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New Research Center, Designed to Exacting Standards, Celebrates the Light

By Kevin Wilcox

The William Eckhardt Research Center required high-performance engineering to attain strict vibration and acoustical standards for cutting-edge research.

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The glass facade reveals the research within the building and celebrates light, a crucial element in some of the physicists’ work. © Tom Rossiter Photography

November 17, 2015—The design and engineering teams who worked on the recently opened William Eckhardt Research Center at the University of Chicago faced the exacting specifications of state-of-the-art research facilities in 2015 with a few unique twists. Vibration and acoustical performance was paramount, and the university wanted the project to include open spaces to foster collaboration. But then there were the more esoteric requirements: plenty of chalkboards and no stray particles of light.

"The physicists actually said they wanted no stray photons," recalls Mickey Collins, AIA, LEED AP, a senior project manager in the Chicago offices of the architecture firm HOK. HOK designed the 277,000 sq ft, $225-million facility that now graces Ellis Avenue at East 57 th Street in downtown Chicago. The building houses a vast array of research covering topics from the exceptionally small and strange wrinkles of the quantum realm to the immense distances required to assess exosolar planets.

"[Chalkboards are] a tradition of physicists," explains Mark Banholzer, AIA, LEED BD+C, a vice president and senior project designer for HOK. "We have done a couple of physics buildings and physicists just want chalk—it is part of their heritage and legacy, I think."

The chalkboards were simple enough to incorporate into the many informal spaces placed in the building to encourage collaboration. But averting the wandering photons required design and engineering prowess.

The new building houses the Astronomy and Astrophysics Department, the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Studies, and the Enrico Fermi Institute, as well as the new Institute of Molecular Engineering. It rises five stories above Ellis Avenue, with a facade of abundant glass designed by James Carpenter Design Associates, headquartered in New York City. The project also includes the impressive new North Science Quadrangle, a large gardenlike green space for students, faculty, and researchers.

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A gardenlike green space was part of the project. © Tom Rossiter Photography

Inspired by the physicists who work with light within the building, the architects designed the project to celebrate light and use it as a design element. "Each facade responds to its context and its qualities of light," Banholzer explains. "On the Ellis Street facade, for instance, there are glass fins and a series of angled bays that respond to the light, driving it deep within the building. The fins have a prismatic quality, so light refracts into a spectrum of color, allowing light to be part of the physical sensation."

Along busy East 57 th Street, the facade features smaller windows and terra-cotta panels that complement the surrounding buildings. An abundance of glass faces the new quadrangle, designed by the landscape architecture firm Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, of Brooklyn, New York, and Cambridge, Massachusetts. The extensive use of glass at grade level speaks to the desire to bring visibility to the research activity occurring within.

Engineering the building to successfully accommodate research using such highly sensitive tools as lasers and electron microscopes required a robust concrete structure founded on heavy reinforced-concrete slurry walls, reinforced-concrete columns, and a mat foundation as much as 36 in. thick in most locations. The Chicago office of Thornton Tomasetti, Inc., provided structural engineering for the project, working closely with the vibration and acoustic consultants at Colin Gordon Associates (CGA), headquartered in Brisbane, California, on the exacting performance specifications.  

"The heavier mass of concrete construction (over steel) mitigates vibration," said Helen S. Torres, S.E., LEED AP, a vice president of Thornton Tomasetti who worked on the project. Torres responded in writing to questions posed by Civil Engineering online. "Typically, the concrete framing can meet vibration criteria with a shallower depth than a steel solution," Torres explained. "The project team chose concrete construction for these reasons."

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The building includes many large, informal spaces to facilitate collaboration. © Tom Rossiter Photography

To add to the challenges, the water table on campus is high—no more than 10 ft below grade, Torres said. "The site [also] has several neighboring buildings and underground utilities," she added. "These factors led to slurry wall construction for the basement wall."

The construction team dug an approximately 3 ft wide, 60 ft deep trench and filled it with slurry to equalize pressure and keep the trench from collapsing. The trench was then filled from the bottom with concrete, which slowly displaced the slurry out the top of the trench as the walls took shape. Once the walls were complete, they served as a dam during excavation of the soil within the 100 by 300 ft footprint of the building.

Concrete columns are exposed throughout the upper levels of the building as a design element. The team constructed on-site mockups and used the basement columns as an opportunity for quality control. A superior finish resulted through the use steel forms and thorough cleanings between each placement of concrete, which was conducted by contractor Tribco Construction Services of Chicago. "The contractor did a beautiful job on the concrete work for the columns," Collins says. "They are a wonderful feature that is very aesthetically pleasing," Collins says.

Space was created specifically for the highly sensitive electron microscopes at the side of the building furthest from Ellis Avenue, in the deepest level of the basement, resting on a slab that the design team refers to as "bedrock with concrete." Collins says that recent acoustic and vibration testing indicates that this area is one of the highest-performing spaces in the United States with respect to vibration control.

"[CGA] were key early in the project, when we were trying to figure out how to provide high vibration performance when we had a busy street nearby," Collins says. "Ellis [Avenue] is a bus route. Fire engines, snow plows, everything goes by right next to the building."

The project began in 2008, when the university originally considered a large renovation of the former Research Institute Building, which was completed in 1951 on the same site. The team performed a thorough analysis and concluded that the existing building couldn't be adaptable to reach the desired performance goals.

"It became evident to us that we were not going to provide ideal labs in that building," Collins recalls. The university agreed and the decision was made to construct a new, high-performance structure. The research functions to be housed in the new building evolved during the design process, which spanned the Great Recession. The Institute of Molecular Engineering was created during the same time as the design, and found a home in the facility. "We continued to design the building, not knowing the focus of the faculty who would be hired for the institute," Collins says. "So we had to make the building and laboratories as flexible as possible to accommodate any type of future research.

"It turns out that for a physics lab, you end up putting in infrastructure that is higher performing than would be required for a chemistry lab, but it serves them well. We needed high spaces within the physics labs, which enabled us to add all the ductwork required for fume hoods, air changes, and exhaust. The resulting template was actually quite flexible."

The demolition of the previous buildings on the tight site actually presented the greatest engineering challenge of the project, Torres said. "The site was home to three buildings that were mechanically connected to its three neighbors," he said. "One neighbor was as close as 30 in. from the new building. Temporary supports, underpinning, and jet grouting were employed on the neighbors to allow for demolition of the existing buildings before construction of the new."

A large, steel-framed penthouse atop the building was made exceptionally tall—about 32 ft—to accommodate high-performance air handlers equipped with energy-recovery technology known as thermal wheels. As air is exhausted out of the building, it passes through one half of a turning honeycomb-style wheel. The surface of the honeycomb captures either heat in the winter or cool in the summer. Incoming air passes through the other half of the turning wheel and carries the heat or cooling energy back into the building, thus requiring less energy to maintain the desired temperature.

"Lab buildings are intensive users of air. Even the basement labs have the code-required six air changes per hour, minimum," Collins says. "That's why the energy-recovery wheels are so key. When you're bringing so much fresh air into a building and discharging so much, you want to recover either the heating or cooling of the air that is exhausted. This energy is then applied to incoming fresh air."

Construction of the facility began in 2012 and was completed this year. Faculty began moving in during September in advance of a recent formal dedication ceremony. The building is attracting a great deal of attention on campus, Banholzer notes. A large conference room on the first floor, offering views of the quadrangle and supported by a generous lobby, is becoming a popular location for science conferences and university events. And the physicists 50 ft below are happy to report no stray photons. 


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