Through the Roof

Custom-designed labs, 150 miles of ethernet cable, 600 computers, 650 doors – but the numbers are only part of the story of the psychology building at The University of Texas at Austin.

The Sarah M. and Charles E. Seay psychology building at The University of Texas at Austin cost $52 million.

In May 2002, the department of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin moved into its new home: the $52 million, 175,000 square feet Sarah M. and Charles E. Seay Building. The building occupies a prominent position on the north end of campus and illustrates an integration of beauty and function. In addition to modern laboratories for studies of behavioral and sensory neuroscience, and developmental, cognitive, clinical, social, personality, health, and evolutionary psychology, the building houses computer laboratories for undergraduate students, comfortable seminar rooms, and beautiful spaces both inside and in an outdoor courtyard for socializing and informal group discussions.

For many years, the psychology department had been sorely in need of more space. Prior to the move, the department was spread across eight locations, some several miles from the University campus. Faculty offices and some of the laboratories were housed in Mezes and Benedict Halls, which had been built in the early-1950s. Despite frequent renovations, by about 1980 those buildings were inadequate for the 45 full-time faculty, 125 graduate students, and 1550 undergraduate majors that make up the department.

Its U shape design, separated by a courtyard, allows the quickest access to all parts of the building’s 175,000 square feet.

Mezes Hall was the first psychology building constructed in the United States after World War II. Then-department chair Karl Dallenbach, freshly recruited from Cornell University, designed the laboratories and classrooms. The new Seay building was designed by Cesar Pelli Associates, but also had considerable faculty input. Each faculty member planned his or her own laboratory space, within the constraints of general modular units. In addition, many special features of the building, such as the courtyard design and the library/reading room, were inspired by Charles J. Holahan’s vision for the building. Holahan, an APS Fellow and Charter Member who had been trained as an environmental psychologist, served as the head of the departmental building committee during the design stage. APS Fellow Dennis McFadden served in this position during the construction and move-in stage and worked closely with PageSutherlandPage, the prime architects.

The overall design of the building brings laboratories close to faculty offices, without intermixing the two functions. To achieve this goal, the building basically has a “U” shape. The stems of the “U” contain laboratories and classrooms, and the connecting wing has faculty and administrative offices. Functions that involve a great deal of traffic (undergraduate advising and classrooms) are located on the ground floor. The courtyard created by the U shape is beautifully landscaped and includes a fountain, visible from a large terrace that is a pleasant place to have lunch most of the year. Staircases at the corners of the building provide generous views of the courtyard and encourage people to take the stairs rather than the elevators.

The building features windows in classrooms and offices that allow occupants to enjoy the landscape and exterior building features, such as the patio.

What distinguishes the new building more than any other are its faculty research laboratories. The laboratories reflect state-of-the art facilities. There are vibration free areas for auditory and vision research, and wet labs for animal research. Some of the more unusual laboratories in the building include a simulated bar for alcohol research (supervised by Kim Fromme), rooms with snakes, spiders, and a coffin to treat anxiety disorders (supervised by Michael Telch), and special facilities for testing infants and pre-school children. Some 150 miles of ethernet cable connect the more than 600 computers in the building. Although the building has 650 doors, information flows between rooms through cable troughs that connect adjacent rooms.

In addition to the custom-designed laboratories, there are more than 50 faculty offices, four seminar rooms, four computer classrooms, five public-access computer facilities, an undergraduate advising center for the four full-time advisors, and a technology suite that houses five full-time computer specialists and numerous servers and other computer equipment. The building houses the Children’s Research Laboratory for APS Fellows and Charter Members Leslie Cohen and Judith Langlois, and other faculty in developmental psychology. It also houses the psychology clinic for our clinical training program, directed by Caryn Carlson. The building includes two interdepartmental centers, the Institute for Neuroscience, directed by Creed Able, and the Center for Perceptual Systems, directed by Wilson Geisler.

The library reading room is one of the many special features inspired by APS Fellow and Charter Member Charles J. Holohan’s vision. Holohan is an environmental psychologist and was chair of the psychology department during the building’s design stages.

While optimizing function, the designers also paid close attention to aesthetics. The building is generously endowed with windows in both classrooms and offices that allow occupants to enjoy the landscaping and exterior building features. Those exterior features include a striking soffit design. The library/reading room offers a sweeping view of the campus through two-story-high windows, as well as a loft for quiet interaction on a second level accessible by a circular staircase. The use of a flexible modular design will allow the building to accommodate future scientific and technological changes as well as changing administrative priorities.

The building was made possible by some major financial gifts from very generous people and organizations. Sarah and Charles Seay, the building’s namesakes, provided a $5 million lead gift. Other major donors included The Houston Endowment, Lee H. and Joseph D. Jamail, the Linden G. Bowers Estate, C. W. W. “Tex” and Frances Cook, and Betsy and C. Clifton Robinson.

The building was the culmination of the efforts of many people over a period of nearly 20 years. The project was started by APS Fellow and Charter Member Donald J. Foss, who served as chair of the psychology department until 1995. During his 12 years as chair, Foss laid the groundwork for bringing the department back together in one building and established a strong relationship with the Seay family. (Foss is currently dean of arts and sciences at Florida State University, where he also initiated the construction of a new psychology building.) Planning for the Seay building was coordinated by Randy Diehl, who served as department chair from 1995 to 1999. Ground breaking occurred in the summer of 1999, when APS Fellow Michael Domjan became department chair. The building was ready for occupancy three years later. In the two years since, students, faculty, and visitors have agreed that the building has met and exceeded all expectations.

This story was contributed by APS Fellow Michael Domjan, professor and chair of the psychology department at the University of Texas at Austin. To learn more about the University of Texas psychology department, visit

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