Institute of Advanced Learning and Research

Facility Anchors Drive to Attract Business



Project Quick Facts

Cost: $2.2 million (AV equipment and labor)
Award Winners:
Technical Innovation
Dewberry & Davis

The Institute of Advanced Learning and Research in Danville, VA, stands as a testament to the determined efforts of a coalition of government, business, and academic leaders to bring high-tech resources, 21st-century educational tools, and cutting-edge research to southern Virginia. This public-private partnership also sought to foster new economic development to help offset the region’s declining tobacco and textile industries.       

The IALR further attests to the creative vision of its architectural and technical teams in translating the concept - Danville as a breeding ground for high technology - into a multifunctional but flexible facility that innovatively accommodates the now, yet is geared for the future.

“In a sense, the whole building is the embodiment of that concept so it needed to respond to the theme of technology in a dramatic way,” says Larry W. Hasson, the architect who managed the project for Dewberry & Davis, a regional branch of the Fairfax, VA-based architectural firm Dewberry. “Our clients gave us a great deal of freedom in both the design of the facility and the manner in which the spaces are linked through technology.”

Soon after the concept was laid on the table, AV specialists from Atlanta-based Technical Innovation joined the design team under the direction of Gary Benzine and served throughout the project as both consultants and integrators.

J. Thomas Head, dean of the school of engineering at Virginia Tech, served as consultant to the project from its inception.

Hasson’s dramatic embrace of high-tech themes is most evident in the 40-foot-high atrium lobby, in which the signature technology is a suspended array of nine 50-inch plasma screens that greet visitors with messages of welcome, announce events, and broadcast a range of visual images. Above the screens an exposed steel truss system reminiscent of a giant erector set spans the circular space, which is enclosed by a glass curtain wall. Acoustical ceiling tiles with metal perimeter trim deaden sound in the large space and visually suggest suspended clouds in the sky seen through the upper wall. Below, stainless steel railings line the balcony and stairwell, while the steel and glass elevator scales the expanse. “I did not want the atrium to look like a regular lobby in a regular office building,” Hasson says. “Instead I wanted the space to relay ‘cool’ and scream ‘technology.’”

Electrical lighting here and elsewhere was specially designed to underscore the high-tech theme. More than 35 different lighting fixtures were incorporated inside and out.

Initially, the concept for the atrium video wall called for the array to be mounted on a 5-foot-high stand in front of the elevator, but Hasson insisted that it be raised to allow for a view of the stairs and elevator because that space is the architectural focus of the building’s entrance area. The solution developed by Technical Innovation was an unobtrusive, custom-built harness system to suspend the screen assembly securely mid-space. An additional benefit to this design, Hasson says, is that “now the stairs platform can also act as a great location for podium-speaking to large groups.”

While the soaring atrium offers dramatic entry to the 90,000-square-foot facility, its educational and conferencing spaces are equally impressive. Among the building’s more sizable spaces is an executive auditorium with seating for 600 that serves as a venue for corporate and government functions. “Its robust AV systems, two 12-foot by 16-foot screens, and satellite transmission capabilities were recently used during a videoconference meeting between the governor and Chinese officials,” Benzine notes. Another large area is the “great hall,” spacious enough to accommodate a convention or trade show, but also capable of being divided into 42 different spaces with multiple access to each.

The second level offers three smaller but fully integrated conference rooms and a multiuse executive boardroom that can also be partitioned into two discrete areas. In addition, five other public meeting facilities - all with projection capabilities - are available for local businesses and community leaders.

The educational element was equally important to the Institute, which maintains multiple links to centers of higher education in southern Virginia. With the support and involvement of Virginia Tech, a strong proponent of the “wired university,” the facility incorporates nine state-of-the art classrooms tied to the Virginia education network that are set aside specifically for distance learning. Other classroom areas are designed for open forums, seminars, and presentations. Though not a classroom as such, the Cybercafe off the atrium is also an educational amenity in that it doubles as the student lounge, with Internet connectivity for laptops and AV in the form of cable TV and a stereo system.

