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Boston University Breaks Ground on Science Center

By Kevin Wilcox

A multistory center located on a prominent campus site will encourage interdisciplinary research by grouping scientists with similar research interests.

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The new Center for Integrated Life Sciences and Engineering (CILSE) will occupy a prominent site along the main thoroughfare of Boston University, serving as a new beacon to the university’s science departments. © Payette

July 14, 2015—Boston University (BU) recently broke ground on a prominent site along Commonwealth Avenue, the campus's main thoroughfare, for a new center that will encourage interdisciplinary science research. Rather than locate a single department or multiple departments in different areas, the facility will house scientists and engineers from a variety of disciplines who are researching common topics, including neuroscience, synthetic biology, and human imaging.

The nine-story, $140-million Center for Integrated Life Sciences and Engineering (CILSE) was designed by the Boston firm Payette. The facade will feature abundant glass that is muted by the presence of tall vertical fins. These fins echo the color palette of other buildings at the heart of university's campus while preserving the transparency that was important to BU for the project.

"Architecturally, the building presents an interesting problem," recalls Charles A. Klee, AIA, LEED AP, a principal of the firm. It is the first research building in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and BU wanted the structure to serve as a "front door," demonstrating the importance of science to the university.

The site is adjacent to Morse Auditorium, a distinctive building that dates to 1906. It was built as a synagogue and reportedly was modeled on Solomon's Temple. The university has owned the structure since 1967 and uses it for lectures, speeches, and special events. However, developing a front door for scientific research next to such a distinctive structure was a balancing act.

"Morse Auditorium is eligible for landmark status, so we had to be respectful, giving it breathing room and ensuring it maintained its stature on Commonwealth Avenue," Klee explains. "Ours was not the site for an exuberant sculpture demanding attention and competing with its predecessors. 

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The new building will be located adjacent to Morse Auditorium, a distinctive building that dates to 1906. The architects chose shapes and materials that could peaceably coexist with the older structure, which is reportedly modeled on Solomon’s Temple. © Payette

Instead we have proposed a simple, but elegant box," he explains. "It resides at a prominent address and has far-reaching goals both for research and architecture, but at the end of the day, it is not simply a stand-alone structure. It is designed to become a part of, and reinforce, the overall fabric of BU's campus."

The interior presented a design challenge as well. The university anticipates that the researchers and their equipment needs will change over time and wanted a facility that was flexible while still encouraging collaboration across scientific disciplines. "Fundamentally, the challenge was how do you design a building that needs to cover this broad range of activities and make it flexible as well? " Klee asks. He says the team wanted to avoid "building a little Swiss watch for this researcher, and a different Swiss watch for that researcher, and then when somebody new comes to the building you have to tear apart myriad in-place improvements and start over again."

But budgetary constraints had to be respected as well. "We knew we could not afford the luxury of providing infinite flexibility everywhere," Klee says. "We designed the infrastructure to be deployed and sized for a range of activities, without assuming that a full range of activities could be deployed anywhere."

To accomplish this, the design team developed a series of zones for the new structure. Low-intensity zones are designed for office areas and computational research that doesn't require specialized equipment. Medium-intensity zones can be equipped to accommodate basic research equipment and simple wet labs. High-intensity zones were designed using more stringent environmental and vibration-dampening criteria to meet the requirements of more demanding research using more sensitive equipment.

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The science center’s facade will feature abundant glass that is muted by the presence of tall vertical fins, which match the color palette of other buildings at the heart of university’s campus. © Payette

"In a conventional building 10 years ago we would have said that we designed the entire building so that you could put a fume hood pretty much anywhere you wanted. That was an attractive model in terms of its accommodation. But you ended up buying twice as much air-handling equipment as you needed, because only a small portion of that flexibility would ever be engaged," Klee explains.

To foster collaboration, the design team placed all of the office spaces in a "head house" that occupies a prominent east corner and offers dramatic views of the Charles River. The area is serviced by an open staircase that is integral with—rather than adjacent to—the spaces it serves. "The idea is that you can go up a floor or down a floor and directly connect with people from different laboratory groups," Klee says. "The open area is adjacent to the office and laboratory areas and is attached to the kitchenette so it serves as a true nexus for the floor. Linking these vertically, the design fosters the creation of a connected community that overcomes the natural boundaries of the individual floors and promotes interaction between like-minded investigators."

The structural engineering on the project was provided by Weidlinger Associates, Inc., led by Stephen Lew, P.E., a principal at the firm, and Han Xu, P.E., M.ASCE, an associate. Lew says that one of the principal challenges on the project was coordinating the zones designated by the architects.

"On the typical lab floors, level four through level nine, there are two zones of vibration control that are higher than a normal occupied floor," Lew explains. "There are two levels of sensitivity. We had to control that level of vibration motion." This was achieved by using deeper beams, Lew says.

The geotechnical conditions at the site are also complex. As is common in some areas of Boston, a stiffer, thick layer of clay is located beneath about 20 ft of soil, and beneath that layer of clay are other layers more susceptible to compression. The geotechnical engineering was provided by Haley & Aldrich, headquartered in Burlington, Massachusetts.

The foundation design was driven largely by concerns about resiliency. Although the site is above the floodplain, no one on the team wanted to put expensive research or building operations equipment below grade. Instead, they developed a structure with an elevated mechanical room and slab-on-grade first floor that optimizes the use of space and protects equipment operations during extreme weather events. 

But because the soils at the site are compressible, approximately 8 ft of soil was removed. This soil equates to the weight that will be placed on the site by the new building. The building is then founded on pressure-injected footings on the stiff layer of clay. "The soil was already compressed," Klee says. "You remove the soil, [place] the building, and there is no net change as far as the dirt is concerned. That's a really cool concept." Void spaces will be filled with ultralight geofoam, he says.

This solution, however, created a construction sequencing challenge for the project. By eliminating the year typically spent on work below grade, the building envelope—a curtain wall—needed to arrive on-site very early in the construction process in comparison to a typical building. "You can't afford to put your foundations in and then pay your construction crew to sit around and wait six months for your envelope to show up," Klee says. "As a result, this project became a kind of fast-track for the envelope, just to make sure it was ready to arrive in time to keep [work] going smoothly from foundation to steel to envelope."

Klee says that over the very long term, the university plans to continue to enhance the campus green, known as BU Grounds South, located adjacent to the building. The CILSE is the first step in creating a campus quadrangle that is lacking in the school's core campus. "This gesture will follow the university's master plan to build north-south connections across the campus's main artery and will bring all of the school's research facilities into the foreground," Klee says.



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