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Laboratory Focuses on Transparent Science

Exterior rendering of the 145,000 sq ft Energy Sciences Building at Argonne National Lab in suburban Chicago
The 145,000 sq ft Energy Sciences Building at Argonne National Lab in suburban Chicago will conduct research on clean and affordable energy. Photo courtesy of HDR Architecture, Inc., © Dave Burk, Hedrich Blessing

A new energy lab manages vibrations to facilitate experiments and fosters collaboration to improve results.

April 8, 2014—Argonne National Lab knows something about energy—it traces its roots to the secret Metallurgical Lab at the University of Chicago, part of the Manhattan Project’s goal to achieve a self-sustaining nuclear reaction. (It did in 1942.) While nuclear power helped define the 20th century, Argonne’s recently opened Energy Sciences Building (ESB) expects to play a crucial role in energy research in the 21st.

The new $95-million, 145,000 sq ft ESB, just opened at Argonne’s campus, in Lemont, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, will focus on research on clean and affordable energy—including biomimetic research, which tries to understand how nature harnesses sun power—as well as catalysts, fuel cells, and electrical energy storage. More than 200 researchers will work in the new facility.

The program required a site with strict vibration criteria for the new lab’s sensitive equipment. The lab considered buildings at the north end of the campus and a site that was farther west. Everything from bumps in the road to truck traffic to rail lines could impact sensitive equipment.

“We performed vibration tests to really characterize the site for its vibration criteria,” says Warren Hendrickson, AIA, LEED-AP, a vice president and the science + technology principal of HDR Architecture, an operating company of Omaha-based HDR, Inc., which provided both architectural design and structural engineering services on the project.

The site HDR chose was located near one of the major north-south view corridors of the campus—visible from a quarter of a mile away—and the ESB would anchor one end of the campus as envisioned in the campus master plan. Architecturally, Argonne officials wanted a design character that reflected both some of the newer structures on campus—such as the advanced photo source X-ray research facility, a sleek, contemporary building constructed with white metal panels—as well as the more traditional red brick of the lab’s original campus buildings. 

The variegated panels on the structure’s south facade help reduce heat gain

The variegated panels on the structure’s south facade help reduce
heat gain. Photo courtesy of HDR Architecture, Inc., © Dave Burk,
Hedrich Blessing

Consequently, the north side has a long and modern three-story facade of clear glass—HDR’s designers strove for visibility and transparency throughout the project, so glass dominates the interior as well, from doors to office spaces and laboratory space. Glass also promotes safety. The south facade, on the other hand, features a pattern of asymmetrical metal panels painted to resemble an anodized finish, as well as glass panels. Hendrickson refers to this rich burgundy facade as a “variegated expression.”

Finding the right site and the right exterior appearances weren’t the only considerations. The lower level mechanical spaces had to be isolated from the rest of the slab-on-grade in order to “confine any vibration from the equipment to that section of the floor,” says Martin Sterr, S.E., AIA, LEED-AP, the senior structural engineer on the project for HDR Architecture. “But the rest of the floor is tied together, with the thought that the more mass that’s engaged at a single time with the slab, the more it has the capacity to dampen or isolate vibration from the outside.”

Concrete was used in the construction because it inherently has more mass than steel, which helps address the higher vibration criteria needed by the new lab. The results speak for themselves: Hendrickson says researchers are “getting better results on the top floor of this building than they have on the ground floor of other buildings.”

The building’s lateral bracing system uses shear walls in the north-south direction, Sterr notes, and because of the desire for transparency throughout the north-south axis of the building, the ESB uses concrete moment frames in the east-west direction to maximize visibility through the facility.

Offices are located along the perimeter of the building—a combination of private offices for principal investigators and shared offices for staff. The building’s main space, though, is a pair of two-story atriums that connect all three levels of the building, around which are located all of the building’s collaborative or gathering spaces, ranging from the lobby to conference rooms to a break room, along with stairs and the elevator.

The space provides ample light. “That central space is bathed in light all day long,” says Hendrickson.

A pair of two-story atriums collects the building’s collaborative and gathering spaces and provides ample light throughout the day

A pair of two-story atriums collects the building’s collaborative
and gathering spaces and provides ample light throughout the day.
Photo courtesy of HDR Architecture, Inc., © Dave Burk,
Hedrich Blessing

Because the needs of the lab will inevitably change over time due to new science and new technology, the building was planned with easily adaptable modules. Much of the building uses typical 33 ft bays, but the designers realized that in order to develop the volumes needed to create a truly collaborative environment in the atrium and lobby areas, the typical bay module was insufficient. The atrium module was enlarged to 44 ft. Sterr says that mechanical, electrical, and other building systems still needed to transition through and around the atrium. “To allow these things to happen without significantly impacting ceiling heights around the atrium, posttensioning was incorporated to maintain structural depth where needed,” he notes.

In the atrium there are open stairways where researchers can interact, and a separate set leads from the new building to an existing one as well. As part of the design, there’s also an expression of the concrete frame visible in numerous places, although Sterr notes that the entire frame is not exposed.

To visually mark the building at the edge of campus, designers extended the rectangular form of the building out as an empty volume. Dubbed the “sky gate,” the metal panel frame extends out from both the first floor and the roof, functioning as both a terrace and a visual marker along one of the campus’s main view corridors.

To facilitate a thin design, engineers used posttensioning to limit structural depth at the atrium and sky gate terrace areas, while still accounting for the needs of a rainwater drainage system. “That band through the length of the building projects away from the column frame, so we had a few unique details to support the panel system outside the column line,” says Sterr.

Sterr notes that to maintain the constant profile of the band, the roof-level design had to account for insulation and roofing depth, while the second-floor design needed to provide a sloped, watertight ledge just outside the curtain wall. To aid in that effort, he says, the structural engineers detailed partially upturned beams at the second floor atrium terrace. Posttensioning was employed at both the roof and second-floor atrium spaces, as well as at the sky-gate frame to reduce the framing depth while retaining the metal panel depth throughout the facade.

The ESB is on track to receive a gold-level certification from the U.S Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program. The building is designed to use 34.5 percent less energy than a typical structure of its size, as established by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE). The exterior is designed to meet high-performance guidelines set forth by the U.S. Department of Energy. The building limits heat exposure by being oriented from north and south, and the variegated panels on the south side further reduce heat gain. The building uses occupancy sensors to monitor indoor lighting use as well as low-flow plumbing fixtures that use 31 percent less water than LEED’s baseline. Additionally, the building’s landscaping will use no irrigation and is being designed to restore the kind of prairie landscape that existed when Argonne’s Lemont campus opened in the late 1940s and 1950s.

According to Bethesda, Maryland-based Clark Construction, the project’s general contractor, the building is equipped with more than 100 low-flow, variable-volume fume hoods that reduce energy consumption, exhaust, and make-up airflow. Instead of large individual air-handling units to supply air, the ESB uses a system known as a fan wall, which consists of a series of small fans that will produce sufficient airflow and redundancy; an individual fan can be replaced without interrupting air flow through the building. The ESB also uses a heat-recovery system with a glycol loop in the winter to recapture heated air leaving the building and use it to heat incoming air.

“I think the bottom line about this building is that it was under budget, ahead of schedule—and they love it,” says Hendrickson.



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