“All in all, there are 25 or 30 AV areas used in myriad ways,” says Benzine. “All the facility systems are fully integrated. For example, the nine distance learning classrooms can share video and audio content. That’s fairly unique and different.” Technical Innovation also installed more than 2,000 Ethernet ports throughout the facility and designed wiring and cabling infrastructures for easy upgrade. “The facility has been identified as one of the finest presentation and communications environments in the country,” Benzine says.

The building’s expansive plan also includes ample space for research and economic development, technology laboratories, and administrative offices.

Designing for Flexibility

Because one of the goals of the IALR is to lure new companies to the region and offer a centralized location for business leaders to confer, the design team provided a series of conferencing spaces for medium- and small-scale meetings. To contrast the cool high-tech tone of the atrium, Hasson also included more intimate gathering places off the lobby.

The executive boardroom, stretching 45 feet in length from the exterior curtain wall toward the building interior, is equipped with side-by-side 61-inch plasma displays positioned on the interior end wall, plus six other 50-inch plasma displays. The 32-foot-long custom conference table contains 16 access boxes with Ethernet and other input/output ports. Recognizing that the room’s size could limit its potential for small-group interaction, Hasson and Benzine designed the table with a 12-inch leaf that drops out of the way, creating two tables. A full-height partition can then be extended from a side-wall pocket to cleanly divide the room in half.

But that handy division created a problem, the architect notes, because the partition visually blocked the existing end-wall screens for people sitting in the newly created half-space. To compensate, the AV designers integrated two additional side-by-side plasma displays at the opposite end of the room to be activated only when the partition is in place. And because that end wall comprises a portion of the exterior glass curtain wall, automated shades were added to exclude natural light and serve as the backdrop for the ancillary screens.

“The whole idea of ‘executive suites’ is intended for any client who might need a good environment for teleconferencing,” Hasson says. “The three executive conference rooms, though smaller than the boardroom, have the same technology, so in effect we’ve provided five different venues for executive meetings.”

The concept of flexible meeting spaces also extends to the classroom design. “The student rooms and classrooms vary in size; some hold just a few people, others many more,” Hasson says. “With distance learning especially, there are often just a small number in attendance and we took that into consideration.” All nine spaces dedicated to distance learning are linked to Network Virginia. They are used by both graduate students and workers under-going training for jobs that are considered key to the region’s economic transformation.

The greatest challenge that the project presented, the designers agree, was its very tight schedule. “The programming and design of the building was accomplished by a very small staff in an incredibly tight 6-month time frame,” recalls Benzine.

Hasson adds: “The overall completion of the facility did fall behind schedule, yet the overall project took just a spry 20 months from inception to construction completion. Considering the Institute began simply as a concept, and received a lot of attention as a high-profile project, it is remarkable there were so little changes to our initial design.”

A New Economic Direction

The Institute is the anchor for a 330-acre research park in Danville called Cyber Park, which was developed to attract technology industries and thus to diversify the region’s economic base. According to Dewberry, the park features an advanced communications and power infrastructure designed to provide businesses with system flexibility and reliability. Technical Innovation is already involved in the audiovisual groundwork for a facility that will participate in a government program studying unmanned vehicles and robotics.

“We look at the Institute as the mother of Cyber Park,” says Hasson. “It has all the amenities that any of the other buildings’ tenants can take advantage of - the auditorium and the café, for instance - and don’t need to be duplicated anywhere else in the park.”

According to the IALR website, the Institute’s research centers will host Virginia Tech faculty who will “conduct research in the fields of polymers, unmanned systems, high-value horticulture and forestry, and motorsports engineering.” These research centers, the site says, are designed to make major strides in specialty fields as well as to attract small and mid-size companies seeking access to the facility’s advanced infrastructure and the Institute’s collective expertise.

“The vision for the IALR not only delivers the perception of a high-tech, forward-thinking facility,” Benzine says. “Its contents and systems truly deliver a much-needed product of this caliber to the region.”