Experiential Environments

January 27, 2012 § 2 Comments

This year, I’m working for the University of Utah’s Facilities Management department. This job funds my studies (most students in my program are working as TAs or teaching undergraduate classes), and allows me to continue to apply the skills I learned in the communications department at Mariners Church, including website communication, PR stuff, and internal communication.

One of the perks (in addition to helping obtain large, ribbon-cutting scissors) is that I get to learn about all the capital construction projects on campus. In fact, I helped put together a proposal in the fall for the AIA (American Institute of Architects) Client Achievement Award that the U ended up being awarded. Organizing all the photographs and facts about the projects introduced me to one building on campus I find exceptional in its synthesis of intentional architecture and communication. I was finally able to tour it on Wednesday, and this building, the Frederick Albert Sutton Building for Geology and Geophysics, is incredible.

The back story is that the chair of the Department of Geology and Geophysics, Marjorie Chan, really wanted to build an “experiential environment” and worked hard to convince the architects to make it happen. It was a lot of work on her part, and took much persuasion and convincing, as she kept running into resistance from people who were keeping a close eye on the budget. Her strategy, however was that if we spend more now, and construct not only a building, but an experience—causing prospective students to walk in the building and say, “Wow! I want to be a geologist!”—we will win in the end. In fact, since the building opened, enrollment for the department has doubled.

The building feels like an interactive museum, with rocks and displays on the walls with which the students and professors can interact. It creates a hands-on experience unlike any I’ve seen at a university. And, in an increasingly experience-oriented culture, this is quite possibly one of the best recruiting tools a university could have. In the entryway (which they call the “confluence” due to building codes and geology-specific language), the donor wall consists of fish fossils swimming in the direction of the classrooms. In the hallway, leaf fossils appear to be blowing in the direction of the classrooms. Old scrolls that were found in the basement of the old building are now on display in a seating area, and an imitation “river” runs from the mountains to the valley through the building. Additionally, the stones out front, and the ones used for table tops were specifically chosen and intentionally placed where the morning sun will hit them in a way that makes them sparkle. And these are just a few aspects.

As a communication student, and as someone who worked in a communications department and is now working as a communications consultant of sorts, it is easy to get exhausted and lose hope when good communication is trumped by deadlines and budgets. The Sutton building is a breath of fresh air, and a glimmer of hope. And the experience of the building is more than a recruiting tool for prospective students; it’s also persuading others to rethink university construction.

* click on the photo above to see the grand opening brochure

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