How do you create a space that sparks innovation and provides the right environment for learning in the 21st century. Create a space that focuses on students first—supporting the way they learn and providing the latest technology for creativity and experimentation. Flexibility, transparency, and accessibility are foundational principles that drove the Watt Family Innovation Center design at Clemson University. This agile, high-tech environment allows cross disciplinary teams of students, faculty, and industry partners to come together and take ideas from concept to reality.
The state-of-the-art Watt Family Innovation Center is dedicated to inspiring and developing talented visionaries who will build a more prosperous and brighter future for our communities. Named for its primary donors, the Watt family, the 70,000 square foot, three-story facility is a highly flexible building that provides space for teaching and research in science, technology, and engineering—as well as cross-functional collaboration and interdisciplinary engagement.
The visionary behind the project, Dr. Charles Watt, Executive Director of the Watt Family Innovation Center, understands the value in enabling serendipitous interactions. “You can solve more complex problems many times in an ad hoc way than utilizing a very structured process,” he said. “We recognized how important this approach was for our students and made their needs the primary criteria for designing the Center.”
Clemson created a place where innovation could happen without the constraints of traditional classroom spaces and resources—one that flexes for team collaboration needs and adapts for the future. The Watt Family Innovation Center is a showplace that demonstrates Clemson’s academic enterprise in action, putting current students’ needs firsts while also attracting the next generation of prospective innovators.
“The university wanted a facility that was about the students, not just a particular college or department within a university, but a university resource where students could come together, interact with one another, interact with faculty, interact with industry partners and work on their ideas—a place where they can bring their ideas, work together, develop them, and get them to the marketplace.” said Floyd Cline, Senior Associate with Perkins + Will, and the project manager for the Watt Family Innovation Center.
The primary driver of the building design was the need for flexibility. Student projects range from small to large, and take a month to a semester or even an entire year. The activities are very organic, and the building accommodates the need for agility. “Haworth’s raised access floors allowed us to carry all of the utilities underneath the floor, providing flexibility for future reconfigurations,” said Floyd. “Accompanied by the demountable wall systems, we can easily create larger or smaller spaces as needed, and really meet the dynamic needs of this building.”
Haworth suggests an “organic” metaphor as a process for creating, managing, and maintaining space. The organic metaphor is that of a living thing, with internal systems that adapt in response to environmental changes. “An Organic Workspace® is designed to embrace change, ensuring that the physical space, technology, and policy remain in alignment with the goals of the organization,” says Dr. Mike O’Neill, Senior Research Strategist at Haworth. The design team embraced this strategy and concept when developing the Watt Innovation Center for learning.
The demountable walls also provide the transparency required to help achieve the vision for the Innovation Center—to create a place where students are inspired. From the moment they enter the building, students have a view into the engineering classrooms, the auditorium, and the project labs. That visual access perpetuates high energy, bringing inspiration to the broader student population.
The furniture also plays an important role in flexibility. “One of the goals was to have mobile and flexible architecture and furniture components. As program needs change, these components could serve those ever-changing needs of the users,” said Cathy Bunn, Project Architect, Perkins + Will. “Most of the furniture is on wheels. The tables flip up and you can roll them out the door. And dry erase writing surfaces allow for impromptu creativity and information sharing.”
Technology is key for nurturing innovation and collaboration in 21st century learning environments. “The university is making a large commitment to technology rich buildings because that’s what students want and need—that’s how they’re thinking, learning, and working,” said Floyd. “I believe that the elements characterized by and utilized in this building are those that define our future,” said Dr. Watt. “Even more than defining—they are essential. We have to solve problems in a dimension that we did not before.”
While their primary purpose is to facilitate circulation, corridors also create spaces for teaming opportunities—both formal collaboration and informal gatherings. They were designed to be wider than usual, with walls that include technology to accommodate multiple functions so students can easily access the audio-visual components or work from their laptops in the lounge areas.
“The students often use these spaces between classes, so we tried to make sure there were plenty of places to plug in their devices,” said Cathy. “They might even have classes in different buildings, but they come here, grab a cup of coffee, sit down, and they can recharge.”
“When people come in many of them ask, ‘Does it look how you thought it would?’” said Dr. Watt. “I say, ‘It is fantastic.’ We had a model when we visited Haworth and their building, and many of those features are incorporated in here. We were not able to completely visualize flexibility until we saw it.”
At the heart of the building is the atrium, stamped with the paw print of the Clemson Tiger. The icon serves as a focal point among orange tile flooring, accompanied by a massive video screen that conveys the Clemson brand as soon as people—especially prospective students—walk into the building. From there, you simply need to look around to see innovation happening.
The Watt Family Innovation Center is a landmark project for the university that fosters problem-based project learning—a model for future campus buildings and for the field of higher education.
“I think a distinctive nature of the building is that it offers so many ways for expression and creativity. It’s really opening us up to a whole new way of looking at education,” said Dennis Lester, Associate Director for Science and Technology at the Watt Family Innovation Center. “We wanted to create an environment that doesn’t dictate how to be used. People can learn how to best apply it to their educational needs, allowing it morph as the university and higher education morph.”
Embedded technology enables collaborative learning and interaction among students, faculty, and partners. Glass walls bring in natural light and create an open, vibrant core inside with views of campus outside—a space that draws people from all over the university to meet and study. Students are collaborating in classrooms, projecting their work up on screens, and displaying their work on walls with magnets. They’re writing on the glass, on whiteboards, and on the electronic displays with their fingers—equations are covering full panels of glass. With so many virtual and visual display tools, they look at information from different viewpoints and share it in a way that was never possible in former education models.
The whole character of this project was innovation. It’s trying something new. It’s working with different people that you normally wouldn’t work with, in a unique way to accomplish something that you haven’t done before. We had great partners who were all driven toward one main goal: How does this impact or enrich the students? It was always the number one focus, which is a great testament to the university.
- Floyd, Perkins + Will
South Carolina’s highest-ranked national university is located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, with research facilities and economic development hubs throughout the state. Founded in 1889, Clemson is a top-25 public university with a reputation for its dedication to teaching, research, and service. Ranked as the 21st best national public university by U.S. News & World Report, Clemson provides a hands-on education—in the lab, in the arts, and in the field.
TecCrete® Raised Access Flooring
X Series® Casegoods and Storage
Masters Series® Wood Casegoods
Patterns Architectural Elements
ToDo® Lounge Seating
Haworth Collection™: m_sit™, SE04™, LTB™, Collaborate, K700™, Hi Pad
Architect / Design Firm: Perkins + Will, Atlanta
General Contractor: Turner Construction Company
Haworth Furniture Dealer: PMC Commercial Interiors
Haworth Flooring Contractor: Brock Contract Services
Photographer: Dave Burk