By Steve Koppes
Rendering courtesy of HOK/JCDA/AJSNY

Mr. Eckhardt’s tremendous generosity will greatly promote excellent scientific discovery here for a substantial fraction of the next century.”
—Robert Fefferman
dean, Physical Sciences Division

The University of Chicago next September will begin construction of the William Eckhardt Research Center, an architecturally innovative building that will host a broad spectrum of 21st-century science, from investigation of the deepest cosmic mysteries to manipulations of matter on the scale of atoms and molecules. The building is named for Chicago futures trader and alumnus William Eckhardt, SM’70, in recognition of his $20 million gift in support of advanced science at the University.

Precision will characterize the science that goes on within the Eckhardt Center, which will house significant portions of the Physical Sciences Division and the University’s new Institute for Molecular Engineering.

“The University has an active tradition of preeminence in the physical sciences, generating discoveries and theories that continue to change our understanding of the world,” says University President Robert J. Zimmer. “The work at the Eckhardt Center will enrich that tradition and extend it to new areas of study and emerging technology.”

In addition to providing new facilities for the University’s globally recognized programs in astrophysics, astronomy, chemistry, and physics, the building will foster trailblazing work in molecular engineering, says University Provost Thomas Rosenbaum, the John T. Wilson Distinguished Service Professor in Physics.

“The combination of a state-of-the-art laboratory building and the University’s intellectual climate of rigorous inquiry and collaboration should be a tremendous draw for scientific talent from around the world,” Rosenbaum says. “This building will foster interdisciplinary studies among our current faculty and students as well as researchers who will help define the nascent field of molecular engineering.”

The Institute for Molecular Engineering will explore innovative technology made possible by modern advances in nanoscale manipulation. UChicago’s partner in the Institute will be Argonne National Laboratory, which brings deep expertise in nanoscale research with relevance to energy, public health, biology, homeland security, and other fields. Institute researchers likely will pursue a range of innovative technology involving the manipulation of atoms and molecules, potentially including the development of biologically inspired materials or new computing approaches.

“With this new Institute, we will expand our leadership in learning how to manipulate molecules to create practical new technologies that address critical national problems,” says Argonne Director Eric Isaacs.

An international search is under way for the founding Pritzker Director of the Institute. A $10 million gift from the Pritzker Foundation supports the directorship.

Math Alum Promotes Scientific Discovery

The Eckhardt Center will occupy the site of the current Research Institutes building on the west side of Ellis Avenue between 56th and 57th Streets, across the street from the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library. Offices will begin moving out of the Research Institutes Building in early 2011 to prepare for that building’s demolition and construction of the new facility. Scheduled for completion in February 2015, the $215 million project will provide 265,000 square feet of space on seven floors, including two below ground.

Eckhardt, the chairman and CEO of Eckhardt Trading Company, holds two mathematics degrees, a master’s from Chicago (1970), and a bachelor’s from DePaul University (1969). As a graduate student at UChicago, Eckhardt worked closely with the late Saunders Mac Lane, the Max Mason Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Mathematics. He drew on his background in the history of scientific methods and mathematical statistics to develop his trading program. He established Eckhardt Trading Company in 1991.

“Mr. Eckhardt’s deep technical understanding of a wide range of mathematical and scientific topics has both amazed and delighted me in recent years,” says Robert Fefferman, dean of the Physical Sciences Division.

“It therefore gives me great personal satisfaction to know that our newest science building will carry his name. His tremendous generosity will greatly promote excellent scientific discovery here for a substantial fraction of the next century.”

The Eckhardt Center is the most recent in a series of infrastructure enhancements for the physical sciences, following the renovation of Searle Chemistry Laboratory last year and the 2006 opening of the Gordon Center for Integrative Science.

Scientific Program Shapes Architecture

The Eckhardt Center design team is working to craft the facades, materials, joinery, and structure of the building to be as finely detailed as the scientific research that will unfold within its walls, says Steve Wiesenthal, associate vice president for Facilities Services and University architect. “There’s nothing extraneous. It all fits together in an understandable, logical, and beautiful way.”

