Evolutionary Design

Darwin's theory of evolution argues that minor changes in biology or physiology can have major implications for a species' ability to survive and thrive. Tweaking genetic makeup one way or another can mean new dominance over a habitat—or colossal failure. Planners of a new bioscience lab at Stanford University near Palo Alto, Calif.

By Chuck Ross, Contributing Writer September 1, 2004

Darwin’s theory of evolution argues that minor changes in biology or physiology can have major implications for a species’ ability to survive and thrive. Tweaking genetic makeup one way or another can mean new dominance over a habitat—or colossal failure. Planners of a new bioscience lab at Stanford University near Palo Alto, Calif., think their new facility just might be the next step forward in the evolution of research lab design, as it encourages the cross-fertilization of ideas they see as crucial to future success.

The 245,000-sq.-ft. James H. Clark Center is the embodiment of Stanford’s belief that the nature of biological research itself needs to change by reaching out to other sciences. The facility brings together investigators in many fields—ranging from molecular pharmacology to mechanical engineering—in an environment meant to foster interdisciplinary collaboration. With floor-to-ceiling windows and multiple connecting walkways, the center’s design emphasizes the ties binding these researchers to one another.

Completed in June 2003, the center appears as something of a mutation, wrapping vast, functional workspaces in star-caliber architectural design; the lead architect was Pritzker Prize-winning Sir Norman Foster, who worked with local firm MBT Architects. To ensure this jewel-box of a complex could also hold up to researchers’ demands, engineers from San Jose-based Alfa Tech and Cupertino Electric developed mechanical and electrical plans that maximize flexibility and open expanses.

New approach, new design

Stanford calls its new paradigm for life-sciences research “Bio-X.” The “bio” stands for biology, of course. In literature describing the new center, the school calls it the dominant science of the 21st century. The “X” stands for the as-yet unknown understanding that other disciplines—including engineering, chemistry, physics, computation and medicine—can bring to biological research.

This new approach required a break from standard lab design practices, as well. The typical layout places lab-support functions, such as shared equipment and the building services, at the building’s central core. Such schemes make a building system designer’s job easier.

But Stanford and its architects feared that such traditional floorplans would make research collaboration in the facility more difficult—and reconfiguration to meet future needs almost impossible. So instead, they decided to push most lab- and building-support functions to the building perimeter, creating wide-open sight lines in work space and maximizing adaptability.

Decentralizing the core functional areas also allowed designers to break the building into three separate structures and create a central courtyard. The resulting east, west and south wings remain connected by a series of stairs and walkways, and floor-to-ceiling glass on the wings’ courtyard walls help create a feeling of continuous space.

A facility evolves

Designing for both multiple research capabilities and maximum flexibility posed some challenges, and planners reached for a mathematical concept—the minimum common denominator—to begin their effort. In a series of workshops, engineers, architects and prospective users worked together to determine a base-level design that could be customized as research needs change.

“It is a lab space,” says Rudy Bergthold, senior vice president and chief technical officer of Cupertino Electric. “The intent was, without knowing whether there would be a biologist or a chemist, to provide an infrastructure that supported expandability without going overboard.”

In a move that facilitated the construction of the project, Cupertino provided both electrical engineering design and contracting services (see “Collaborating From the Start,” p. 36).

According to Bergthold, the biggest differentiation in facility needs was identified between those whose work requires traditional lab benches and fume hoods and those requiring more controlled conditions for biocomputation and other high-tech efforts. These “dry-lab” spaces are now housed in the Clark Center’s middle “south” wing, along with an auditorium, some traditional classrooms, offices and a basement vivarium.

In the east and west wings, architects and engineers developed a floorplan that places lab support—both building services and shared refrigerators, microscopes and other equipment—along building perimeters. The center of each floor is devoted to open lab space, with movable benches and regularly spaced fume hoods. Workstations fall along the floor-to-ceiling glass walls, allowing easy access to lab benches, while providing ample workspace for maintaining notes and writing up results.

The lab-wing floors are all epoxy-sealed, making them impervious to chemical spills, so lab work doesn’t have to be confined to specific areas. Similarly, Unistrut ceiling racks provide drop-down access to standard utility services—including gas, air, vacuum and water—from a level seven ft. above the workbenches.

Flexible and efficient systems

The engineers who designed the Clark Center’s mechanical and electrical systems needed to ensure that present and future users had maximum access and flexibility, while also adhering to project budgets. So designers incorporated a maximum number of connections, while working under the assumption that only a set number would be used at any given point.

“It was a very complex project,” says Bergthold, “but very straightforward, at the same time.”

Ventilation design was especially crucial, with multiple fume hoods operating in the open lab area. The system provides the infrastructure for 16 fume hoods on each floor of the east and west wings, with the system sized to allow operation of up to 36 in either wing at any given time, according to Keith Heborn, P.E., senior project manager with mechanical systems designer Alfa Tech. Designers opted for constant-volume hoods based on the project’s economics. “We looked at a variable-volume hood system, but the payback was just too long, because the density of the hoods just wasn’t there,” says Heborn.

