Whitin Observatory

The Astronomy Department at Wellesley College in Massachusetts was created in 1901, housed in a building that now takes the name of school trustee and donor Sarah E. Whitin. A small expansion and restoration by Boston-based designLAB architects had to contend with a century of use and renovation, resulting in both a contemporary addition and rediscovered beauty in the existing. The architects answered some questions about their design.
Before & After of Exterior: view taken from the northwest looking up Observatory Hill
Can you describe your design process for the building?

As with all our projects, research is central to the design process. The design team visited the college archives to learn the history of the facility and its community. Well-preserved post cards and photographs told a story of a building that had been adapted through the years to serve an ever-advancing Astronomy Department. These images, in conjunction with visits to the building, helped designLAB formulate an approach to the design challenge: while a state-of-the-art addition was needed for new program needs, a delicate hand would be required to preserve the architectural and educational heritage of the place. The new and old must coexist in a way that was mutually reinforcing. It was this sensitivity that resonated with the professors on the selection committee. Although designLAB had not worked for the college previously, the firm was chosen to guide this small but extremely complex project through design and construction.

Once an attitude had been developed for the project, a specific strategy for editing existing spaces and ephemera began. Over the course of more than 100 years, the original structure was added to no less than four times. Each of these subsequent additions provided a stark contrast to the neo-classical stone volumes of the original Observatory, and essentially provided additional programmatic space with minimal regard to the cohesiveness of the total composition. By 2009 the Observatory had served more than a century of continuous use. The later 20th Century additions did not provide any central public circulation, which forced traffic through rooms, enfilade style. In addition to a lack of accessibility compliance to the building, the accumulated ephemera of the previous century had yielded a warren of dark passages and antiquated spaces for instruction.

A linear circulation spine became the organizing device around which the historic rooms would be liberated and accessed. The surgical insertion of the corridor also provided an avenue to uncover and showcase once-hidden historic facades. A series of new labs and classrooms would also be accessed from this public spine, thus connecting the historic Observatory with the state of the art 21st-century facility. The new circulation spine, naturally lit by an east-facing clerestory, also functions as a ‘gallery’ for the display of objects that contribute to the legacy of the facility. This active central artery is at once a social space for interaction among students, faculty and visiting scholars and a framed portal through which the Arboretum is experienced.
Before & After of Project Room: a dividing wall and dropped ceiling hid the beauty of this space before its restoration
How does the completed building compare to the project as designed? Were there any dramatic changes between the two and/or lessons learned during construction?

Due to an extensive Schematic Design process, the overall design configuration remained intact, free of dramatic changes during construction. Some exploratory work was done during the design phase to evaluate the existing building as part of the CM process. However, some details were adapted in the construction process due to unforeseen conditions. To illustrate, while uncovering & exposing some of the old masonry walls, some marble around the original window openings had been destroyed and replaced with concrete block. Instead of recreating the historic condition, a large piece of filmed glass was used to mask the hole. However, the opaque white film was removed from the glass to allow visibility only at the historic window locations, referencing what once existed. In this way, the old story is retold with a contemporary voice. It is always the challenge of the architect to see opportunity in the conditions given.
Exterior & Interior of New Environmental Lab Addition
How does the building compare to other projects in your office, be it the same or other building types?

Many of the projects at designLAB deal with an existing context, whether it is an existing building, landscape or urban artifact. In the case of the Whitin Observatory, the artifact is an existing historic Observatory that had been lovingly used, but architecturally compromised over the previous 100 years. Nevertheless, the existing building is conceptualized as part of the building ‘site’ to be manipulated and integrated into a new holistic entity.

designLAB is currently planning the 26,000SF addition to the Paul Rudolph-designed, Claire T. Carney Library at University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. The rich & saturated palette for the interior spaces of the library is derived from original designs by architect Paul Rudolph. Through detailed research of Rudolph’s extant buildings and the archives of UMass Dartmouth, we have attempted to faithfully restore portions of this building to its authentic character while integrating a contemporary sensibility of our own.

These themes reoccur through many projects in our office.
Site & Building Plan: eras of construction and character of intervention
How does the building relate to contemporary architectural trends, be it sustainability, technology, etc.?

The choice of materials for the addition was selected with the existing context as a guide. The design team chose an acid-etched, mirrored glass panel system that would reflect the Arboretum and provide an unobtrusive backdrop for the historic building.

From the south and the west, the historic building appears unchanged, except for the presence of a glass canopy that announces the entry and marks the joint between the 1900 and 1906 buildings. From the north and the east, the building is most changed. The northern-most lab encases the existing historic entry, treating the facade as an artifact to be revered, much like the astronomical instruments that are preserved in the window vitrines. The vast windows of the laboratory bring the verdant green of the Arboretum inside as a clear reference to the Environmental Studies curriculum for which this lab is conceived. To the east, the mirrored glass volumes begin to dissolve into the forest edge of the Arboretum, essentially offering a reflected image of the New England woods.
Renovation & Addition East Elevation: the rhythm of the glass façade blurs the line between old and new
The extant master plan for the Wellesley Campus is exceedingly prudent in its desire to respect the various ‘natural’ landscape spaces that were articulated in Ralph Adam Cram’s original proposal. After years of ‘over grooming’ the natural landscape had become indistinguishable from a suburban country club or golf course. The master plan sought to control the maintenance of the landscape in an attempt to restore the landscape to its natural state.

In this respect, the Observatory can be seen as a pavilion in the forest. The design team sought to disturb as little as possible the natural encroachment of the Arboretum on the building so that the reflective volumes of the Observatory would appear as a diaphanous reflection of the Arboretum itself. It was the intention of the architects that the building would effectively ‘disappear’ in deference to the preponderance of nature around it.

All heating and cooling on the Wellesley campus is achieved through a central cogeneration plant that circulates steam and cooled water by means of an underground system of pipes and conduits. Chilled water had never been supplied to the Observatory and delivery system for steam was more than a century old and provided inefficient heating and no cooling. The complete replacement of all mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems, the addition of insulation in the roof plane, as well as the replacement of all windows with insulated sashes were only a few of the LEED principals executed at the Whitin Observatory. While the project is still under USGBC review, we are optimistic that we will achieve a Silver rating!

E-Mail Interview conducted by John Hill
Before & After of the New Environmental Lab Interior: the old north entry is encapsulated and celebrated
Whitin Observatory

Wellesley, Massachusetts

Wellesley College

designLAB architects

Design Principal
Robert J. Miklos, FAIA

Project Architect
Mary Ann Holliday

Project Manager
Scott Slarsky

Structural Engineer
Odeh Engineers, Inc.

MEP/FP Engineer
Fitzemeyer & Tocci Associates, Inc.

Civil Engineer
Nitsch Engineering

Geotechnical Engineer
Haley & Aldrich

Lighting Designer
Sladen Feinstein Integrated Lighting

Interior Designer
designLAB architects

Shawmut Design and Construction

Construction Manager
Stuart Meurer
Project Manager & Dick O’Connell
Site Superintendant

IT Consultant
Edvance Technology Design

LEED Consultant
The Green Roundtable

Preservation Specialist
Preservation Technology Associates, Inc.

Specifications Consultant
Kalin Associates, Inc.

Site Area
½ acre

Building Area
9,950 SF
(8,150 SF existing, 1,800 addition)

Peter Vanderwarker