Form & Function: New Energy Center was built with learning and innovation in mind

Aug 06, 2015 by

In the lobby of the new TJC Energy Center is an abstract sculpture made with 48 two-by-four wood planks mounted to the wall in a seemingly bizarre, unwieldy pattern. The discussion piece is striking and looks out of place when you first see it.

“That’s everybody’s first question: What is it?” Brandy Ziegler, project architect for Fitzpatrick Architects, said.
When the architects were designing the interior of the building, they wanted to do something representing raw energy – an abstract piece that represented the nature of energy – full of kinetic potential.

“It’s more of an abstract element, but it was kind of innovative in itself,” Ziegler said. “We talked about this center being an innovation center.”

Innovative, striking, abstract and kinetic were all adjectives used to pitch a brand-new training center expansion on the West Campus to bring exciting high-tech careers to Tyler.
Construction began in February 2014 with the goal of building a cutting-edge workforce development center to cross-train students on everything from HVAC and advanced energy systems to electrical systems and welding technology.

The Energy Center presents a new “front door” to the TJC West Campus.

“It’s a statement about what we’re doing here. We’re investing serious thought and money to have something great,” Ziegler said.

Packing more than 50,000 square feet into a small patch of land adjacent to the current skills training center was no small feat, which is why the building had to be an impressive three stories in height. Deciding on a look for the building was a whole other task.

The buildings on the West Campus have been many things over the years, including industrial and light manufacturing. The $9.6 million facility had to impress but work within the confines of the West Campus’ small footprint.

“We wanted to work with our context, so we decided to stick with an industrial feel; but we didn’t want to necessarily mimic, or even nod to, the West Campus,” Ziegler said. “We would be distinctly different.”

The architects at Fitzpatrick looked at other projects around the country that embodied the industrial feel they were going for: a cross between industrial and mid-century modern; simple, elegant and warm, without frills. The Energy Center does that.

An abstract sculpture of two-by-four wood planks serves as the focal point of the Energy Center lobby. Photos courtesy of BlackInk Photography.

An abstract sculpture of two-by-four wood planks serves as the focal point of the Energy Center lobby. Photos courtesy of BlackInk Photography.

The design team settled on using insulated metal panels, or IMPs, a newer, pre-fabricated construction material. The panels consist of foam insulation sandwiched between two pieces of metal, then painted. The tolerances are very tight, and the 4’x8’ panels lock together forming a weather-tight barrier. The main structure of the building is put together like an erector set, with bright yellow I-beams.

But state-of-the-art construction often comes with challenges and creative problem solving.

“You can’t hide anything like you would with a stud wall,” Ziegler said, referring to electrical conduit, heating, cooling, and plumbing. “The challenge is to keep it neat and not an eyesore.”

With that challenge represented an opportunity.

“The whole building is a learning lab,” Dr. W. Clayton Allen, associate vice president for instruction, told the Tyler Paper in December of 2014.

“He kept saying ‘show off the HVAC systems, show off the pipes,’” Ziegler said.

Indeed, all of the plumbing, electrical and heating and cooling are exposed for all to see. Each pipe is labeled, and each wire is color-coded and arranged neatly in order.

The entire building is a training tool to teach students the ins and outs of modern energy systems.

And with the name “Energy Center,” being energy inefficient was out of the question.

“If we’re going to say that we’re about energy over here, it had to be energy efficient,” Ziegler said. “It was a priority from the beginning.”

Louvers on the west side of the building limit the amount of sunlight-induced heat coming through the three stories of windows.

On the north side, interior lights will turn off if they detect enough ambient light coming through the windows. Walk into a room, even a common area, and lights will turn on to greet you.

“It’s called ‘light harvesting,’ so when you don’t need light, it’s not on,” Ziegler said.

The roof of the building is bathed in light-reflecting material, situated below three perches for future solar panel installation.

The design team started with big ideas and narrowed down the design to incorporate the most efficient and realistic design choices.

“We originally had this crazy idea for a huge windmill that was as tall as the building and stuck out of the roof. That didn’t make it,” Ziegler lamented. “Some of our ideas were really far out there.”

The architecture for the windmill, albeit on a smaller scale, is still designed into the building.

On the inside, two of the three stories are filled with open learning labs, exposed beams, and common areas for instructors and students to gather, free from the constraints of a traditional classroom.

In the fall, students in the Luminant Academy will return from their summer internships at power plants to fill those learning labs. Luminant, a driving force behind the expansion of the West Campus, helped spearhead the power plant technology program at TJC, and was a major reason for the construction of the new center. Luminant, which runs major coal-burning power plants in Texas, has an aging workforce and needs young talent to take over.

In addition, new programs range from ammonia certification (requested by Brookshire Grocery Co.); biomedical equipment repair; electrical and electronic controls; geothermal, industrial electrical maintenance; instrument and control; mechanical, robotic and automated systems; and solar and wind.

“One of the things [our team] talked about was that the faculty have a place they’re proud of,” Ziegler said. “It helps with retention and recruiting. People always argue, ‘Does architecture really matter? Does it make a difference?’

“There’s a difference in what kind of investment someone has made where you are. That was one of the reasons why we wanted this to be an invigorating environment.”

When asked about her favorite part of the building, Ziegler points to the three-story tower, dominating the small swatch of land dedicated to the West Campus.

“On a small scale, though, I like the art piece,” referring to the two-by-fours hanging on the wall. “Everyone jokes, ‘OK, what’s the hidden message in this?’”

“It’s a statement about energy; where energy has come from and where we are now.”



Features, Summer 2015

About the author

Allen Arrick is Tyler Junior College's Online Multimedia Content Producer. He can be reached at 903-510-2526 or at