associates.)

Speaking on the decision to pursue the certification, Balsam notes that the project’s focus on the future as well as the curriculum to be taught there were factors. “For a science building, we decided we should set an example,” he says. “Also, there is an educational component to this. Faculty members are able to talk about and teach some of the LEED components. And they are taking that seriously.”

Sustainable features include: reducing heat island effect with green roofing (white and vegetative) and high albedo hardscapes; promoting alternative transportation methods; promoting ongoing building recycling; incorporating recycled and regional materials; and promoting healthy indoor air quality via low emitting materials.

Sustainable design and operation methods include increased air filtration and increased air ventilation; and occupant comfort is increased via thermal comfort measures and lighting controls.

Says Balsam, “As CFO, I’m very focused on the costs of operating a building. We’ve added 100,000 square feet of space that has to be operated and maintained. One of the things that has pleased me is the engineering design of the building itself. The team focused a lot on the envelope, making it a very secure envelope. That’s where most issues with heating and cooling loss are.”

The Johnson Center building envelope features a terracotta rainscreen system that controls water penetration into interior walls. Ketcham highlights the envelope and accompanying exterior design. “The building has a very robust thermal envelope,” he says. “The design evolved from an exterior masonry building to its current manifestation. The labs wanted horizontal windows so we opted for a lighter material on the exterior—terracotta. There is a tradition on campus that the buildings are masonry. Terracotta is masonry, so we took the materiality of the campus (masonry) and moved it forward with a newer technology that enhanced the performance of the building overall.”

Balsam says, “This fall, we’ll be coming up on one year of operation. So I do not have the data for a full year of operation, but what I have so far on the energy side suggests the building is hitting the targets.”

Integrated Project Delivery

Another first for North Park when building Johnson Center was the implementation of an Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) method for design and construction. Differing from traditional methods such as design/bid/build and design/build, the IPD approach brings design and construction firms together to create one project team for the duration.

There are varying versions of IPD. For the Johnson Center project, the owner, architect, general contractor, owner’s rep, and major subcontractors were co-signers of a single project contract.

This ensured collaboration throughout—an aim motivated further by the creation of a financial “risk pool.” Each signatory was tied to a portion of the risk pool from through which profits would be reduced if undue and unexpected costs arose.

The Helwig Boardroom on the top floor provides views of the Chicago skyline.
The Helwig Boardroom on the top floor provides views of the Chicago skyline. (Photo: VOA Associates.)

“This was introduced to us by our owner’s rep, The Boldt Company,” says Balsam. “They suggested this process tended to bring a lot of collaborative energy to a project as well as to keep it within budget. The risk pool is ‘invaded’ before the owner has to pay for change orders.”

He continues, “Having profits at risk motivates creativity. But the beauty of IPD (and there are IPD processes that don’t have this risk pool) is the basic process brings collaboration into every major aspect of the building. It allowed us to see the chronology of the project. You start out with a comprehensive understanding of how inextricable and linked people’s work is to one another.”

Adds Balsam, “The process brought great creative conversation from all stakeholders throughout the process. That’s not to say there weren’t points of contention or disagreement. But, if we found we’d be over budget in one area, that meant we had to find savings somewhere else. We actually came in about $50,000 under the construction budget.”

North Park was responsible for changes it proactively made apart from the initial design. This was the case when adding the technology for classroom lecture capture. Still, the IPD approach helped to ease that disruption. “Given the basic problem solving approach, IPD spurred everyone to dig in to solve the issues that arose,” Balsam says.

He concludes, “We’re delighted by the building. It adds strategically to the university’s mission and finishes off a multi-year concept for improving the center of the campus. And it does some things we heretofore weren’t able to do in terms of student serving functions. It has really been quite a transformation.”

This story was written based on project literature and interviews with Balsam and Ketcham.


  1. Its all perfect, the design and the colors all perfect. The architect did an awesome job.

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