The New Life Sciences Building:
Looking Back as We Move Forward

The fall of 1970 was met with great excitement by faculty and students from the College of Biology and Agriculture (now the College of Life Sciences) as they moved into the new John A.Widtsoe Life Sciences Laboratory Building at the south end of the BYU campus. Departments and research facilities that had been scattered around campus in the old Page School, the Brimhall Building, the Eyring Science Center, and other places could now be consolidated into one 183,914-square-foot state-of-the-art facility.

The Widtsoe Building under construction in 1969
The Widtsoe Building under construction in 1969.
At the time, this new laboratory facility was described as being “interspersed with faculty offices and with modern life sciences laboratories” and having “a multitude of . . . modern conveniences.”1 The Widtsoe Building (WIDB) has now served the campus well for over forty years. Though well maintained, the building is aging. There are nearly two miles of glass tubing for liquid waste disposal in the building that are vulnerable to breaks. The mechanical and electrical infrastructure is outdated and replacement parts are no longer available. The seven floors above ground are made of heavy, stiff materials, making the building seismically unsafe.

In addition, research approaches and techniques have changed dramatically during those forty years and the laboratories are now outdated and inadequate to meet the research needs of students and faculty. For example, slide presentations and educational movies were a major part of class instruction. Computer technology was in its infancy in 1970. Now, virtually every laboratory in the WIDB needs one or more computers to manage and carry out experiments. Back then, much of the research was descriptive in nature because we did not have the tools and techniques to delve deeper into cellular and molecular mechanisms. These days, life science research often includes experiments that look at gene sequences, gene expression, or protein expression. The WIDB simply was not built to handle these changes in research direction.

Another substantial dilemma for faculty and students has been the lack of space in the WIDB for student-student interaction and very limited space for faculty-student collaboration. We now know that student learning is enhanced when students can work together and when they can be mentored one-on-one by a professor.
The Widtsoe Building
The Widtsoe Building has served the College well for over 40 years.

The new Life Sciences Building (LSB) will be constructed to the south of the WIDB and will terrace down the hill toward 800 North. The LSB is meant to be “an icon for the College of Life Sciences and as such [to] be an exhibition of the science education and research conducted.” It will serve as the “southern ‘Gateway’ to the BYU Campus and function as such in its architectural character and in its pedestrian circulation patterns.”2

To make room for the new LSB, it was necessary to demolish the Benjamin Cluff Building. The Cluff Building was an important part of the college for many years. Our research greenhouses and electron microscopes were there. Our teaching lab for biological science education and Landscape Management and Floral Design were housed there. These have all moved, some permanently, others temporarily. Once the new building is finished and the move from the WIDB is complete, the WIDB will be demolished. In its place, a beautifully designed green space will be established. A new entrance to the Thomas L. Martin Building (MARB) will be constructed. New elevators will be installed in the MARB to replace the WIDB elevators that will be lost in the demolition of the WIDB.

The new LSB has been designed to meet the needs of modern life science researchers and to incorporate strategies of flexibility so that the building can continue to be functional for at least the next fifty years. Part of this flexibility comes from the “open” design of laboratory space. Each floor of the building will have far fewer walls than the WIDB. The floor space will not be carved up into single labs customized to just one researcher’s needs. Rather, there will be much more shared space where certain pieces of equipment can be used by many. All of the laboratory casework (lab benches, shelves, cabinets, etc.) will be movable and all of the interior walls will be easy to reconfigure. Support utilities (electricity, compressed air, natural gas, etc.) will be accessed through hookups placed strategically in the ceiling. If a lab bench needs to be moved, the utilities that support it will be available by connecting to a different ceiling hookup.

Besides its flexibility, a second important improvement in the new LSB
The Cluff Building
The Cluff Building once housed laboratories and greenhouses for
the College of Life Sciences.
will be the inclusion of space for students to interact with each other and with faculty. On three of the floors, students and faculty will be able to go outside and take advantage of gathering spaces on the roof. These areas will have built-in benches and picnic tables with chairs. Given the location of the new LSB on the hill south of campus, these rooftop oases will offer wonderful views of the valley. All of the teaching laboratories will be located on the second floor of the building. The design calls for open meeting areas around the outside of these labs, as well as for comfortable benches along the corridors, where students will be able to sit together and study. Faculty offices will be larger than those in the WIDB, allowing larger groups of students to work with a professor. Conference rooms distributed throughout the building will be available for lab meetings, student study sessions, club meetings, and so on.

The architects have designed an open-air, glass-covered atrium that will “meander” up the center of the building from the south entrance on 800 North to the north entrance at the level of South Campus Drive. It is anticipated that this will become a popular pathway for students to take when coming to, or leaving campus. Spaces offset to either side of the atrium walkway will house rotating “science on display” exhibits that will showcase the work of the college. Alternatively, students will be able to pass around the new LSB on either side and use sidewalks to travel to and from campus. A two-level parking garage, accessed from 800 North, is also included in the design of the building.

Faculty and students have long dreamed of a new Life Sciences building. Members of the College of Life Sciences are grateful to so many for making this dream become a reality.

1. Chapter 36, “More Tabernacles of Learning,” Brigham Young University, The First One Hundred Years (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 1976), 3:251.
2. New Life Sciences Building Program Document, 2010.