At its top the recently opened Genome Sciences Building at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is a 200 ft by 80 ft state of the art greenhouse is lit dramatically at night. Courtesy SOM/© Tom Rossiter Photography
A crossroads site on campus undergoes a stunning transformation, complete with research facility, parking garage, and storm-water control measures.
October 23, 2012—The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill recently opened the new Genome Sciences Building, creating a hub to foster connections between diverse researchers on what was once a surface parking lot with storm water management concerns. The building occupies a highly trafficked site on campus near the football stadium, connecting the UNC medical campus, residence halls, and the main academic campus.
“The University had a vision for this being a crossroads,” says Peter Van Vechten, AIA, an architectural associate director for Skidmore Owings & Merrill LLP (SOM), the Chicago-based firm that prepared the UNC master plan and provided architectural, interiors, structural engineering and high performance sustainable design for the new building. “This was about the coming together of two different worlds of academia—the medical center and the more traditional academics—bringing together people from many different fields of study. And becoming a new place of memory.
“The mission was to bring people together from many disciplines, working adjacent to each other, providing as many connections as possible,” Van Vechten says. “The idea was to create a place, create a framework that will allow these people to talk to their peers as much as possible with the goal of innovation, of discovery, of advancing the science.”
From the beginning it was clear to SOM that the Genome Sciences Building couldn’t follow the form of a typical research building. The university needed a 200 ft by 80 ft state-of-the-art greenhouse on top of the building. That required most of the mechanical plant typically found on the roofs of such buildings to be located in the basement.
The building’s large classrooms, coupled with the site’s function as a crossroads, meant that the lower floors of the building needed to efficiently accommodate a heavy flow of pedestrians. While most research facilities are locked at the ground floor for security, in this building they are not. Instead, SOM designed an open ground floor and moved the secure research areas higher into the building.
Unlike a typical research facility, the Genome Science Building
features glass interior walls and open corridors to encourage
connection, collaboration, and innovation. Courtesy SOM/
© Tom Rossiter Photography
“The whole idea of the building is transparency and porosity—allowing people to move through it without having to actually go inside—is key,” Van Vechten says. “This building throws its arms open to the university and says, ‘come on through.’ There is a café corner for building users, students, and visitors. There are glass-enclosed classrooms in one of the pods.”
The lower level of the building includes lecture halls that seat 450, 250, and 80. “That’s a pretty big population to accommodate on an hourly basis. The flows of people in and out of the facility had to be quite smooth,” Van Vechten says.
Creating this open flow on the ground level presented several engineering challenges for SOM. The eight-story, 228,000 sq ft building is divided into three pods. Two pods feature two stories below ground that accommodate the mechanical systems relocated from the roof. Using the existing sloping site SOM minimized excavation costs by aligning the two pods with the natural rock slope, resulting in no blasting. Those pods rest on mat foundations. The other pod at the higher elevation is supported at ground level on several hundred 8 in. diameter micropiles extending to better soils.
The building is a reinforced-concrete structure in which some of the concrete members are exposed on both the interior and exterior of the building as architectural elements. “The advantage to those finishes is it allows you to cut down on the amount of cladding that you have to add to the building,” says Dane Rankin, P.E., S.E., M.ASCE, an associate director for SOM. “It presents challenges from the structural engineering prospective in that when you are exposing the structure, then you have to deal with thermal issues.”
The ground floor of the building employs open corridors to
accommodate heavy pedestrian traffic at the campus crossroads.
Courtesy SOM/© Tom Rossiter Photography
SOM identified all of the walls with both interior and exterior exposure and designed them with embedded insulation. Some of the walls were as much as 27 in. thick, and 3 in. of that was rigid insulation. The interior and exterior portions were then tied together with reinforcement.
“It was also a challenge to realize a building in which the concrete is an aesthetic,” Rankin says. “We built numerous concrete mock-ups during the design phase. They included two columns and two walls, and within those walls the embedded insulation was mocked up. The portal openings through the walls were included in the mock up. This building has quite a few cantilever conditions. And those cantilevers were mocked up. The vertical construction joints, the horizontal construction joints, every major detail.”
The final one-story mock-up, approximately 24 ft square, served as a test for different concrete compositions, formwork methods, and finishing techniques. The concrete chosen includes blast furnace slag, which strengthens the concrete and helped SOM achieve the desired color for the building, Rankin says.
The finished mock-up served as an on-site guide during the construction of the building. Winning bidders were required to replicate portions of the mock-up to demonstrate they had the capabilities to produce the desired results. The mock-up also served as a mild source of concern during the project as engineers and architects waited several months for the freshly placed concrete in the building to lighten to the agreed upon color of the mock up.
To establish the open atmosphere that encourages communication and collaboration, SOM developed a light, open floor plan with clear vistas to different users and to the outdoors. A key element to this openness is a dramatic circular steel staircase that spirals from the ground floor all the way into the greenhouse, affording an amazing eight-story view through the building. Natural light floods the staircase through the greenhouse roof.
The building is sited at a busy crossroads, near the football
stadium, linking residence halls, the UNC medical campus, and
the academic campus. Courtesy SOM/© Tom Rossiter
“In the plan there was a conscious effort to provide as much clarity and visual transparency through the building so that you could increase the likelihood of seeing colleagues and potentially, bumping into them,” says Van Vechten. “There are lots of opportunities for those chance encounters. In addition, there are a variety of spaces for the exchange of ideas, from formal places such as lecture halls, conference rooms, offices, to informal places like open seating areas between laboratories.”
This openness created a further structural engineering challenge, Rankin said. The building’s research function came with vibration criteria that had to be met to ensure the accuracy of sensitive lab instruments. The open spaces and lower level porosity created 40 ft spans for some of the floor slabs.
“Forty feet is a pretty good span for concrete,” Rankin says. “And we also had strict vibration criteria. So we did have to spend quite a bit of time analyzing that. And you find that it is very sensitive. One inch in concrete thickness can make a big difference in how ultimately the floor responds to vibrations. Because of that, the thickness of the slabs is anywhere from 16 inches to 19 inches.”
To correct the storm-water management issues SOM found at the site, a series of underground cisterns with a total capacity of 50,000 cu ft were constructed to collect water during heavy rain events. The design team used the leftover volume between the excavation and the cisterns to create a reservoir tank for reclaimed roof drainage water for irrigation use. Above the tank and cisterns is a new central park green space, linking the building and the football stadium. The team also went to great lengths to preserve an adjacent existing depressed area that naturally serves as a storm-water overflow area.
The mock-up wasn’t the only temporary structure included in the project. UNC researchers were so eager to replace an antiquated greenhouse during the construction period that they had SOM build a temporary one on the grounds until research could be moved into the steel and glass structure atop the building.
“It provides a great visual icon,” Van Vechten says of the rooftop greenhouse. “At night, they turn the lights on and it’s pretty amazing.”
Because the project displaced a parking lot, the University constructed a parking garage on a portion of the site to increase parking spaces in the center of the campus. And UNC used the project as an opportunity to upgrade an adjacent chiller plant.
Van Vechten says it has been “professionally very rewarding” to take this project from the master plan stage to completed academic hub and research facility. “It’s pretty incredible,” Van Vechten says. “That area of the campus was really a no man’s land—a backdoor. The realization of the vision is a great accomplishment by all who collaborated on the project. We are really thrilled by that. The project is a tremendous achievement.”