Holding Court

Law school building uses tech tools to connect students and instruction


By Sara Malone

When the law school at the University of Washington, Seattle, decided it was time to recreate its signature building, it did not engage in half measures. The $80 million, 196,000-square-foot William H. Gates Hall is open in plan and full of the latest technological features, from distance learning to smart podiums. And what else would you expect from a building named in honor of William H. Gates, a 1950 alumnus and the father of Microsoft founder Bill Gates?

Completed in 2003, Gates Hall is a building that is modern inside and out, but not so much that it turns its back on its surroundings and on tradition. Designed by Kohn Pederson Fox in partnership with Mahlum Architects, Gates Hall’s brick and glass exterior are contemporary, yet reflect elements of the surrounding neo-Gothic architecture on the campus.

“The approach with the building was to make the technology invisible but accessible,” says Gerald “Butch” Reifert, the principal at Mahlum Architects in charge of the project. “The users wanted it to feel like a real law office and courthouse.”

Standing alone on the northwest edge of the campus, Gates Hall creates a strong presence for the university. Unlike the rest of the campus, where buildings are grouped together in quadrangles, this building creates its own internal space. Its geometry echoes the grid of the old quadrangles and of the larger urban grid that surrounds the campus.

Anchoring the building is the two-story, below-grade Marian Gould Gallagher Law Library. The library is topped by a large outdoor terrace and punctured with four 18-foot trapezoidal glass skylights that flood the space with natural light. Designed with an open reading room and spacious study carrels, it also features a legal research training center and computer labs.

Surrounding the terrace and skylights are the L-shaped arms of the above-ground portions of the building. A two-story galleria runs along the L, drawing light into the interior and serving as Gates Hall’s Main Street. A row of white columns lines the window wall. The floor is green slate, and the walls are white with birch panels.

Hidden within these walls are the wired and wireless technologies needed to ensure Gates Hall offers the best education possible for its students.

“This building was designed over a fairly long period, and that was really the transition period from wired to wireless,” explains Jonathan Franklin, associate law librarian at Gallagher Library and one of the key planners. “We made the choice to put wired connections through to all of the staff offices, administrative areas, and student offices. But we drew the line at student spaces. These have wireless Internet access via 802.11 A and G.”

Franklin adds that as a back-up measure, the school opted to run conduits to risers in the classroom. “That’s one feature that I think was a good balance overall. We spent the money on the conduit but not on pulling cable,” he notes.

“We did still add a lot of power outlets, so we’ll be behind the curve when they suddenly begin delivering wireless power. But that’ll be far enough in the future that this choice was worthwhile,” he adds.

Also within the building are six classrooms, eight seminar rooms, offices, distance learning rooms, a law clinic suite, student lounges, and the three mock courtrooms that are also lecture halls-and the most technologically advanced rooms in Gates Hall. With their dataports, Crestron panels, and remote technology, the wood-paneled Magnuson/Jackson Moot Courtroom and Toni Rembe Appellate Courtroom offer students a realistic courtroom experience, where the mock proceedings can be both recorded and broadcast.

The Magnuson/Jackson Moot Courtroom, the largest lecture hall in the building, features semi-circle tiered seating for nearly 200 people, a full jury box, a court reporter station, a witness stand, and attorneys’ tables. In the mock courtrooms, the Crestron control system has been integrated with multiple display units throughout the space.

When these rooms are in courtroom mode, the people playing the attorneys and judges can control the information going to the jury. The “public” attending the trial can also see the information being displayed. There are LCDs in the jury box that are controlled by the judge, who then decides whether the information is too prejudicial to display to the jury.

In the Toni Rembe Appellate Courtroom, the panel of judges is also equipped with LCD screens, where they can see displays of evidence.

“We faced a couple of issues with these spaces,” notes Franklin, “because they’re used as both lecture halls and mock courtrooms. In a lecture hall, the professor is roaming. In a courtroom setting, most everyone remains seated. That makes the microphone situation a challenging one. What we chose to do was get rid of podium microphones and go to lavaliere microphones.”

“Also,” he says, “while the document cameras we got are very good for showing evidence, they’re not as good for displaying text. My advice would be to make sure you test the document camera itself for all the different uses that you’re going to put it through.”

