March 10, 2022
Heritage, thermodynamics and respite all part of the story of ASU's newest building on corner of Tempe campus
The desert is a place that tells stories. Petroglyphs. Tire tracks. Paw prints. The dried parchment of a shed snake skin.
Who was here. What they did. Where they went.
And so it is with the newest addition to Arizona State University’s Tempe campus.
The Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Building 7 is a building of the desert, not a building in the desert.
Although it won’t be christened until April, it was born with many tales to tell.
The idea, as envisioned by university President Michael Crow, was to create a living room for the university, a place that is a nexus for all the institution’s research.
“Every single move that was made was made in support of this mission to create a very holistic, comfortable, sustainable project,” architect Rachel Green Rasmussen said.
The $192 million building features 70,000 square feet of lab space. There is a 26% reduction in global warming potential, water-based climate control to reduce energy use, and the capacity to capture 100% of rain falling on it and direct it to landscape and aquifer recharge.
“A highly complex building,” project manager Carlos Diaz of McCarthy Building Companies called it.
The interior is full of surprises. There’s a break room in a stairwell, which sounds miserable, but it’s a lovely, unusual space.
“It’s a good-feel building,” Diaz added. “People feel good in here.”
The site: The history and the importance of water in the desert
An irrigation canal — long a part of this area of land — cuts through the courtyard of the new ISTB7 building. A number of historical elements were incorporated into the building's design. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU News
The site has always been a crossroads. Today, it’s one of the busiest intersections in the state.
A thousand years ago, the site was used to process food, an archaeological study revealed. The Akimel O’Odham and the Piipaash people brought foods like mesquite pods here. There was a foot path and, later, a stage coach route. The first transcontinental highway — from Savannah, Georgia, to San Diego — ran through here. (A remnant has been preserved.) Waters from the Kirkland-McKinney ditchWhat remains of the Kirkland-McKinney are a few small segments of open ditch along Eighth Street and University Drive in Tempe. It is sometimes also referred to as the Hayden Ditch. powered the Hayden Flour Mill.
The Kirkland-McKinney was among the earliest irrigation undertakings in the Tempe area, named for William H. Kirkland and James B. McKinney. With help from the area’s Hispanic residents, it is estimated the Kirkland-McKinney branch was constructed between 1869 and 1870, which makes it the oldest extant and in-use water conveyance in the SRP system.
The Hayden branch was developed roughly a year later as a part of Charles Trumbull Hayden’s vision of creating a water-powered flour mill. This branch continued to serve Tempe until urbanization reduced the size of the branch and most of it was ultimately piped underground.
Water from this ditch system also helped support a thriving Spanish-speaking community made up of prominent families, such as the Sotelo family. The area was named after the family, known as the Sotelo Addition, and supported agriculture until the area began to urbanize around the midcentury mark.
It’s important to note that this canal and many others have deeper routes, and some date back before Europeans settled the Valley, built by the ancestors of the modern Akimel O’odham, who today are part of the Gila River and Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian communities.
The ISTB7 incorporation of the ditch into the design of the building is unique, and SRP is in the process of working with ASU, the Bureau of Reclamation and Native American tribes to develop interpretive signage that tells the story of these canals.
Another bit of history on the land is a railroad spur line that linked Tempe to the greater Union Pacific rail network and the rest of the Southwest. Aspects from each of these historic elements have been preserved as part of the new structure.
“We wanted to be able to preserve and tell that story,” said Tom Reilly, architect with Architekton, one of the two firms who designed the building. “So less than 50% of the building touches the ground. … That creates that process.”
The site: The challenges
ISTB7, shown on Feb. 3, sits at one of the busiest intersections in the state. Photo by Denna Dent/ASU News
There’s a 28-foot grade from the intersection of University Drive and Rural Road to the top of the site. Both a working Salt River Project ditch and the light rail run through the site. And, as mentioned, it sits at one of the busiest intersections in the state.
It may well have been the most complex place to build something in Arizona.
“All of these things just to break ground,” said Diaz.
“I’m the oldest guy on the team, and I can tell you that it was the most challenging site that I’ve ever worked on. But the other side of that is there were hidden gems that I’ve never seen on another site, either," architect Tom Reilly said. “There were several times during the process when it looked like we were not going to be able to complete the building on that site. And inevitably, people rallied together and everybody wanted to do the right thing. They figured out how to do it.
"So it was a huge team effort from ASU, all the builders, all the designers, SRP, the Bureau of Land Management, the city of Tempe. It really was everybody kind of pulling together and getting excited about the vision and making sure that it happened despite the hurdles.”
Architects on the project were Tempe-based Architekton and New York-based Grimshaw Architects.
First up was educating the East Coast contingent on all things Arizona.
“We threw the New Yorkers into all the aspects of the desert,” said Rasmussen, an architect at Architekton. “We did rides along the canals. We went and hiked in the desert. A lot of things to really get them to understand the plant materials and the kind of beauty that I think we’ve all come to recognize that really seeps into your soul here about desert living.”
Eric Johnson, an associate at Grimshaw, said “With Architekton, you guys taught us a lot about shading and kind of the appropriateness of materiality in Arizona.”
The "slot canyon" on the east side of the building hints at ISTB7's geode inspiration — a hard exterior with a sparkling interior. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News
The concept behind the building is a geode. The exterior is hard and crusty, but in the interior courtyard, there’s an abundance of light and sparkling glass.
“When you crack the geode open, there’s all this excitement, there’s all this kind of reflection happening inside the geode,” Johnson said.
The interior is also seen as a riparian area, with water flowing through and cool blue walls inspired by the Havasu Falls in the Grand Canyon.
“You can get glimpses into that idea as you kind of walk around the building,” Johnson said. “There’s the slot canyon to the east where you can see into this blue, green material with all its reflections that we provided.”
The building is clad in a shell of glass-fiber-reinforced concrete panels. It absorbs and stores less heat.
It’s on track for LEED V4 Platinum certification; “significantly harder from a building performance standpoint,” Diaz said. The air conditioning systems only bring in fresh air as needed.
“How do you create a skin that actually does not hold that heat? That slows down the heat transfer into the building?” university architect Ed Soltero said. “We’ve delayed that, so that the mechanical systems have been downsized completely and we don’t expend a lot of energy.”