The project is a collaboration between HOK, an architecture firm with a prolific track record of designing science and technology buildings, and Jamie Carpenter, an artist, sculptor, and architect known for his innovative work with light and glass.

The Eckhardt Center ultimately will accommodate 24 faculty members of the Institute for Molecular Engineering along with their affiliated research programs, including graduate students, College students, and research and support staff. The Center also will provide space for more than 220 faculty members, staff, and graduate students in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics, the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics, the theoretical physics group of the Enrico Fermi Institute, and part of the James Franck Institute.

“The new building will help to build stronger institutes and departments because of the enhanced inter-connectivity and new facilities,” says Stephan Meyer, Professor in Astronomy & Astrophysics. “Not only will we have modern laboratory space with good connection to faculty and research offices, the new building will provide well thought-out space for meetings, seminars, and informal collaboration. We have a lot to look forward to when the building is complete.”

Light-filled Design Connected to Nature

The two basement levels will contain specially designed, vibration-dampening space for clean rooms and molecular imaging. The clean rooms will filter out the vast majority of airborne contaminants such as dust, microbes, aerosols, and vapors that would interfere with experiments.

“One of the challenges is how to make the space feel light and connected to nature, given that so much of it is below grade,” Wiesenthal says.

The building’s design will do so in several ways, while also paying quiet homage to the University’s legacy of research on the electromagnetic spectrum that stretches back to Nobel Prize-winning physicists Albert A. Michelson, Robert Millikan, and Arthur Holly Compton and reaches into the future with the Giant Magellan Telescope and other instruments. The design will influence how light plays on the building’s facades and also will draw light deep inside to illuminate laboratories and hallways.

Perforated metal fins connected to serrated glass facades on the east and west will capture and reflect light horizontally into the building throughout the day. Further, a louvered glass ceiling over the north lobby will serve as a light well, capturing and driving light vertically into the building.

An atrium will span the upper three floors of the building, forming an axis that will allow light to cross from east to west. The atrium also spatially interconnects the top three floors and various units of the Physical Sciences Division that will reside there.

“Another way that the building speaks to the interests and program of the research within is about our place in the world and an emphasis on environmental sustainability,” Wiesenthal says. “This building will consume less energy than a typical laboratory building of this size.”

In fact, the University will apply for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Design) Gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council for the Eckhardt Center.

Both chilled beams and heat recovery systems will save an estimated $240,000 annually in energy costs, says project manager John Ekholm. A chilled beam is essentially a chilled coil that cools spaces without moving air. “It’s like a radiator except you’re using chilled water rather than hot water. It allows you to reduce fan sizes and energy consumption to cool the building,” Ekholm says.

Bringing Faculty Under One Roof

A café will occupy part of the ground floor. Dispersed throughout the floor plan are areas for formal and informal interactions, a feature especially important for fostering collaboration among the experimentalists and theoreticians in the physical sciences. “Their productivity is much greater when they interact. Things get done that wouldn’t get done otherwise,” Fefferman says.

The Astronomy & Astrophysics faculty currently work out of four campus buildings. The Eckhardt Center will bring the faculty under one roof.

The history of the department began in the 1890s, when George Ellery Hale founded the department and launched a continual quest to build the world’s largest telescopes. The department renewed this quest last summer when it became a founding member of the effort to build the Giant Magellan Telescope.

The Kavli Institute was founded in 2001 to study astrophysical phenomena still unexplained by the known laws of physics. Kavli scientists use the South Pole Telescope and other tools to probe the mysteries of the universe.

The Fermi and Franck institutes were founded in 1945 in recognition of the wealth of intellectual talent that had assembled at Chicago to work on the Manhattan Project. The institutes continued the dialogue between pure science and technology that the Manhattan Project had initiated, and helped ease the barriers between traditional scientific disciplines.

Originally published on December 13, 2010.