Typically, universities have traditional academic buildings – staid facilities clad in brick and ivy, each one a variation on a common theme and built to last for generations. School officials at the University of Memphis, which has a campus of traditional structures, were willing to take a leap with their FedEx Institute of Technology.
This building is the antithesis of tradition. Every aspect of the FedEx Institute of Technology embodies its use of technology, reflects the building’s overall mission, and encourages change.
In conjunction with architectural firms Looney Ricks Kiss Architects and The Crump Firm (both based in Memphis, TN), this academic building was built to provide the infrastructure to facilitate the development of IT skills and products. The FedEx Institute of Technology was also designed to provide a human-centered, high-tech space; promote interdisciplinary collaboration between the university and private industry; and offer flexibility to future technologies.
The Best and the Brightest
The University of Memphis, one of the largest universities in the Southeast, wanted a premier facility to showcase cutting-edge technology, as well as its IT curriculum. Its mission for this facility? An academic building that would attract the best and brightest students and professors in the IT field. University of Memphis officials also wanted a facility that could easily accommodate changing technological projects, as well as provide its graduate students with real-world experience.
“We really experimented on what makes a collaborative creative environment,” says Frank Ricks, AIA, principal, Looney Ricks Kiss Architects, Memphis, TN. The original design for the building underwent a series of dramatic changes. First, the project was envisioned as an addition to the University of Memphis’ College of Business. Next, this project was seen as a standalone structure to be used for the education of students in high technology.
This vision of a training facility for the high-tech field expanded into a building that would house an interdisciplinary research- and technology-based program. “The issue was that the university was trying to respond to a request from FedEx to create a new way of teaching and learning and collaborating between the academic sector and private industry,” says Ricks. Additional groups that collaborated in the design of this remarkable project include the Board of Regents, the Office of Facilities Development, the Department of Campus Planning and Design, and the Physical Plant Department, as well as the university’s assistant director and executive director.
Responding to changing opinions and changing needs, the design teams and the university came to a mutual agreement about the creation of this public-/private-sector facility. Numerous companies partnered with the building team to create the institute, including AOL Time Warner, AT&T, AutoZone, Avaya, BellSouth, Cisco Systems, Computer Associates, Dell, EDS, Hewlett-Packard, Methodist Healthcare, Microsoft, Morgan Keegan, and Steelcase. Today, this $23-million collaboration project features:
Wireless fidelity capabilities, a Voiceover Internet Protocol, and plasma screen video output.
An 85-seat presentation theater, designed with innovative sound and media capabilities, for introducing new technology and products; and an acoustical isolation system to isolate the space from three adjacent exhibit rooms.
An open, 2-story atrium that contains a briefing center, LED information ticker display, phone/e-mail clusters, and an exhibit hall.
A Cyber Café with both wired and wireless connectivity, a video cube system, open workspace and collaboration areas, and additional outdoor dining facilities.
Techno, Top to Bottom
In addition to the building’s wide range of amenities, the institute has a mission to support flexibility. An underfloor HVAC system was installed, and raised floors and modular wiring throughout the facility promote technology changes. “Typically, universities do not move walls around like office complexes, so the university was concerned about how to prepare for new projects,” says ReJohn Lartigue, project manager, The Crump Firm, Memphis, TN.
The underfloor ductless distribution system for HVAC is the second of its kind in Memphis, and the first in a state-owned building. Because of site restraints, the institute was outfitted with a remote chiller and boiler facility.
Projects held at the institute can last anywhere from 1 semester to 2 years. The use of the underfloor HVAC system makes it much easier to reconfigure walls to accommodate different-sized classes. By eliminating the overhead duct system, the building’s height was reduced by 3 feet. Overall, the savings related to the HVAC system and associated building systems have amounted to $200,000.
“The building will, in a sense, move and grow as these projects come in,” says Ricks. The building was also designed to meet Zone 3 Seismic criteria. The institute is one of a select few in the country to feature a high-speed 2.5 Gigabit Internet connection to Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Researchers at the building can tap into the largest supercomputer in the United States, and the world’s largest atomic microscope.
“Most state schools are looking 30 to 40 years down the line, but here they could come in and clear the floorplate every semester,” says Lartigue. To reflect the facility’s dedication to technology, the open ceiling offers a crisp, contemporary look. The high-tech interior is married to an equally sophisticated exterior with reflective glass and custom-blended brick especially made to complement the surrounding brick-clad buildings.
In the Zone
A great example of the meshing of form and function is the building’s 200-seat auditorium. Called “The Zone” – and affectionately nicknamed “The Egg” – this U-shaped presentation space has steeply tiered seating levels to provide exceptional lines of sight. “It is becoming the new place to launch ideas in the community, and it is a real focal point for the university and the community to bridge between academia and the public,” says Ricks.
Equipped with surround sound, a Philips/Bosch Digital Congress Network, and a smart chip participant recognition system, the space allows an entire audience to engage in intimate conversations. With the press of a button, participants can easily ask questions or be polled by the presenter. Images of individual audience members can even be projected onto the overhead plasma screen.
With its stellar AV system, the auditorium has become a popular site for presentations, attracting many renowned presenters. Scheduled celebrated speakers include David Kelley, founder and chairman of IDEO Product Development; Dr. Richard Ernst, recipient of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry; and FW de Klerk, Nobel Peace Prize recipient and former president of South Africa. One of the university’s goals was to attract high-profile speakers and to promote the university’s scientific capabilities.
The facility has also become the launching pad for many distance courses. “With the technology, if you ask a question, they can put your picture on the plasma screen and one question can generate a discussion. Just the standard lecture hall wasn’t good enough anymore,” says Lartigue.
The Next Step
The entire building fosters collaboration. Along with 14 laboratories with flexible physical space and 11 instruction spaces, the institute has seven informal collaboration chambers with interactive voice, data, and video.
The facility houses breaking research in artificial intelligence, earthquakes, and supply chain management. For example, at the Center for Artificial Intelligence on the facility’s fourth floor, the university faculty is developing an Auto Tutor, a computer software program that can “think” and respond to human emotions while teaching. The Center for Spatial Analysis includes the Engineering School’s Ground Water Institute, and faculty members are working on solving drinking water problems. The institute also has dedicated research space to create digital multimedia art, nanotechnology, and the development of aviation engineering. Other centers housed at the facility include: Advanced Learning, Digital Economic and Regional Development, IT Research, and Managing Emerging Technology.
The FedEx Institute of Technology represents the largest step forward in the University of Memphis’s 92-year history. By responding to change and challenges, the university and the project’s design professionals, The Crump Firm and Looney Ricks Kiss Architects, were able to succeed beyond their original plans and create a facility that nurtures the creative spark.
Wireless connectivity, an abundance of marker boards, intimate lighting, and comfortable seating groups: The building has several spots for students and faculty members that inspire conversations. “There are spaces in the building created and designed for impromptu collaboration,” says Ricks. To change, to grow, to learn; the students at the University of Memphis have been charged with these goals. And the FedEx Institute of Technology is an idea incubator that has been forged from these same principles to help them accomplish those goals.
Regina Raiford Babcock (firstname.lastname@example.org) is senior editor at Buildings magazine.