crest Physics Page

Designing and Building a New Physics Space at St. Albans School
Presented as Paper FE8 at the 1998 Summer Meeting of the
American Association of Physics Teachers
August 3 - 8
University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Nebraska

Robert A. Morse, St. Albans School,


During the 1994-95 school year, St. Albans School began detailed planning for the new Jones Science Wing as part of a major renovation of the Lower School and Science Wing.This presented an opportunity to design the space for two physics laboratory classrooms subject to relatively few constraints.

The available square footage was about 2800 square feet, in the shape of an "L" with about 2200 square feet in the base of the "L". 

It was decided to divide the space into two combination laboratory/classroom spaces of about 1100 square feet in the base of the "L" , with a shared computer area in the vertical leg of the "L", and shared storage areas. The alternative of a single classroom with an adjacent large laboratory was rejected as we wished to allow future expansion of program including the possibility of teaching physics to all ninth graders. Presently we offer three sections of Physics to 11th and 12th graders, and one section each of AP Physics B and AP Physics C, predominantly to 12th graders. 


Wide View of one LabWe decided to have a single flexible space for each classroom, with no built in furniture except around the periphery of the room. The rationale for this was that in contrast to Chemistry many different things can happen in physics class, on widely differing scales, including the possibility of large scale kinesthetic experiments, Microcomputer based laboratory work, calculator work, lectures, demonstrations, etc. A highly flexible open space would be most useful for this. In some sense the design is analogous the design of an open theater space, which can be reconfigured as needed. The design was influenced by the design for the Workshop Physics laboratory at Dickinson College.

Working with the architect.

floor plan for physics labsThe architectural design for the Jones Science Wing at St. Albans School was carried out by Leon Chatelain of Chatelain Architects, McLean VA. Mr. Chatelain and his assistants were very cooperative in consulting with the science department to get the input from individual teachers concerning the design of their spaces. Constraints imposed by the existing structure, building codes, meant that not all desired features could be implemented, but in the main, we had a remarkably good relationship with the architects and as a result got science rooms that pretty well meet our needs.

In a complex job, mistakes and misunderstandings inevitably creeping. It is imperative that you keep notes, sketches, etc. as you conduct your meetings, that you write up your discussions afterwards and send copies to the architects and school administrators, that you review the floor plans and elevations with architect before contractor bids and ensure that all features are present at the time of bidding.

Flexible space

In order to ensure maximum flexibility, the room was designed with all cabinets around periphery of room and no built in units that extend out from walls.


nesting desksThe furniture was chosen to support flexible use of the room. As shown, the desks nest together, and can be stored under open counters at one end of the room, the chairs stack together on a dolly, and their are movable lab tables and stacking stools. Computers are placed on rolling crank adjustable computer tables whose height can be adjusted to match that of the lab tables and counters or lowered to be used with desk chairs. When not in use in the laboratory, the computers are moved into the computer work area. A rolling step unit provides easy access to the ceiling.stacking chairs, stools, lab tables Moving equipment is available for the furniture, with jacks that allow tables to be rolled into place.

Under counter storage for furniture allows desks or stools to be placed out of the way depending on the arrangement of the room. The concept of a flexible space makes the choice of furniture important. During a renovation, the cost of new furniture is usually part of the package.

rolling ladderYou should negotiate what you know you want, but it is may be hard to know precisely what you need until you have moved into the space. Ideally, a minimal purchase of furniture would be made at the start with sufficient funds set aside for later furniture purchases as you get experience with what works and what your needs really are, something that may be hard to visualize before you start to work in the finished space.

computer carts adjustable height

Overhead grid and slotted angle brackets

overhead pipe gridSlotted angle wall bracketsPart of the concept of a flexible space is the ability to fasten anything anywhere. For this purpose, two features were designed into the room, an overhead pipe grid and a slotted angle wall clamping system. The intent of the design was to have an open ceiling, allowing the advantage of a higher floor to ceiling spacing, with the pipe grid suspended below the ceiling. Unfortunately, this was not fully arranged with the engineers and some service runs were located which limited the height at which the grid could be installed. If unusual features are being designed, it is important that all parties understand the nature of the innovation and the constraints this places on other parts of the design.

Floor and floor pattern

floor, marking and bolt hole in useTo facilitate experiments and demonstrations with rolling carts, bowling balls, and large air cars, a smooth poured epoxy floor was installed, and a pattern of bolt holes put in place to allow kinesthetic experiments, similar to the design at Dickinson College. The bolt holes had 3/4 inch threaded inserts, and are equipped with plugs when not in use. Originally a painted grid of one meter squares with a superimposed set of circles was requested, but finally a painted pattern of a single circle with a rectangle was accepted which can be used to provide a reference for making measurements of videotaped experiments.


power and data racewaydata and power outlet detailA two channel power strip was installed around the entire periphery of the room to provide lots of electrical outlets and computer ethernet jacks. The electrical outlets are all GFI protected, and there is an emergency power cutoff button in each laboratory. The wiring channel can be opened for any future change in computer cabling. It is a good idea to specify that pull lines be left in all conduits for data wiring to facilitate later changes.


multiple sliding whiteboardsMultiple sliding white boards were installed to provide lots of board space. The back white board doubles as projection surface, although it is not as good as a beaded screen surface. An alternative would be to mount a screen at the top of the white board mount, which we will probably do shortly.


stockroomA large storage space is highly useful. Because the new science wing was partly new construction and partly a renovation, two storage rooms and a shallow closet were provided instead of a single large stock room. One of these was equipped with industrial shelving, which provides more flexibility than the usual school shelving. The room was left with a high ceiling which allows the vertical storage of long items and with a double width door to facilitate moving large objects in and out. The shallow closet also has double doors and a high ceiling.


The original design included a small workshop space which was intended to have dust collection equipment and power tools for the construction of laboratory and demonstration equipment. This space was later lost to an elevator machinery room. As a substitute, a rolling work bench with a band saw, drill press, vise and small table saw was constructed.


The major pitfalls in the design process were due to miscommunication. It is essential to put everything that is expected in writing with copies to all concerned, to review plans at all stages, to check specifications, and to insist on being able to monitor the work as it is being done. It is better to be a nuisance asking questions than to get stuck with a major mistake. I would also advise that you document the construction by taking pictures and videotapes before the walls are in place. This helps immensely in locating buried mistakes and in making any late changes.

Examples of a few mistakes that were made in spite of the best intentions: