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Photo © Christian Richters
The linear research facility has west-facing sealed laboratories overlooking the road and the rest of the site.


Netherlands Institute of Ecology

Learning Lab: A scientific research facility in the Netherlands is designed as a test bed for technological innovations.

By Hattie Hartman
September 2012
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A trip to the Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO) in Wageningen, just over an hour southeast of Amsterdam, transports visitors to another world. Set back from a busy road, which separates the institute from Wageningen University, the building is accessed by a 90-foot-long timber walkway that spans a pond full of reed beds and croaking frogs. Behind the main building are a series of greenhouses and research pavilions with solar panels, a bicycle shed, a bat habitat, and a hotel for solitary bees.


Location Wageningen, Netherlands

Gross area 113,000 ft2 (10,500 m2)

Completed January 2011

Cost 17 million euro ($21.1 million US)

Program Laboratory, offices, storage, auditorium


Wood Plato International BV Platowood

Skylights and insulated panel/plastic Saint-Gobain Glass

Flooring Polished concrete

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Netherlands Institute of Ecology
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NIOO is the result of a rare combination of a visionary client, a brief to design a state-of-the-art sustainable building, and a 4.5-acre greenfield site on which to build it. Though this would have been a dream commission for any green architect, NIOO director Louise Vet sought a mainstream architectural practice with a track record in laboratory design rather than one devoted to green projects. She explains her reasoning, "Ecologists are often typecast as idealists who run after butterflies. But in fact, we do high-level research on genomes and biodiversity, and I wanted the building to express this: a strong aesthetic statement in the middle of a very green environment, not clay and wood." She awarded the commission to Claus en Kaan Architecten, a 50-person practice with offices in Amsterdam and Rotterdam. Vet recalls that during the interview, principal Felix Claus was convincing about the firm's green approach as a learning journey rather than a prescriptive method.

Just as design began on NIOO in 2006, Waste = Food, a documentary about William McDonough and Michael Braungart's cradle-to-cradle philosophy of sustainable design, was broadcast on Dutch television. This was to have a profound impact on NIOO. Vet offered her 150 employees a copy of the documentary and charged the project team with designing the new institute according to cradle-to-cradle principles. Although McDonough and Braungart were not directly involved in the design of the institute, their "closed-loop" thinking underpinned the approach to material selection, water treatment, renewable energy, and biodiversity.

The Wageningen University master plan called for a building with an orthogonal relationship to the road. This, not solar orientation, determined the building's position on the site. Analyzing the brief of laboratory spaces and offices, the architects opted for a linear building, 335 feet long by almost 100 feet deep, with west-facing, sealed laboratories overlooking the road. The building serves as a physical, visual, and acoustical barrier between the road and the rest of the site. East-facing offices benefit from operable windows overlooking the native landscape behind the building, "open to birdsong," says Vet. She was adamant that the building should be a comfortable and enjoyable place to work, with employees able to manually control natural light and fresh air. Solar gain on the long west facade is screened by an 8-foot-by-10-inch deep-timber brise-soleil, and in the offices by adjustable blinds.

The building is organized on two floors with vertical light-wells containing a stair at either end of the plan. A core of support labs not requiring daylight occupies the center of the deep plan and is separated from the perimeter labs and offices by a double-loaded corridor. After considerable debate during the design phase, the team decided to space the columns at 7.5 meters, which enables greater flexibility to adapt the building in the future. A smaller top floor occupies about a third of the roof, with a conference room, canteen, and welcoming roof deck, enclosed by the planting of the green roofs, well established after just 18 months.

Steel, glass, and timber were selected as the primary materials for the building after detailed life-cycle analysis by environmental-engineering firm DGMR using the Dutch GreenCalc method. Finding a suitable material for the laboratory floor was particularly challenging. The standard epoxy-resin finish applied over a concrete screed in most laboratories did not meet cradle-to-cradle requirements because it could not be easily separated from the concrete at the end of life. The architects opted for a polished-concrete floor slab, because it eliminated the need for the screed and resulted in a visually richer finish.

Timber throughout the building is Norwegian spruce supplied by Dutch manufacturer Plato, which pioneered thermal treatment of FSC-certified softwoods to increase their durability without chemical impregnation. The material is used for the cladding, the brise-soleil, and an interior finish around the core. To meet the building's internal acoustic requirements, the architects developed a pattern of cutouts in the Plato panels backed with absorbent material. A rough finish for the panels was deliberately selected to contrast with the high-tech steel and glazing of the structure and envelope.

Exceptional quality of daylight was important to the client, a requirement that the architects met with an extensive use of glazing in the facades as well as clerestories in the two light-wells. Keen to differentiate the institute from a standard office building by expressing NIOO's laboratory functions on the front elevation, the architects opted for floor-to-ceiling glazing for the labs. The result is an overall glazing ratio of over 60 percent, unusually high for an environmentally performative building, particularly at NIOO where the laboratory functions mean that the annual cooling load exceeds the heating demand.

Heating and cooling is handled by underground interseasonal storage, quite common in the Netherlands because of its extensive aquifers. The NIOO installation utilizes unusually deep vertical pipes to store heat from the solar thermal arrays and excess heat from the building and greenhouses at 300 meters below grade. Heat is delivered to the building in winter through pipes circulating through the concrete floors, exploiting the thermal mass of the concrete.

Vet is particularly proud of NIOO's approach to water treatment, which is the subject of ongoing research with the local water authority and the nearby university. The aspiration to purify all water from the building and discharge it on site without a sewer connection was not possible due to permit requirements, but only toilet wastewater is discharged through the sewer. Use of vacuum toilets in combination with an algae bioreactor and helophyte filter means that rinse-water volume is reduced by 90 percent, and Vet is hopeful that ultimately the toilet waste will also be discharged on site through a closed-loop cycle. Green roofs consume another area of ongoing research. While the main green-roof area was designed with species most compatible with the site's biodiversity (not just the ubiquitous sedum), the roof also contains 48 trial plots. Different soils and plantings are being monitored with sensors to measure water retention, evaporation, and temperature variation. The objective is to evaluate both the success of a variety of green-roof mediums and their impact on the building.

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