Gift Will Help Fund Construction of New Physics Building

A gift from the A. Eugene Brockman Charitable Trust to Rice University's Centennial Campaign will help fund construction of a new physics building -- one of the most complex design challenges for architects.

The 111,000-square-foot facility will contain vibration- and noise-controlled laboratories underground and other environmental regulators required for the precise measurements involved with fundamental and applied physics research.

Scientists and engineers in the building will explore the physical interactions between atoms and molecules — interactions that play crucial roles in everything from the way electrons move through superconductors and single-molecule electronics to the inner workings of proteins and molecules found in living cells. Biosensors, biomembranes and other aspects of biophysics are among the researchers' interests.

"A state-of-the-art physics facility will enable our faculty to pursue successfully a deeper and more complete understanding of the fundamental natural forces which shape our world," President David Leebron said. "This new building will help our scientists in their efforts to secure highly competitive grants, and it will help Rice recruit and retain the very best in the field. Rice is very thankful for this gift, which supports both the recently launched Centennial Campaign and the goals of Rice's Vision for the Second Century."

Scheduled for completion in December 2010, the building will be constructed north of George R. Brown Hall to form a new Science Quadrangle. The location was chosen for its low level of vibration, its large underground space and its proximity to other science and engineering faculty who are likely to collaborate with physics researchers. The building will be named the Brockman Hall for Physics.

The sensitive measurements needed for physics experiments present unique mechanical, electrical and plumbing challenges for the building. "There are very narrow tolerances for physical and acoustic vibration and for variances in temperature and humidity," said Kathleen Matthews, who initiated an effort to get a new physics building shortly after she became dean of Natural Sciences in 1998.

Barry Dunning, chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy in Rice's Wiess School of Natural Sciences, said the building will unite a majority of his faculty, who are now spread out in five locations. It will also accommodate the large, complex high-tech apparatuses needed to conduct a broad spectrum of physics research.

"We can now expand our research horizons and pursue intellectually exciting experiments without constraints imposed by the quality and quantity of available space," Dunning said.

Photonics and nanoengineering researchers from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in Rice's George R. Brown School of Engineering will also relocate in the new building.

"Having the engineering faculty together with the physics faculty will enhance the strong collaborations already established between these groups and create new research activities," said Sallie Keller-McNulty, dean of Engineering.

Behnaam Aazhang, chair of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE), said the building's capabilities will help attract additional faculty and further build on the strength of the current photonics and optics group in ECE.

A comprehensive team of architects, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, plumbers and other specialists has been involved in the design process. The team visited the National Institute of Standards and Technology -- the "gold standard" for this sort of research -- and several universities that have built complex physics facilities to learn from their successes as well as their mistakes.

As other projects have demonstrated, some by failing to address the issues effectively, multiple factors are of importance for a successful physics building. The designers have to look for ways to avoid acoustic vibration and temperature variation, control the release of heat, avoid electromagnetic interference, maintain highly stable power service, and recover costly and scarce helium, Matthews said. "The design of each of these key systems is critical for constructing a building that is capable of fully supporting modern physics experiments."

Flood protection is also critical to the design, since much of the expensive equipment for physics research will be set up in the basement to take advantage of the noise and vibration control underground. "If the basement floods, we'll lose as much as we're putting into the building," said Matthews, the Stewart Memorial Professor of Biochemistry and Cell Biology.

In addition to the basement, the building will have three levels above ground for laboratories, lecture halls and offices, and a fourth floor for mechanical equipment. Plans call for the observatory currently in the North Annex Lot to be relocated to the fourth floor.

Construction of the physics building coincides with growth in enrollment and reputation in physics. The number of graduate students, postdoctoral associates and technical research staff in Rice's departments of Physics and Astronomy and of Electrical and Computer Engineering has nearly doubled over the past four years. Over the span of 15 years, Physics and Astronomy has risen from the 29th to the 18th percentile in U.S. News & World Report's ranking of graduate school specialties. In the most recent rankings, the Atomic, Molecular and Optical Physics program ranked ninth nationally, and ECE ranked 15th. In 2007 Academic Analytics ranked ECE as having the best graduate program in the country based on faculty productivity.

Research in the new building will range from atomic, molecular and optical physics to biophysics, condensed-matter physics, photonics and nanoengineering.

The design architect for the building is KieranTimberlake Associates of Philadelphia, which won the 2008 American Institute of Architects Architecture Firm Award. Predesign work was done by FKP Architects of Houston and Perkins + Will Architects of San Diego. The Rice project manager is Erik Knezevich from the Facilities, Engineering and Planning Department.

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