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Solution of the Month

Two-Faced: Despite differing appearances, the broadest elevations of the Zuckerman Research Center both aim to maximize daylight without the heat gain.

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill
January 2010

By David Sokol

The density of New York City is unforgiving: Site constraints on the Upper East Side forced Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) to design the Mortimer B. Zuckerman Research Center with east and west exposures far broader than the elevation facing south. This sounds antithetical to the principles of good passive design. “But we were fortunate, because the New York street grid shifts toward the southeast and northwest, and that allows us to employing effective shading devices,” responds SOM partner Mustafa Abadan, FAIA.

The Mortimer B. Zuckerman Research Center by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill
Photo courtesy Skidmore, Owings & Merrill
The Mortimer B. Zuckerman Research Center by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill


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The 692,000-square-foot building, the first in a three-phase updating and expansion of the venerable Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Research Center, includes laboratory spaces for 98 principal investigators, vivarium, offices, support spaces, and a new rectory for St. Catherine’s Church. Due to a cantilever condition, labs are positioned along the northwest-facing edge of the building, and administrative spaces run parallel, along the southeastern elevation. Both facades are glazed to appear less massive and to maximize daylight to the interiors, which are especially open in plan throughout the lab spaces.

Thanks to its orientation, the labs experience the harshest sun penetration toward the end of the day. To mitigate resulting glare and heat gain, SOM developed a ceramic frit pattern for that side of the building. “The building was designed a bit prior to true parametric modeling; we were doing this like calculus,” Abadan says of his team’s iterative mockup process, which, with heat-gain calculation software, helped determine the final frit pattern. The graduated density of the frit corresponds directly with the labs’ bench-aisle-bench layout: Abadan explains that “the lab benches essentially enjoy clerestory light due to the way the frit pattern is arrayed, and aisles get a clear view outward.”

Despite appearances otherwise, just half of the northwest elevation of the Zuckerman Research Center comprises vision glass. The remainder of the curtain wall includes spandrel and column covers, which meld into the glass pattern for visual consistency without emitting further heat load into the interior. Underneath all of it a second skin of metal louvers stretched over the structural frame allows mechanical systems to draw air in and out of the building.

Opposite the labs, the southeast-facing office wall is virtually floor-to-ceiling double-glazed glass with low-emissivity coating. Exterior bracket-mounted horizontal-louver elements serve as efficient shading devices. “We had the ability to make the wall more transparent because the heat load there was handled primarily through the horizontal sun-shading devices,” Abadan says; “the very early sun that would penetrate into the building is not that strong, and there are few people in the building during those hours.” SOM calibrated these aluminum louvers according to daily angles of incidence, but with an eye to avoiding snow and ice accumulation.

At the time SOM undertook the Zuckerman design process, integrating photovoltaics into the facade proved impractical. But the systems the architects did employ effectively met other sustainability aspirations. Almost all building occupants have access to natural illumination most of the day, for example. And in conjunction with Lutron lighting controls, abundant daylight has helped achieve a 20 percent—and potentially higher—reduction in energy use compared to a similar code-compliant building.

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