University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Natural History Building  

Urbana, Illinois

154,000 SF

Scope of Services
Interior Design

LEED Certification

Preservation and Conservation Association Heritage Award

Best Comprehensive Restoration Project, International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers


NaturalHistory_008 and _009 CORE PANORAMA preferred
NaturalHistory_018 LAB

A Vision Revived

Built in the 1890s and designed by Architect Nathan Ricker, the first graduate of the UIUC School of Architecture, the building is shared by two schools of distinctly different cultures and curricula: the School of Earth, Society and the Environment (SESE) and the School of Integrative Biology (SIB). LCM's master plan expresses the spirit of both schools by drawing on their shared interest in nature, preserving the past, and achieving a sustainable future for the planet. Prompted by a need for structural and functional repairs, this renovation transcends the basic expectations. It revives the architect's original vision while creating a comfortable, attractive, state-of-the-art educational environment.

Future-Oriented Flexibility
The project achieves future-ready flexibility while solving the technical challenges posed by a complicated, 100-year-old building. Flexible, dynamic spaces integrate contemporary tools that support the latest methods in teaching and research, including smart lecture halls and seminar rooms that support collaborative and virtual learning. State-of-the-art wet and dry laboratories allow specialized research in geophysics, geochemistry, sedimentology, earth materials, geomicrobiology, and remote sensing. A black-box style 3D visualization lab, designed for atmospheric sciences, allows students to "walk" inside a tornado or other weather systems using satellite data. Across the hall, the cyber GIS studio uses Blue Waters' supercomputing capabilities to manage big data and produce visual maps. Long-term flexibility is also achieved in building systems such as walls, air-handling units, and electrical grids to be modified with minimal disruptions in the future decades.


NaturalHistory_023 PEER TO PEER preferred_edit
NaturalHistory_006 STAIRS preferred

Innovation that Enhances Conservation

Two visionary design decisions unlock the possibilities for what the building has to offer. The original building featured a symmetrical pair of ornately carved wooden stairways. One was demolished in the 1950s to allow for more office space, while the other had deteriorated over time. The original splendor of the grand stairway was revived in successful collaboration with historic preservation consultant Harboe Associates and millwork specialist Heritage Restoration. With the help of historical photographs, our team restored the existing stair and reconstructed its companion with accurate historical details.

The soaring vaulted space from 1910, originally a museum of natural history, had gradually degraded into a light-deprived storage space. Recognizing the architectural potential and grand history of the vault, the design restores it as a central core for collaborative learning and socializing. Restoring its art glass windows and skylights in the side aisles, and replacing the roof with translucent fiberglass sandwich panels, brought back natural light, making the space feel brighter even on an overcast day.

Sustainability Inherent in Reuse
The renovation, which meets LEED Gold Certification standards and Historic Preservation requirements, exemplifies environmentally and socially responsible design. Having recognized the inherent quality and beauty of irreplaceable historic building elements, the LCM team advocated salvaging and reusing existing materials to the greatest extent possible. Original wooden features, including doors, wall panels, and select furniture items, are refurbished to work with the new décor while imbuing a historic quality to spaces. Stone panels are reused as decorative wall embellishments or in terrazzo flooring as geological samples that serve as teaching tools.
NaturalHistory_013 CORE BREAKOUT

Drawing Energy from History

A 200+year old bur oak tree on the campus becomes a metaphor for the historical roots of the Natural History Building that has nurtured generations of students. Drawing energy from history to enrich modern times is the overarching theme reflected in every design aspect.

Historically contextual, yet very modern, the interior design comes together in a nature inspired color palette. Earth tones for furnishings and materials complement the rich quality of the restored historical elements throughout the building. Autumn colored carpets have distinct organic patterns for different room zones, enabling users to discern the circulation paths more intuitively. The original Ricker building, which was designed before electricity, relied on plenty of natural light in the form of skylights, tall windows, and floor openings. Some of them, unfortunately filled in over the years, were resurrected during this renovation.

The tree was a guiding tool for a powerful, memorable statement, and an eloquent way of incorporating a concept in every aspect of the project.
Ewa Kolacz, Associate Interior Designer

Scroll to Top
Skip to content