Peter Dourlein Creates Buildings That Inspire Behavior

Peter Dourelin is devoted to creating a campus for the University of Arizona that infuses local flavor, sustainable practices, and a people-first design to encourage productivity

The Health Sciences Innovation Building creatively uses terra cotta panels ‘ribs’ to help shade the vertical glass opening in the same way the local Saguaro cacti ribs self-shade from the desert sun. Photo by Randy Mathews (PD&C)

It’s a myth that Tucson, Arizona, has only one season.

While its dry climate may remain relatively consistent, the year brings forth a variety of weather to contend with. Scorching summers famous for their dry heat and triple-digit temperatures. Warm autumns with a few rusty red leaves and rolled-down car windows. Chilled winter nights that call for folks to don sweaters and desert plains to be draped in blankets. Monsoon season, which can result in single-day downpours and flash floods.

But the weather is unmistakably Tucson, which teems with natural beauty from the Sonoran Desert at a lofty altitude to give remarkable views of jagged mountain ranges.

Peter Dourlein, Campus Architect and Assistant Vice President of Planning, Design & Construction, The University of Arizona Portrait by Drennen Brown, PD&C

It’s all of these environmental factors that Peter Dourlein, the campus architect and assistant vice president of planning, design, and construction for the University of Arizona, factors in when he and his team plan, design, and renovate the landscape of the school.

“We want the buildings built on the University of Arizona campus to reflect the University of Arizona,” he explains, rather than something you’d expect to find in Chicago or Los Angeles. He adds that they should feel like part of the fabric of the school and not a cluster of one-off structures. “We want them to be of this time and place. We want architecture that speaks to the local region.”

Beyond the southwestern aesthetic itself, Dourlein continues that the buildings themselves aren’t just objects—they’re going to be inhabited by people and must function accordingly. “We definitely say ‘people first.’ We want strong bones to a building since we’re going to own them for a long time, and we need them to be flexible but still durable and high quality.”

Dourlein and his team have a strong awareness that whatever they build will influence the people who move through them for years to come and this creates an opportunity for increased productivity. “The design inspires behavior,” Dourlein notes. “I think it was Winston Churchill who said, ‘We shape our buildings and thereafter they shape us,’ and I think that’s so true.” For instance, he says, if you enter a building and all you see are elevators, even if you only need to reach the second floor and are able to use the stairs, you likely won’t bother looking for them. But if the stairs are immediately in view, you’re more likely to use them. “That’s just a little example of how a building can shape your behavior; it makes you a little healthier and you use less electricity.”

The University’s Environment and Natural Resources Building II is a prime, real-life example of a structure that inspires behavior. Completed five years ago, it was created to embody the University’s core values of energy efficiency and responsible design by employing experimental concepts.

Dourlein describes the building as a rectangle on the outside with a courtyard carved on the inside fashioned after a slot canyon, which is a geological formation in the southwest that contains a deep shaded space. The building is five stories high with balconies that form the side walls adorned with rusty metal ribs and natural plants on every level all the way to the top. Each balcony serves as the circulation space for its respective level.

The Environment and Natural Resources Building II draws inspiration from the local Tuscon environment and uses sustainable practices to create a comfortable climate for students to spend time outside, even in the desert heat. Photo by Marion Bernner

Since Tucson is a relatively overheated environment, the VP explains, using this kind of natural design is crucial for providing relief in a sustainable way. “The greenest building is, of course, the one you don’t build,” Dourlein points out. “You’re obviously going to create some carbon otherwise, so if you’re going to build one, the smaller footprint you can make, the better.”

Therefore, the Environment and Natural Resources Building II uses one third less energy than its neighbors do and it’s a third smaller than the original program called for. Dourlein’s team took the outdoor space and tempered it so it can be used year-round by 600 students at a time, thereby reducing the need for interior space. The plants on each level provide a cooling effect from the moisture evaporating out of them. While fresh air must be brought into a building, some of the already cooled air must be released to make room for the fresh air. This released air is filtered into the courtyard at strategic locations to help temper the spaces. All of this is accompanied by fans to help move the air around.

The thermal mass of concrete provides not only a beautiful sculpture but an effective way to control the heat since the thermal mass cools off at night and retains that cold to absorb the heat in the daytime. All of this, Dourlein says, is an extraordinarily great use of very ordinary materials.

One of the most surprising resources the building takes advantage of is something equally unexpected to such a dry, desert climate: rain. “The roof and courtyard of the building can capture the rain, which is usually about 13 to 14 inches per year,” the VP says. “We collect it in this huge underground cistern which is the size of two semi-trucks.”

In Tucson, when it rains, it pours. Monsoon season is typically the prime time for this water reclamation, and since it doesn’t rain very often, this is the time to pay attention. “The rainwater on the roof is channeled to drains strategically located in the balconies of the courtyard that become multistory thunderous columns of water being collected at the bottom by catch basins,” Dourlein notes. “This is an exciting celebration of rain. People come from surrounding buildings to see it happen. We capture that rainwater then use it to irrigate all those plants on the balconies and in the courtyard.” At times when there is not enough collected rain, Dourlein’s team supplements it with reclaimed water.

The Environment and Natural Resources Building II, which houses an auditorium, uses one third less energy than its neighbors do and it’s a third smaller than the original program called for. Photo by Liam Frederick

These exciting endeavors are made possible by Dourlein’s impressive team, which is a unique blend of architects, engineers, construction professionals, project managers, and real estate acquisitionists all under a single umbrella. “Because there are less barriers, the way that we operate is highly collaborative,” he explains. “We have roundtable meetings where folks come to discuss potential solutions for the needs being talked about. We find it helps tremendously rather than just having a bunch of siloed individuals providing separate comments to a project. It gives them this understanding that they’re doing something that impacts the campus.”

The people, Dourlein says, make the University of Arizona a great place to work. “Together we work to get stuff built and develop the campus in the most responsive and responsible way. And maybe as architects, builders, and engineers we like to think our job has to do with bricks and mortar and construction materials.

“But our job is really about people. We’ve just come to accept that. ‘What’s your job?’ I work with people.”