The Johnson Center for Science and Community Life at North Park University

Designing for academics and student life


The building’s design evolved to meet the foremost requirement for any capital project at North Park: to fully meet the needs of current and future students. The Johnson Center will more than meet its mandate by ensuring that strong programs grow stronger and effective student learning advances to a higher level. This is a major step in North Park’s trajectory of growth toward leadership among Christian liberal arts universities nationwide. The new Center will position North Park to recruit students competitively and educate them effectively.

— Dr. David Parkyn, President, North Park University


North Park University is in the midst of dramatic transformation. Founded in 1891 by the Evangelical Covenant Church, the Chicago area liberal arts school has gradually instituted major changes in its master plan. When the Johnson Center for Science and Community Life opens in September of 2014, it will be the latest in a series of landscape and campus design initiatives begun in 1999, many completed in 2005, transforming North Park from a loose grouping of buildings on a city grid into a classic, united, pedestrian-friendly college campus. VOA has a long relationship with the university, having touched nearly every building on campus.

In 2005, as North Park University was redesigning its landscape and planning a student center with VOA, it realized that its science buildings were outdated and potentially a detriment to recruiting. Meanwhile, the school saw enrollment in physical sciences increase by 35% over the past decade. Wisely, it chose to combine student life facilities and science classrooms under one roof.

VOA, teaming with HE+RA Lab Planners, further developed the organization for the new building with another set of charrettes. Through conversations with the scientists, faculty and administrators VOA developed guidelines to support the pedagogy and research objectives of the chemistry, biology, physics, math, psychology, and engineering departments. Labs will be designed by discipline, aligned by relevant commonalities and adjoined to flexible faculty research stations. Lab support will be located to optimize for efficient sharing of equipment and supplies. The student union component will unify the building and the campus beyond with attractive meeting and circulation spaces. Participants wanted a building positioned to take advantage of attractive outdoor space and daylight, which would also put the facility on track for LEED Gold certification. [The Johnson Center received LEED Gold Certification from the USGBC in January, 2015.]

In visioning sessions for the new Johnson Center for Science and Community Life, VOA championed splitting up the science faculty and the student services administration to broaden the range of ideas available between the two groups.

Both faculty and administration desired a new building that would be welcoming and foster collaboration, but also comforting and suited to the serious pursuit of knowledge. The new building would need to be sustainable and contemporary in style but also meet the standards for quality and detail set by existing campus buildings.

The results The Johnson Center for Science and Community Life, opening September, 2014, will fulfill two roles at the university: as a science building with basic and interactive classrooms and labs for chemistry, biography, physics and engineering as well as a lecture hall/screening room and as a center for student engagement.

Connection/interaction To facilitate nurturing relationships between faculty and students, VOA placed faculty offices between suites of laboratory classrooms and made them accessible to primary circulation paths. Community spaces within the office suites provide casual conversation areas for unstructured interaction.

Laboratory spaces are designed to promote flexibility. Work stations in dry labs are movable; resource rooms can be used for lectures, team learning and research. The VOA team worked with North Park’s scientists and Registrar to design the appropriate number of labs to maximize utilization through realistic scheduling. The south-facing labs and upper level spaces are designed to be bright, inviting and to afford views of the campus and the city.

Centralized student services Students access services and off-campus programs in Chicago and beyond on the Johnson Center’s entry level. Centralized student services include University Ministries, student development, career development, internships and international studies. A café and two-story atrium lounge with an all-glass façade serve as major gathering and study spaces. The generous lounge, which can accommodate nearly a third of the student body at once, has an important role as “a campus living room for conversation and interaction,” explains Carl E. Balsam, Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer. The lobby’s bright colors and lighting will beckon to students at night and in winter.

Context The Johnson Center’s warm masonry and terra cotta facade rises from a stone base in the tradition of 1891 Old Main, North Park’s first building. This contemporary building’s generous ribbon windows provides solar shading and meets the request for a “forward-thinking” building, delivering ample natural light to the interior.

Integrated Project Delivery The building was designed, planned and constructed through the Integrated
Project Delivery method, with Carl E. Balsam, Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer overseeing the entire process.

The Johnson Center’s unique environments for social activity and student engagement further North Park’s mission to educate the whole person. The Johnson Center continues North Park’s emphasis on collaborative student-faculty research and accelerates North Park’s leadership in science education. Aided by this new facility, North Park is positioned to prepare graduates to further their education in medicine and science. It also serves as a model of the University’s commitment to sustainability.

Size: 90,000 square feet
Team: Bill Ketcham, Matthew Zupancic, Clint Moewe, Susan Heinking, Monika Thadhani, JiHye Park, Gale Soberg, Primera Engineers (MEP), Talaske (Acoustics), Sound Structures, Inc. (Structural Engineering), Gary Wiss (Civil Engineering) and Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects

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