MSU design for Asbjornson Hall breaks with tradition

Montana State University has unveiled the design for its new $70 million Norm Asbjornson Hall, giving it a new name and a new look that breaks with the campus's century-old tradition of building with red brick.

"It's going to be a magnificent building," said Brett Gunnink, dean of the College of Engineering. The new hall will house two fast-growing programs — Engineering and the Honors College's offices. "I think we're going to be very proud of it."

The hall's new, shorter name replaces the more unwieldy moniker, Norm Asbjornson Innovation Center, used during two years of planning. Gunnink said he proposed the change because people were starting to shorten the name to the "Innovation Center," which dropped the name of the MSU alumnus who pledged $50 million to the project.

"I wanted to make sure the legacy of this tremendous gift would not be lost," Gunnink said.

The sleek, modern design will feature a type of steel cladding that weathers to a rusted patina, like that of the new Chipotle restaurant at 19th and Main, which will tie in visually with the red brick of older campus buildings, he said.

Brick will be used on half of the new hall's north facade, but it will be a dark charcoal color. That's to tie in with the black metal wall on the south side, a passive solar heater that will warm outside air brought in for ventilation, said Dan Stevenson, associate vice president for university services.

The new hall will use much more glass than most campus buildings. The modern design will communicate the idea that the new hall "represents a shift in education," Stevenson said, not just thinking outside the box but "throwing the box away."

"It's very different from everything on campus," Stevenson said. "Having a building that's striking and different will help people understand it represents more collaborative and interdisciplinary learning."

A groundbreaking ceremony will be held Sept. 22 for Asbjornson Hall. Construction is expected to take 24 to 30 months.

Asbjornson Hall will be built at the corner of Grant Street and South Seventh Avenue, now a pay parking lot. It will stand just across the street from the Strand Union Building and Barnard Hall, formerly the Engineering and Physical Science building.

It will be next door to the $12.5 million parking garage now under construction, set to open in January, so the new hall will be one of the first places seen by many MSU visitors.

At 110,000 square feet, it will be one of MSU's largest buildings. It's more than twice the size of the College of Business's new Jabs Hall, which uses terra cotta tiles to echo the red brick of Montana Hall.

Gunnink said raising $20 million to match Asbjornson's gift is going "very, very well."

The dean said he's excited about how the building's interior design will promote a new learning environment and spirit of innovation. Teams of students and professors from different disciplines, like engineering, marketing and the arts, can work together to solve problems and launch new ideas.

It will have "maker spaces," Gunnink said, where students can work on ideas for innovative designs or explore their entrepreneurial ambitions.

Another special feature will be a wide central stairway, expected to become a gathering place for students to hang out and share ideas — reminiscent of Rome's famous Spanish Steps.

The new hall will have nine classrooms. The first floor will have one large classroom holding about 150 students and two mid-sized classrooms for about 50 each. The third floor will have several smaller, seminar-size classrooms.

The Honors College's main office will move from the Quads to the new hall's third floor to become more visible, while the main housing for honors students will remain at the Quads.

The hall's prominent corner space, Inspiration Hall, will hold about 300 people. Its stadium seating can be pulled out for lectures or retracted to create a flat floor for engineering design fairs, dinners or performances.

A fine Steinway piano, now kept at the Alumni Foundation building, will be moved to Inspiration Hall, which Honors Dean Ilse-Mari Lee is excited about, Gunnink said.

While the north side of the hall will house classrooms and offices, the south side will have 17 engineering laboratories.

The new building will be highly energy efficient, Gunnink said, predicting it will qualify for at least LEED gold certification. Like the new Jabs Hall, it will use underground wells to exchange heat and passive solar heating.

MSU hired A&E Architecture of Billings, ZGF Architects of Seattle and Martel Construction of Bozeman to plan and design the new hall.

"I absolutely love this building," Stevenson said. "We're so fortunate we got a donor who is this progressive. It's really cool."


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