Announcements December 13, 2022

Renovation of Legacy 1960’s Science Buildings at University of Virginia Supports Modern Scientific Advancement

The transformation of Gilmer Hall and the Chemistry Building enhances the teaching mission, boosts the research enterprise, and promotes healthful, inclusive, and energy conserving spaces.
The facades were formerly clad in virtually opaque concrete unit screen walls; the exterior now presents elegant expanses of low-e coated, ultra-clear insulating glass, allowing abundant daylight to penetrate the interior, putting science research and discovery on display.

We have completed the 400,000 square-foot renovations of two landmark University of Virginia science research and teaching buildings, Gilmer Hall and the Chemistry Building. Dating back to 1961 and 1965 respectively, the first major examples of mid-century modern architecture on the Charlottesville, Virginia, campus have been completely renewed, setting the stage for another 50 years of teaching and research through collaborative and interdisciplinary discovery.

“Gilmer Hall and the Chemistry Building were groundbreaking for their time and have become a cherished part of the University of Virginia,” said Anna Towns, Director of Space Planning and Management at UVA. “There was a big group of people at the University who thought that the original buildings should come down. I am delighted that we made the decision to keep them, and appreciate the creative and thoughtful ways the Perkins&Will team enabled us to transform these buildings into an environment that provides the best opportunities for learning and teaching.”

Gilmer Hall north facade, 1964.
Gilmer Hall north facade glass puts the University's main biology teaching and research on display.

Guiding Principles

Begun in 2017, the $187 million renovation was guided by principles that reflect our longstanding commitment to health, well-being, and environmental sustainability. At the same time, the design team’s approach embraced an important paradigm shift in how science should engage with the broader university community, revealing the work and achievement that had previously been concealed behind dark, unwelcoming walls and dimly lit corridors. Four specific goals further define the planning and design effort:

  • Boosting the research enterprise by facilitating collaborative and interdisciplinary discovery
  • Enhancing the teaching mission with flexible spaces for experiential and team-based learning
  • Transforming Gilmer and Chemistry from “energy hogs” to “energy nibblers”
  • Integrating these buildings into the greater campus community with enhanced entrances and pedestrian connections

“The University of Virginia was not alone in facing the challenge of bringing legacy science buildings into the 21st century,” said Paul Harney, Practice Leader and Principal. “We needed to re-imagine the internal planning and make strategic changes to the exterior envelope that could answer multiple crucial needs—from myriad technical and mechanical upgrades to the creation of new and welcoming spaces for state-of-the-art teaching, learning, exploration, and discovery. Rather than tearing them down and erasing a vital part of campus history, we were able to fully reposition these landmark buildings with bright, flexible spaces that now foster a collaborative community and galvanize modern scientific advancement.”

Throughout the two-building renovation, the replacement of mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems is expected to save the university an estimated $1.5 million annually in utilities expenses.

Gilmer Hall

The primary facility for teaching and research in biology and psychology at UVA, Gilmer Hall opened in 1963. It is an eclectic but studied composition of various distinct elements, each clearly inspired by influential architects of the time, including Edward Durell Stone and Alvar Aalto. In 1987, an addition expanded Gilmer Hall with additional neuroscience-focused biology research labs.

The renovation repositions Gilmer Hall without abandoning its original eclecticism. Like many higher education buildings of its time, Gilmer Hall’s learning and discovery was shrouded by opaque walls, dim interiors, and narrow corridors. The renovation replaced 50% of the building’s exterior envelope and refreshed the interior with modern, flexible research lab environments that more easily reveal the work and academic pursuits of biology and psychology.

Where the facades had formerly been clad in virtually opaque concrete unit screen walls, the exterior now presents elegant expanses of low-e coated, ultra-clear insulating glass, allowing abundant daylight deep into the interior of Gilmer Hall and generous views out to the UVA Grounds.

At the north side, the University’s main biology teaching and research labs have become a showcase feature along McCormick Road, one of the busiest student pedestrian corridors at the University.

Along the southern exposure of the building, which formerly was a barren back-of-house area, a gracious new pedestrian promenade and new public entrances welcome students to multi-story commons areas for collaborative study, which also serve to visually connect multiple floors of teaching and research that previously felt quite separate from each other.

In both the internal and external experience of the building, Gilmer Hall has been transformed from “science concealed” to “science revealed”.

“I’ve had professors who have been teaching for 25 years tell me that some of the classrooms in this renovated building have challenged them to look at teaching in new ways.  And in the research labs, the new ability to collaborate cannot be understated. There are already grants going out the door, simply because people are sitting next to each other and exchanging ideas,”

– Judy Giering, Interim Chief of Staff, The University of Virginia College of Arts and Sciences

Chemistry Building renovated main lobby

The Chemistry Building

Originally designed just four years after Gilmer Hall, the Chemistry Building represented the highly “rationalist” trend in higher education laboratory buildings of the time. Its rigorous organizational strategy was defined by modular lab spaces that plug into a central service “spine” that provides all the necessary utility services to the labs, and by the clear separation of the lower research-focused floors from the upper teaching-focused floors.

Through a new linking stair hall and by establishing classrooms and collaborative areas at the lower floors, our design begins to unify the Chemistry Department’s teaching mission and research enterprise.

Meanwhile, the teaching labs were completely reconfigured to visually connect with the public areas, putting them at the heart of the student experience and inviting exploration in general chemistry, biochemistry, physical chemistry, and organic chemistry.

Chemistry building original main lobby
North wall is opened up to a new connecting stair hall

Along with new spaces for informal learning and collaboration, the team modernized all 35 research labs and 16 teaching labs. The renovation also includes new vertical connective spaces, a partial infill of the utility spine with lab support space, and a replacement of all mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems. To welcome the campus community, a transformed main entrance lobby features a lively commons area with improved lighting that celebrates the exposed structure of the original building.

New "Student Commons" collaboration space