UCAR > Communications > Staff Notes > January 1997 Search


Tom Nixon, 1928-1997


Tom Nixon, the architect who designed the Foothills Lab building for NBI and then revamped it for UCAR, was killed in a plane crash near Helena, Montana, on 6 January. Nixon was the president of Nixon/Johnson Architectural Associates. One of the youngest licensed architects in the state when he began, he practiced in Boulder for over 40 years. Nixon was born on 29 October 1928 in Boulder and earned a degree in architecture from Texas A&M University in 1952. He is survived by his wife, Elaine, of Boulder; three sons; a daughter; and two granddaughters.

"Tom was involved every step of the way," recalls Peter Gilman of Nixon's involvement in the FL redesign. UCAR purchased the FL building in March 1990 and quickly turned to Nixon, the building's original architect, to guide the extensive renovations needed. The biggest challenge was to move from the cubicle-based open architecture of the original design toward a layout based on self-contained offices. To do this, the lab had to be gutted from wall to wall and floor to ceiling.

"We were going to completely change the building and its function," says NCAR retiree George Lamb. "That necessitated a complete redoing of the heating, air conditioning, and electrical systems, as well as the addition of many new walls. Tom had to figure out how to do this without getting people buried in the vast interiors [for instance, the RAP space on the second floor of FL2]." The solution devised by Nixon/Johnson was to use glass for the top portion of most of the office walls, which allows natural light to be dispersed through the building.

"Tom was a very responsive fellow. I think he did a marvelous job of translating our needs into the shell of the new building," George says. "He also had great forbearance. He and his people stayed with us and put aside some of their aesthetic interests to help us meet our needs." For example, many office walls in FL intersect with the glass of the exterior windows, a solution that was less than aesthetically ideal but that allowed a greater number of offices to have windows than would otherwise be possible.

The occupants of FL3 (primarily MMM) had to leave their previously leased space for FL in October 1990, only seven months after the lab was purchased, which put the redesign on the fast track. As the divisional liaison to Nixon/Johnson, Joe Klemp worked closely with Nixon. "He was certainly very helpful and sympathetic in meeting our needs," says Joe.

The design for the circular staircase in the FL3 atrium didn't come easily, according to Joe. "At first we threw around several designs, but we had never sorted out the details on what would meet the various code requirements. Finally, we realized we had to come up with a specific design or give up. I remember Tom coming in with a big book of city code specs and saying, 'OK, we're going to sit down and figure this out.' "

Technically, the staircase is circular and not a spiral one, says Joe, because it features an inner radius rather than a single line around which the staircase wraps. "There are lots of requirements on what the inner radius can be, relative to the size of the stairs; whether a landing is needed; and so forth. It turned out that the circular design really satisfied everything in terms of reducing the visual impact on the space and avoiding support structures or a landing. But we didn't really come up with it until that 'put up or shut up' meeting."

Peter remembers Nixon as a "very clever, very practical man" with an old-fashioned sense of ethics: "If it didn't work, he fixed it." After the FL job was over, Peter hired Nixon to design an expansion of his home. "It really floored me. He went from a $13 million project to a room and a deck, but he gave it the same kind of professional attention."

Nixon's specialty was public school design aimed at enhancing the ability of students to learn. His design for Nederland Elementary School received the 1996 Honor Award for Design Excellence of the Colorado North Chapter of the American Association of Architects. Nixon also created conceptual plans for the expansion of Boulder High School and designed the Boulder RTD Bus Maintenance Facility, the world's largest active solar installation. •BH