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Lab Buildings: Then and Now

By Josephine Minutillo
January 2014
Photo © Ezra Stoller/Esto
Bell Lab's atrium as it looked when the building opened in 1962.

When Bell Telephone Corporate Laboratories opened in Holmdel, NJ, in 1962, it marked a revolution in the design of corporate campuses and, more specifically, research facilities. One of master architect Eero Saarinen's final projects, the immense rectilinear volume was clad in a distinctive mirrored glass developed for the building. Extending over 700 feet, the structure was dubbed the "biggest mirror ever" by the architectural press at the time. But the innovative skin was much more than that. A precursor of low-E glazing, the highly reflective surface allowed 25 percent of the available sunlight to pass through while blocking 70 percent of the sun's heat.

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Within that envelope—a home to pioneering technological invention for 45 years—four separate but virtually identical rectangular structures were connected by a 70-foot-high atrium that ran the length of the five-story building. In what proved a prescient move, Saarinen designed expansive corridors to encourage interaction among the scientists.

In other ways, however, Saarinen's massive box was very much a building of its time. Completed back when global warming must have sounded like a pleasant idea, providing fresh air to the 715,000-square-foot box required lots of energy, not to mention that lab facilities, even then, were notorious for being energy hogs. According to the U.S. Department of Energy's Better Building Alliance, contemporary labs use three to eight times as much energy as office buildings. So it raises the question—can lab buildings be green?

This issue of GreenSource looks at two lab projects, one new, the other a complete overhaul of an existing building. The Genome Sciences Building at the University of North Carolina, by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), is a new, state-of-the-art structure that is also clad in floor-to-ceiling glass. But unlike Saarinen's choice to make labs and offices windowless, SOM's design allows daylight to pour into all program spaces—a key strategy in achieving LEED Gold. The second lab building, the decades-old Jorgensen Laboratory at Caltech, originally designed by esteemed modernist A. Quincy Jones as a computation center, received a dramatic face lift from John Friedman Alice Kimm Architects. They opened up the bunkerlike edifice and employed a number of novel approaches to earn LEED Platinum—no easy feat, considering that its former dry-lab spaces were converted to much more energy-intensive wet labs.

As for Bell Labs, it too has found new life. Last summer, the township of Holmdel approved a redevelopment plan for the campus, which has stood unused for seven years. The iconic building is being transformed into a mixed-use complex with a health center, hotel, offices, and retail—suggesting that the greenest design is one which stands the test of time.



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