The New Orleans Bioinnovation Center (NOBIC) was a long time coming. From the moment the project began the planning phase in 2002, it was plagued by rising construction costs and fund-raising complexities. The owners had reclaimed a brownfield site in the burgeoning biotechnology district across from Tulane University Medical School on historic Canal Street and razed the existing structure. Then Hurricane Katrina nearly washed away the entire city. When New Orleans began to rebuild, NOBIC was back on track, helped by the state, which—like other states—had discovered the economic potential of attracting biotechnology incubators. The goal was to create a collaborative environment in which fledgling start-ups could grow into successful enterprises and spread the wealth.
Location New Orleans, Louisiana (Mississippi River Delta)
Gross area 63,989 ft2 (5,944 m2)
Completed August 2011
Cost $38 million
Annual purchased energy use (based on utility bills) 132 kBtu/ft2 (1,496 MJ/m2), 61% reduction from Labs 21 average
Annual carbon footprint (predicted) 35 lb CO2/ft2(170 kg CO2/m2)
Program Laboratory, office
TEAM & SOURCES
Masonry FlexCrete Building Systems aerated concrete
Curtain wall Kawneer 1600 System Trifab VG
Metal panel Centria Microline
Local architects Eskew+Dumez+Ripple (EDR) chose a sleek, glass-and-steel vocabulary with which to express modernity while referencing traditional Vieux Carré architecture—courtyards and balconies, proportion and texture. The atrium lobby serves arrival and orientation functions, but it also provides amenities to the public, such as a 100-person event space with state-of-the-art audiovisual equipment and a 2,000-square-foot café directly accessible from Canal Street. Daylight floods the lobby from a partially enclosed courtyard, where a pool, supplied by stormwater, features synchronized water spouts that dampen street noise.
Glass recycling has not been reinstated in New Orleans since Katrina, so the client and architects thought the public should be reminded of this missing service. They commissioned local glass artist Mitchell Gaudet to build a partition of cast glass made from discarded bottles. Leftover chips of glass are embedded in the terrazzo flooring throughout the building.
Whereas the lobby splays horizontally, the four-story atrium rising through the building becomes a habitable, light-filled portal to tenant spaces. Stairs and ramps wind upward, interrupted by break areas and balconies at every level. Their purpose is pollination, to encourage casual encounters among the tenant mix, which is characterized by highly skilled professionals with common interests and varied areas of expertise.
"We think we've designed for the highest common denominator, rather than the lowest, which defines most speculative development," explains EDR principal Mark Ripple. On the one hand, the base tenant is a bioscience start-up. On the other hand, the second tier is made up of professionals who breathe life into the incubators—IP attorneys, venture capitalists, accountants, and marketing and PR agencies. Therefore, the operations range from sole-proprietor offices to medium-size suites to high-tech wet labs. The labs are designed for easy installation of fume hoods and emergency backup systems, which are made operational only if needed. Each leased space is submetered, allowing tenants to have all the energy they need, but not more than they need.
There are many less obvious design strategies that contributed to the center's LEED Gold certification, a first for a laboratory building in New Orleans. The front facade faces southwest, which means it receives the extreme impact of the summer sun. The architects layered the facade in metal louvers, which shade outdoor terraces and buffer storms. The exterior envelope is 62 percent glazed, but thanks to the louvers, it has a summer solar gain of a building with 18 percent glazing.
The Big Easy has challenges beyond solar gain. The city enjoys a humid, subtropical climate, with an annual rainfall of 62 inches spread evenly over 12 months. Z Smith, EDR's director of sustainability and building performance, explains, "Short-term rain events can overload the city's stormwater system. The system backs up, which is why New Orleans is sometimes referred to as 'the Big Muddy.' " Because the rainfall can be intense, roof drainage is required by code to handle 2 inches of rain falling in 15 minutes, and 5 inches falling within an hour.
The architects designed the stormwater-management system to exceed requirements, striving to handle 90 percent of all rainfall through on-site detention, biofiltration, and soil recharge. Two 12-inch-diameter pipes carry rainwater from the roof down to a 12,000-gallon fountain in the courtyard, which acts as a shock absorber for these events. Overflow from the fountain is directed to a bioswale. From there, water percolates into the porous, crushed-stone, 60,000-gallon-capacity sub-base beneath the parking lot. Water slowly seeps back into the the soil, helping reduce subsidence. "We constructed a computer model of NOBIC's system and fed it rainfall data from the last 20 years," says Smith. "We found that 96 percent of all the rain that falls on the site stays on the site or recharges the soils below, and that stormwater leaves the site only during three events over this 20-year period."
Rain and heat bring humidity, which in turn brings unwanted condensation. Because of the New Orleans weather, conditioning outside air is a challenge. "We've all seen moisture condensing on the cold coils of a window air-conditioner and dripping outside," says Smith. "Dehumidifying the huge quantities of hot, humid air that may be required for safety within the labs can produce up to 100,000 gallons of condensate a month. The condensate from each floor's air-handling unit is collected and is directed to the courtyard fountain. This water is used to irrigate the lush landscaping and street trees." Air-conditioning condensate is high during the hottest weather. By collecting and storing it, the system ensures that water levels are maintained even during dry periods, precluding the need for potable city water. The local utility that provides water and handles runoff is the single largest municipal greenhouse-gas emitter, so reducing water use and stormwater discharge can have an enormous impact.
The New Orleans Bioinnovation Center strikes a lucid and gracious balance between hard-core sustainability, tenant harmony, and economic viability. Smith believes EDR's success is a result of creating "people ecosystems" by designing for "a long life and a loose fit."