Recently, Florida lawmakers approved a $4.2 million dollar grant from the state budget in order to assist in the $8.9 million expansion of New College’s science facility, known as the Heiser Natural Sciences building. Since the approval, questions were raised about the expansion’s design and how the architects have chosen to stray away from last years’ New College Master Plan.
According to Professor of Sociology David Brain, who is on the Campus Development Committee, the process to push forward with the construction of Heiser’s expansion has moved very quickly and before the Campus Development Committee was even formed.
“[The committee] wasn’t formed until the process was pretty far along,” Brain said. “So we didn’t get to review the schematic design for the Heiser addition until it was really too late to make changes. That’s really what the problem has been.”
Katherine Walstrom, the chair of the Natural Sciences Department, explained that the design for Heiser’s expansion was practically finished in January, acknowledging that the Campus Development Committee had yet to be assembled.
“My understanding is that people that were from Physical Plant working with us on the building felt that it was compatible with the master plan,” Walstrom said. “And you know, we took their word for it.”
The plans taken to the Campus Development Committee were well developed, but many raised concerns about the lack of attention at the Campus Development meeting, where some faculty have tried to address their apprehensions.
Making changes to the already implemented design, would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and would delay the starting date of construction, which currently is set for sometime during the fall of 2016. The longer the construction of Heiser is delayed, the more opportunity there is for construction costs to increase.
“That would put a squeeze on campus budget,” Brain said. “The process of design and acceptance of design is so long that between when you’ve started and when you’ve finished, what seemed like an adequate construction budget to begin with is no longer adequate. So there’s some concern about that.”
The Master Plan, created by a firm based out of California, was a concrete vision of how New College’s campus would develop. The design includes both principles and rather specific design controls meant to ensure that as buildings are added, the campus vision is completed.
“What was happening before this plan was the old master plan that was done while we were still part of [University of South Florida],” Brain said. “It envisioned the campus as having a perimeter road and buildings and parking lots just sort of strung along the road and the middle of the campus would remain this big open green space.”
Brain explained that the master plan preceding the current one was based around the idea of a very suburban campus, calling it an “office park vision.” The older plan did not create a walkable campus, and instead encouraged students to drive. He further elaborated that the old Master Plan did not necessarily create a sense of place.
“For a small campus, this is a place where its amazing how dispersed we are, and how little sense there is to being in a sort of center,” Brain said.
The current Master Plan intends to concentrate activity in a way that defines space between the buildings to create a sense of place, and activates that space by concentrating on where the students mingle.
According to Brain, the confusion began when the Master Plan indicated only roughly where a building should go. “It seems no one understood that there were several different significant principles about where that building was going to sit and how it relates to other buildings, and what its architecture is supposed to do,” Brain said.
The Master Plan indicated an alignment between the existing Heiser building and its expansion in order to start forming a quadrangle on campus just inside the Ringling Estate gates. The Californian planners envisioned a campus in which one could walk on the academic side of campus in the shade if one so wished. As each building is built, it is supposed to define an edge of the quadrangle, offering a covered walkway for people to walk through from the east to the west side of campus.
Initially, the schematic design of the expansion did not quite fit in with the rest of the campus vision, and instead was shifted, articulating its façade as “this sort of big, vertical element on one end sticking out” Brain described.
“I think there were a couple concerns,” Walstrom said. “One was the placement of the building, one was about the shape of the front of the building, and I think one was about the design of the building. And so the question is do these things make it incompatible with the Master Plan?”
Brain explained that the idea for the Master Plan was for each building to behave itself and enter into a conversation in relation to the other buildings and spaces surrounding it.
“I think it boils down to what is the definition of a Master Plan?” Walstrom said. “Is it a guiding document? Or is it a restrictive thing that says ‘this is your new building, right in this spot in this picture!’”
Walstrom went on to express her approval of the Master Plan’s idea of a courtyard, but explained that it does not exist at New College yet. “I want to have a really cool space for students to gather,” she said. “So after the Campus Development Committee, I told Allen Burr we got to make the front of this building ten times better than what it looks like in the Master Plan so it’s like the coolest place and everybody wants to go there!”
The first building to be built under the original Master Plan was the Academic Center (ACE), which was designed by the same architect who led the master planning process. The architect wanted to design ACE in a way that would help it define its own space. Brain explained that architecturally, the Heiser addition will not relate to the original building.
“Not that you’d want a building to look like Heiser because it’s an awful building,” he said with a smirk.
Walstrom disagreed with idea that each building should follow suit and relate to the ACE building. “When I look at the master planning documents I think the courtyard is a nice idea,” She said. “But if we build a science building that looks like these buildings, we’re never going to get another science student to come to New College. Might as well lock the door!”
Many of the buildings around campus are littered with architectural ideas in a way that a new building could be conceptualized as a unique object, while still following some guidelines to fit in.
“The expansion has not been conceived in that way at all,” Brain said. “Other than the fact that the color palette of beiges and reds that kind of go with the colors they already have. Okay, that’s a start.”
Brain felt that none of the Heiser addition’s design reflected that of the Master Plan except for the fact that it is located in the general area represented in the plan.
When raising his issues with the design, the architects argued that the expansion was in fact in compliance with the Master Plan. Brain maintained his rationale by explaining the principles and vision behind the Master Plan.
“I kind of know what the Master Plan says because I helped write it,” he said.
The plan does not get very specific about architecture because it did not want to create barriers for creativity. But it did create a list of specific principles for future architects to follow.
With the expansion of Heiser comes the hope that New College will in turn attract more science and math students. Walstrom explained the dream for Heiser is to become a showcase space for prospective students.
“We are hoping that we can attract more students and get more students through the natural sciences program so we can keep up our numbers to maintain our score at least in [the science and mathematic] fields,” Walstrom said.
Walstrom argued that many natural sciences buildings on other college campuses tend to follow a fairly modern design. Differing from other campuses, however, is the plan to create congregating spaces for students. These spaces include areas within the expansion, outdoor seating areas and a deck on the second floor.
“We want it to be a really cool gathering place for everybody,” Walstrom said.
The math and sciences departments are going to benefit from the expansion immensely. The added space will provide larger teaching labs, new research space for faculty, including a condensed space for computer and data sciences faculty, and a conference room.
“A lot of the stuff we don’t have in this building we’ll have in the [expansion],” Walstrom said. “So it should be really cool.”