University of Chicago: Albert A. Michelson Center for Physics 7

University of Chicago: Albert A. Michelson Center for Physics: A Case Study

Chicago, IL

The transformation of a mid-century building supports the advanced research of leading experimental and theoretical physicists and also visually anchors the University’s historic North Science Quad.

With technologically advanced labs and dynamic collaborative spaces, the Albert A. Michelson Center unites the University of Chicago’s theoretical and experimental physics departments in a single facility for the first time in decades. Adapted from the University’s former Laboratory for Astrophysics and Space Research, the Center is a modern contribution to a vibrant and architecturally significant campus. Designed to support faculty, staff, and students and strengthen their collective work, the building propels scientific discovery.

Project Facts

  • Client:

  • University of Chicago
  • Size:

  • 68,300 sq. ft.
  • Sustainable Design:

  • LEED Gold certification
    High Performance Glazing
    Green Roofs
  • Markets:

  • Science + Technology, College + University, Renovation + Historic Buildings
  • Region:

  • United States
  • Studios:

  • Chicago


  • 2019 Citation of Merit, Distinguished Building Award, AIA Chicago
  • 2018 Award of Merit: Higher Education/Research, Regional Best Projects, ENR Midwest
  • 2018 Award of Merit: Safety, Regional Best Projects, ENR Midwest
  • 2018 Finalist, Merit Award: New Construction, Chicago Building Congress
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    University of Chicago: Albert A. Michelson Center for Physics University of Chicago: Albert A. Michelson Center for Physics 4

    The University of Chicago chose to retain the existing building to maintain and protect a landmark dark matter research project that has been operating continuously in the basement since the building’s opening in 1964. The reuse of the structure, originally designed by Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, reduced the environmental impact and influenced the design of the new construction. Perkins Eastman’s planning and design included the gut renovation of the interior, a completely new enclosure, and the construction of two new occupied floor levels built over the existing structure. The team worked around sheltered light- and electromagnetic-sensitive labs in the building’s basement, designing a transformed research environment with offices and collaborative spaces distributed around the perimeter of the lower levels and space for quiet, focused investigation above.

    University of Chicago: Albert A. Michelson Center for Physics 2

    “People make discoveries and advance science, not buildings. But the right environment helps foster a collaborative, interdisciplinary approach that’s essential to scientific breakthroughs.” – Edward W. “Rocky” Kolb, Dean of the Physical Sciences Division, University of Chicago

    The work of a physicist requires both individual focus and group collaboration. Perkins Eastman realized the opportunity to design spaces that would foster innovation by bringing theorists and experimentalists together to further discourse and comradery. The building includes a variety of collaboration areas as well as flexible experimental physics labs, special purpose instrument labs, and modern workspace environments. A seminar room, which hosts regular lectures, colloquia, and conferences, dramatically cantilevers out into and connects with the North Science Quad. A social commons with a two-story glass wall serves as the informal heart of the building, a natural gathering space for group meals, and lunchtime talks. Throughout the building, shared areas and offices are filled with natural light and outdoor views. The open, connected plan increases chance encounters between people, a nudge towards communication and collaboration.

    University of Chicago: Albert A. Michelson Center for Physics 6 University of Chicago: Albert A. Michelson Center for Physics 5

    Surrounded by much larger research buildings, the Michelson Center was conceived as more human-scaled than its counterparts—a building that celebrates the legacy and stature of physics at the University with refinement, rather than size. The new design showcases elements of the original midcentury modern building at the ground level, such as stone-clad structural columns. These traces of the original design are complemented in the new construction with a complementary palette of limestone and glass found across the campus.

    University of Chicago: Albert A. Michelson Center for Physics 3

    Mindful of human and environmental health, the team’s sustainable approach extended far beyond reusing the existing structure. Fulfilling this design brief required heating and cooling roughly twice the volume of the original building, without any increase in mechanical space. The design team met these performance requirements by combining chilled-beam heating and cooling with high-efficiency glazing (0.22 solar heat gain coefficient), super insulation, and four large green roof areas. The building surpassed the University’s requirements and earned LEED Gold certification (v2009 New Construction).


    University of Chicago: Albert A. Michelson Center for Physics 8

    A central driver of the vision for the Michelson Center—collaboration among scientists—was mirrored by collaboration in the design and construction process. The University, the construction managers, and the architects worked in a formal Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) structure to maximize value and minimize wasted money, time, and energy. All major stakeholders met on a regular basis for large amounts of time to set long-term goals and strategies, review and adjust working processes, and to make important project decisions together. The architecture and construction management teams also co-located during critical parts of the process, a practice that reinforced trust and partnership in the core project team. This intensive engagement helped align the program and design with project goals and requirements, resulting in not only an exceptional building, but valuable relationships.

    University of Chicago: Albert A. Michelson Center for Physics 1

    “The research that these physicists are doing is so subtle and abstract that it doesn’t neatly fit into our commonly held understanding about the physical universe. In order to think on this level, a physicist needs a balance between deep individual focus and group work. We developed the building program to include a variety of collaboration spaces as well as new flexible experimental labs and modern workspace environments. It’s an honor to have given them a place to do this work.” – Nate Koschmann, Project Manager