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St. Louis Medical Campus Stands Out
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Rendering of the north facade of Washington University School of Medicine's new research building consists of a wavy ribbon of glass curtain-wall
The north facade of Washington University School of Medicine’s new research building consists of a wavy ribbon of glass curtain-wall that creates a dramatic entryway, allowing ample light into the building. Goody Clancy + Christner

A new research facility at the Washington University School of Medicine that brings together multiple areas of study offers flexible spaces, open views, and plenty of opportunity for interaction.

August 6, 2013—The Washington University School of Medicine describes its new interdisciplinary medical research building as one that engages in “some of the most complex problems in human biology.” The six-story, 138,000 sq ft building, which just broke ground, will house lab space for researchers from a variety of departments, including development biology, medicine, and genetics, as well as the Center for Genome Sciences & Systems Biology. The $75-million building will pursue a silver-level certification from the U.S Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Engineering (LEED) program and is anticipated to open in late spring 2015.

Given the interdisciplinary nature of the new facility, the lab space had to be adaptable to changing circumstances. “Faculty come and go, research programs change, and [the School of Medicine], like most institutions, really [doesn’t] want to have to spend a lot of money when they make space changes for an incoming principal investigator,” says Roger Goldstein, FAIA, LEED-AP, a principal of Boston-based Goody Clancy, which serves as the building’s architects in association with St. Louis-based Christner, Inc.

So the structure is designed to make the lab benches less like obstacles and more like pieces of furniture. Instead of piping such needed services as air and vacuum all the way down into the benches, Goldstein says, the services will terminate at a panel in the ceiling that will then be connected to benches with quick-connect umbilical lines. This will make connecting or disconnecting these systems easy and will also allow researchers to swap out standard lab benches for more specialized equipment as needed. Sinks, meanwhile, which need to be hard plumbed, will be placed at the periphery of each lab.

Allowing that programmatic flexibility while also curtailing vibrations, which can effect sensitive medical equipment, were the drivers in developing the structural plan for the building. Anwar Yusuf, P.E., S.E., the principal of structural engineering for Optimal Engineering Solutions (OES) in St. Louis, says his firm initially planned to use steel rather than concrete to address this challenge. Steel was less expensive and several recent buildings on the medical campus had employed steel effectively. But gradually the firm changed course. “Even though steel appeared to be a little less expensive than concrete,” says Yusuf, “the disadvantage of steel was we had to design it for a particular vibration threshold and a particular location, and it did not give the flexibility [to create] a better vibration-control structural system throughout the entire floor plate.” As sensitive equipment is shuffled among labs—as their functions change—steel wouldn’t necessarily offer the right vibration protection across the entire floor plate.

Concrete, on the other, could—and OES worked its way down to two alternatives. The first was a 12 in. flat slab. Its shallow depth would reduce the overall story height of the building, but the flat slab was not conducive, Yusuf says, to having holes drilled holes through it, which would limit the flexibility of the lab spaces. 

Another exterior rendering of the Washington University School of Medicine's new research building

The windows of the south facade of the $75-million facility, which
will house biology, genetics, and medical research labs, are set
back from prefabricated limestone panels to minimize heat gain.
Goody Clancy + Christner

So OES turned to hollow ribbed joists that are only 4.5 in. deep between 20 in. deep ribs, which are 10 in. wide and spaced 6 ft apart. The ribbed joist plan not only affords easier penetration for creating flexible lab space but is also lighter than a flat slab. And because they are thicker than a flat slab at the rib locations, the joists also offer better vibration control throughout the entire footprint.

Instead of aligning the labs, offices, and support space in layers parallel to the long axis of the building, as is typically done, Goody Clancy situated the program across the building’s shorter axis. The lab and lab support spaces will occupy the middle of the building, while offices and write-up spaces are positioned immediately adjacent, at the perimeter; the lab spaces will be enclosed on the north and south sides by glass walls. “It gives people in the center of the building the ability to look out either way, to the north or to the south, and see daylight,” says Goldstein.

Still, the extensive use of glass walls inside the building made it tough for OES to plan adequate concrete shear walls in the interior, so to improve the seismic resistance of the building, they asked Goody Clancy to design seismic bracing at the exterior corners of the building, which the firm was able to integrate seamlessly into the design of the facade.

The School of Medicine is located just east of the city’s famous Forest Park. Goldstein describes the context of nearby buildings on the campus as neutral, meaning that context “doesn’t really give us any particular design clues that we would want to emulate, other than material color.”

This gave Goody Clancy the opportunity to create a building that was more dynamic than its neighbors. As a result, the north side of the facade consists of a wavy ribbon of glass curtain-wall that provides visual punch as it allows ample light to enter the facility without adding a lot of heat. The south facade is more solid; windows are set back from the buff-colored prefabricated limestone panel exterior to minimize heat gain from that direction.

The building gave the designers the chance to clarify pedestrian circulation paths on the campus and to, as Goldstein puts it, “think more broadly and aspirationally about how to improve Scott Avenue, which runs along the northern edge of the sight, in terms of how one finds one’s ways, as a visitor to the heart of the medical campus. How do you know when you’ve arrived?”

The new building will connect via a tunnel to an adjacent building that deals with animal research and lab support. An additional tunnel is planned beneath McKinley Avenue, south of the building, to connect with a new service building across the street. “By providing that tunnel, we’ll basically have linked all the buildings together and pulled a bunch of service vehicle traffic out of the heart of the campus and moved it to the perimeter, improving the pedestrian environment,” Goldstein says.

Yusuf’s team will be involved in part of the McKinney Avenue tunnel, which will traverse a challenging site filled with water, sewer and fiber optic lines. “We needed to find a location where we could put this tunnel in without undermining any of this infrastructure,” he explains.

When work begins the tunnel will extend only to a length of roughly 15 ft; the developers of the future building across the street will handle the rest. The tunnel stub will be built with an earth-shoring system that will allow builders to backfill around the tunnel in case its completion is delayed. “We could go ahead and finish up our building and would not have to any kind of temporary knock-out panel or anything of that nature,” Yusuf says.


 

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