Lab conditions require the east and west wings to be supplied with 100% outside air, with six air changes per hr. (ACH). A negative-pressure design pulls general room exhaust from courtyard-facing spaces through to exhaust ductwork in the lab-support area. Sensors on each floor keep tabs on static pressure—which can vary as fume hoods are turned on and off—and control the variable-speed rooftop fans. These 72-in. fans had to be supersized to force the 60,000 cubic ft. per min (cfm) to 80,000 cfm low-pressure exhaust loads out of intake range because engineers were not allowed to raise stack heights above the roofline.

The south wing, in general, was treated as general-occupancy space, since most of it is filled with classrooms and offices. However, the basement’s vivarium has a dedicated exhaust, Heborn says, sent to ensure 15 ACH. Additional attention was also required in the laser labs located in the west wing’s basement. In this space, transfer-air fans establish a constant air volume and minimize vertical air movement.

Although energy-recovery systems were discussed, Heborn says, the area’s mild climate made payback difficult. However, exhaust and supply fans are all on variable-frequency drives to help ensure efficient operation, and chilled water is provided by Stanford’s campus-wide system. Additionally, the two air-handling units serving each building are both sized at 66% of full-load requirements, providing economizing options when demand is low.

“Under light-load conditions, they could actually shut one down,” Heborn says.

Powerful adaptability

The building’s electrical system had to be every bit as adaptable as its mechanical plan. Designers had to provide adequate access to power supplies to ensure easy lab reconfiguration, although capacity estimates did not assume full utilization of all access points.

“We’re able to deliver hundreds of kilowatts to all parts of the building—but not all parts of the building simultaneously,” says Cupertino’s Bergthold. “Next week they could put 10 fume hoods on the third floor—or just one. [The plan] gives us the flexibility to move capacity around.”

Power is distributed via two risers in each wing—one on each side of a wing’s code-required occupancy walls. The overhead wireways carrying the wiring throughout the lab areas are suspended from the ceiling grid, enabling easy access as benches, desks and offices are rearranged.

Laser and imaging labs in the west wing’s basement required more careful attention. For example, power wiring was routed away from these areas to minimize interference with sensitive equipment.

“It’s more a matter of magnetic influence from other feeders and equipment in the area,” Bergthold says. “Those kinds of instruments are very susceptible to stray magnetic fields.”

A remotely located generator provides backup for legally required loads, such as the facility’s smoke-control systems and toxic biohazard-related ventilation, along with refrigerators and freezers that may be holding valuable samples and the south wing’s vivarium. Emergency lighting is served by a centralized battery backup system. The facility’s server room incorporates an uninterruptible power supply, but this system does not protect individual users.

Illuminating effort

Designers brought in another big name: Chevy Chase, Md.-based lighting designer Claude Engle, whose portfolio includes numerous previous collaborations with Foster & Partners.

The two-part plan, which incorporated both interior and exterior illumination, addressed functions, aesthetics and California’s strict energy code—a frequent design challenge, Bergthold says. “The big challenge is to balance what [designers] want to do against energy allowances we can have in the building,” he notes.

However, he says, because this plan’s primary focus was bench- and workstation-level task lighting, it met state requirements without revision.

Exterior illumination raised a different problem. The exterior walkways provide emergency egress as well as easy access to adjacent buildings, but fixtures were to be ceiling-mounted—some 16 ft. above walkway pavement. The challenge became creating sufficient illumination without blinding building occupants in the process.

“Engle did a lot of study to make sure that the exterior lighting did not intrude on the space,” Bergthold says.

Next step?

The Clark Center’s labs appear to be thriving, as they now house the work of some 700 researchers drawn from 23 Stanford departments. Investigators in the facility are studying everything from subcellular biochemistry to surgical robotics, each hoping to make advances their colleagues consider “evolutionary.” Clark Center architects and engineers think they’ve already accomplished that task—but that’s a hypothesis only time can prove.

Collaborating from the Start

The process of designing Stanford University’s James H. Clark Center was a model for how planners hoped the facility’s future occupants would work together. The highly collaborative effort involved architects, university facility staff and the facility’s researchers themselves from the earliest stages.

Designers led a series of workshops in the conference room of a job-site trailer to get researchers’ input on overall needs. The team then created a set of scaled cardboard cut-outs to illustrate desks, benches, sinks, other equipment and specialized spaces. Once general concepts were established, full-size mock-ups of equipment and office space were constructed in a nearby building so that utility drop-down designs and casework options could be evaluated.

To add a dose of reality to the mix, planners also included members of Cupertino Electric’s engineering-design team. The advantage, says Rudy Bergthold, a senior vice president and chief technology officer, was that architects and researchers knew from the start what could be built and what could not in the design-build project.

“In traditional design/bid/build, you often have a design that has some constructability problems,” he says. Additionally, he notes, having engineers involved from the start of planning helps eliminate the need for “value engineering” later in the process.

“We don’t go into something thinking we’re going to reduce it later on,” he says, adding that this approach provides great savings, both in the construction schedule and in potential frustration. “It saves months, in terms of time and years, in terms of people’s lives and aggravation.”