A White Wizard Goes Green: Richard Meier & Partners creates a rigorously geometric, cross-disciplinary center for life science research at Cornell University.
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On a recent, bright morning in Ithaca, New York, Cornell University’s Joan and Sanford I. Weill Hall gleamed white and stark against its brick neighbors and the lush green of the Cayuga Lake valley. Richard Meier has long been known for cladding his buildings—performance centers, private homes, and museums alike–—in white aluminum, and this work is no different. So at first look, calling it “green” may seem a misnomer, but the building has garnered acclaim for its low energy use and deft handling of this historically difficult-to-green building type: the laboratory building.
Weill Hall, though, is much more than a series of laboratory suites. Billed by the university as “one of the nation’s premiere life sciences facilities,” the 263,000-square-foot, $113.5 million building houses not only the requisite laboratory and research facilities, but also office spaces, conference rooms, and informal spaces for faculty and student gatherings. A student eatery and public meeting space occupy the trunk of the T-shaped building. Due in large part to this packed program, and the much-needed extra square footage it provided, students and faculty met the yet unfinished space with enthusiasm when it opened for occupancy in October 2008, says facilities coordinator Todd Pfeiffer. Pfeiffer also mentions the “openness” and “seamlessness” of the office and laboratory spaces, but the word “sustainable” goes almost entirely unused, likely a testament to just how integrated such features are. Instead, Pfeiffer talks about “quality of life,” which is bolstered by the extensive use of natural light throughout the building and speaks to both Meier & Partners’ and Cornell University’s commitment to limiting the building’s environmental impact.
The result of their teamwork is a building well suited to its site, the needs of its users, and the sustainability of its spaces. Twenty-two percent of the building’s materials, for example, including the white aluminum facade and concrete core, are from recycled sources. Additionally, Meier & Partners selected FSC-certified ash wood from sites within 500 miles of the campus for interior surfaces, including conference rooms and the sky lit, four-story entrance-atrium. From the atrium, students and faculty access the upper levels via a central staircase, and each level features a landing peppered with cushy chairs and side tables. Much of the building’s program emphasizes a collaborative spirit; laboratory spaces on the second, third, and fourth floors consist of long, uninterrupted suites, which allow for multiple research groups that may be working on vastly varying projects to interact. To keep labs clear and to allot for the transport of large equipment, an interstitial corridor runs parallel to lab suites.
Keeping all these spaces ventilated presented an additional challenge. Natural ventilation is not an option for most laboratories, as it can diminish the integrity of controlled settings for research. According to Steve Levin, construction manager at Bard, Rao + Athanas Consulting Engineers (BR+A), six HVAC handling units are located in the building’s penthouse. He cites the use of chilled beams for cooling and the reuse of heat from the system’s exhaust as particularly efficient strategies for reducing the building’s overall energy use. And, as in the atrium, daylight plays a key role, as all labs take advantage of ample natural light and views of athletic fields to the south. Occupancy sensors are set to monitor lab usage and control the abundant overhead lighting accordingly. “It’s a well-tuned machine,” says Pfeiffer.
Of course, this is only what lies above the surface. The building’s centers for animal research and observation and plant genomics studies sit below grade. Mechanical systems and low-vibration labs, which house sensitive microscopes and other equipment, are also sunk below ground. So what appears to be merely a grassy plaza above ground is actually a large green roof. “The entire basement is covered with a green roof that’s basically three feet thick,” says Meier & Partners associate partner Renny Logan. These green roofs are planted with spongy, local fauna and include water retention systems, to reduce water run-off and eliminate the need for irrigation, according to a Meier & Partners report.
Weill Hall earned a LEED Gold rating, aided by their specific successes under the Labs-21 ratings system, but this was not the initial goal, reports Logan. “The gratifying thing for me [about] LEED and the whole sensibility about sustainability is really making people happier, with better use of resources. And I hope that we’ve been pretty successful here.”