An empty site is the ideal location for a new scientific research and academic facility, but it’s rare to find a large enough piece of undeveloped land on a college campus. While reestablishing tabula rasa was one option explored by the project team behind the latest addition to the Biochemical Sciences Complex for the University of Wisconsin–Madison, it was quickly ruled out since two existing science buildings inhabit the Henry Mall District, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Flad Architects, however, found that it could design an addition and two infill projects that incorporate the existing buildings in order to create one cohesive complex that connects the historic and the modern.


The site plan shows the site of the new building, the infill project, and the reestablished pedestrian corridor.


Location Madison, WI 
Size 250,000 ft2
Completed 2012
Program Laboratories, teaching auditoriums, classrooms, instructional labs, administrative space, offices

David Black, AIA, Flad’s principal in charge of design for the project, likens the design process to assembling a complex puzzle. The new facilities unite the different departments within the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and the School of Medicine and Public Health through a mutlilayered project that consolidates several disparate yet historically significant buildings from the 20th century, forming three distinct yet interconnected volumes.

The original 1912 biochemistry building, located on the southwest corner of Henry Mall, was expanded through additions in 1937 and 1956. The 1937 addition contains murals by WPA-era artist John Steuart Curry that were carefully preserved in-situ during the renovation and construction. Flad, along with historic preservationists at Isthmus Architecture, restored the 1912 and 1937 buildings’ exteriors, upgraded the interiors to house instructional spaces, and demolished and rebuilt the 1956 building, which was between the other two buildings. The infill section added two new auditoriums to the southernmost biochemistry building, and the architects distinguished the exterior of this new portion by adding a gabion wall with bricks salvaged from the 1956 building. This creative reuse of material contributed to the project’s construction waste diversion rate, which totals 97 percent by weight and 90 percent by volume.

University of Wisconsin, Biochemistry II Building

An American elm that is nearly two centuries old stands in the courtyard of the complex. Great care was taken during construction to ensure the tree was not damaged.


Architect Flad Architects
Client/Owner State of Wisconsin, University of Wisconsin
Historic Preservation Architect Isthmus Architecture
Civil Engineer/Landscape Architect SmithGroupJJR
Structural Engineer Flad Structural
Engineer Affiliated Engineers
Supporting Electrical Engineer Zoe Engineering
Plumbing/Fire Protection Engineer PSJ Engineering General Contractor JH Findorff & Son

The second component of the complex is the biochemistry addition, previously designed by Flad and completed in 1998. The third and most drastically altered portion is the biochemical sciences building, which incorporated the 1906 agricultural journalism building and another 1985 biochemistry addition to create one cohesive complex. Flad restored the 1906 building down to its details such as oil-rubbed bronze hardware that was made to match the originals; the 1985 addition, located on the north side of the biochemical sciences complex, is currently under renovation. The centerpiece is a new six-story tower containing research laboratories that Flad Architects inserted between these two existing buildings.

Although the height of the new tower nearly aligns with the 1985 structure, most of the adjacent historic buildings lining Henry Mall rise only three stories. To mitigate this shift in scale, project architect Mitchell Fox says the architects designed the tower to be “buoyant.” An abundance of glass and anodized aluminum contributes to this lightened effect, and the rhythm and proportions of the fenestration echo modules established by existing buildings. The play of light and shadow further animates the tower’s façade. The architects also referenced more traditional materials used throughout the campus, particularly its terra-cotta roofs. They used terra-cotta, a material considered sustainable because of its longevity, for the tower’s rain-screen façade system and to create sun-shading elements.

University of Wisconsin, Biochemistry II Building

A pedestrian path runs between the new biochemical sciences building and the renovated 1912 and 1937 biochemistry buildings. The grade-level connection restores the original vision of the university master plan and helps ease travel across campus, while a second-story bridge provides an interior connection.


Certification Not applicable
Site Restored pedestrian paths and amenities, preserved 170-year-old elm tree
Materials Nearly 92% of construction waste diverted, terra-cotta rain-screen façades
Energy Heat-recovery system, solar-shading, daylighting controls

Along the base of the new tower, a loggia lends human scale and provides the added benefit of shading the lobby against sunlight. Within the lobby and the tower’s public spaces, the architects applied the same approach of reinterpreting historic materials in a modern way to create a sense of comfort and familiarity. They brought terra-cotta tile into the lobby and lined the main stair that ascends the six-story atrium with acid-etched glass. Cascading down the center of the stair is an installation by Seattle-based artist Norie Sato, which forms a helix reminiscent of DNA strands. Interspersed throughout the building and adjacent to the atrium are many flexible and collaborative lounges that allow students and faculty to mingle and discuss research. In corridors and laboratories, durability was the guiding factor in material selection so surfaces can withstand abrasive chemicals and the impacts of carts carrying samples and equipment.

The University of Wisconsin–Madison is where Vitamin D was first isolated; as a nod to this historic detail, the architects let natural light wash the tower’s interior though they also installed interior sun-shading devices and daylighting controls in laboratories. Daylighting contributes to lowering the energy consumption of the building, which according to energy models, is projected to be 21.8 percent more efficient than a similar building designed to the base code. Labs are energy-intensive as a rule, Fox notes, and for safety purposes they require a tremendous amount of ventilation. But to offset energy needs, the design team installed a heat-recovery system to capture excess heat from laboratories. The labs are outfitted with variable-air-volume chemical fume hoods, but when such a high level of ventilation isn’t needed, the hoods can be dialed back.

University of Wisconsin, Biochemistry II Building

The new building prizes daylight in its spacious hallways. On the southwest corner of the new building, a glass-enclosed column with aluminum sunshades surrounds lounge areas on each floor.

The designers achieved the goals of creating a facility that supports groundbreaking research and is also sustainable, but one of the greatest successes of the project, Fox says, is the exterior green space that was recaptured. By demolishing the 1956 building, the architects could reopen a mid-block pedestrian passage that was part of the original 1908 campus master plan by Peabody, Laird and Cret. The passage, which is lined with planters and seats and a café that spills out from the 1906 building, reestablishes the severed connection between Henry Mall and the western portion of the university campus and creates a front door for the new tower that is otherwise boxed in by existing buildings. The new site design also preserves and frames a 170-year-old heritage elm, a survivor of the Dutch Elm epidemic. No matter how complex the research methodology is and the spaces that house it become, the tree serves as a poignant reminder that the most basic building block is nature.