The equipment in these courtrooms and in the other classrooms is controlled through the podiums. These “smart” podiums, as they are known, are equipped with Crestron touch screen panels that control all technological functions, including the lighting, the document cameras, Internet access, DVD and VCR capability, PowerPoint, overhead projectors, and AV feed.

“In this facility we see, instead of a table with an overhead projector on it, beautiful millwork podiums that house the computing requirements,” says Steve Olszewski, vice president and sales manager for Dimensional Communications Inc., the firm that provided the AV design and installation. “They feature touch screen panels that control the document cameras, microphones, Internet access, and media. They also have distance learning capabilities. They operate cameras by remote control ... so if a video conference is required they can port that information via camera into a centralized control room and establish a video conference.”

More important than the bells and whistles and high-tech features in these podiums, explains Olszewski, is that they are user-friendly. The touch screen drives the control system, which talks to all the equipment in the room. A single push of a button on a touch screen can do dozens of commands. This ensures that the lecturer does not have to be a computer whiz.

“The idea with these high-tech podiums is to take the technology and make it readily available for the instructor, but not burden the instructor with anything more than they absolutely need to do their work,” he says. “In classroom environments, getting the message across to the students is No. 1. The delivery method used is important, but the goal is to put that behind the scenes; a lot of technology is literally hidden away in racks and cabinets.”

The functions controlled by the podiums can also be controlled in the master AV control room: for example, the in-room recording. When students can’t come to class, they can arrange permission to record the class.

The faculty member can place a video cassette into a VCR and press a button on the Crestron panel that automatically picks a camera view and begins recording. This is a feature that can also be managed via the centralized AV system.

“We’re able to record that class from our master control room and/or route it through a Polycom unit,” notes Franklin.

While currently a VCR is used for the in-room recording, Gates Hall is also equipped with some digital recording units.

“We’re looking at the option of going to DVRs or going directly to streaming video on a media server,” Franklin says. School officials have not yet decided what the next generation of products will be, nor which delivery method - analog or digital - they will choose.

Gates Hall’s distance education program, which includes the ability to both record and broadcast lectures and other programming from its classrooms, also has specialized learning rooms dedicated solely to that purpose.

One of these rooms is a welcome haven for parents with young children. The on-site Claire Sherman-Thomas Remote Learning Center, also known as a “crying room,” is a place where students who are also parents can bring their young children, and still watch and participate in class via a CCTV system.

The dedicated distance learning rooms at Gates Hall, which foster collaborative classes between different universities and even between different countries, feature extra cameras, better soundproofing, and microphones for every student. This capability has been so successful that the school is considering expanding the distance learning offerings in Gates Hall to include a seminar-style room, which will require more mobile equipment.

The accommodating spaces and easy-to-use technology make the facility an ideal spot for outside groups to meet. To make things as easy as possible, Gates Hall is outfitted with directory kiosks and display screens that inform them of the event’s location and other information. The kiosks are also beneficial for students who need to know if their classes have been moved or where an event will occur. Plans are in the works to improve the current kiosks.

“We’re working on using a Web-based solution, combined with larger LCDs rather than plasma monitors, to ensure a longer lifespan. These LCDs could inform students of what’s happening and where,” Franklin says.

And, because of the many comings and goings of outside groups, and the security needs of the pro-bono law clinic, Gates Hall has been equipped with an up-to-date key card system.

“Although key cards are standard in law schools and university buildings, what we have here is a clinic where students and faculty work with real clients on real cases,” Franklin explains. “The key card system protects those files using security as if it were a law firm office. Most people can’t get into that space and access those files even though they can get into other areas of the building.”

University professionals are resting on their laurels. There are a host of other possible upgrades being considered for Gates Hall, including changing the way the rooms are microphoned, introducing streaming video and audio, and adding infrared or radio frequency to poll a classroom instantaneously. And all of it will remain discreet, allowing the school to emphasize its curriculum rather than how the curriculum is delivered.

“From an architectural standpoint, this building is a very elegant building,” says Olszewski. “The audiovisual was incorporated not just to satisfy the instructional technology but also to integrate that technology in a meaningful way into the aesthetic environment. That can be tricky - but it works at Gates Hall.”


This view shows the Gates Hall courtyard, two-story galleria, and library skylights.