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The Jorgensen Laboratory's new facade has glazing panels of different sizes and mullions of different depths.


Jorgensen Laboratory

John Friedman Alice Kimm Architects
Pasadena, California

Pushing the Building Envelope: John Friedman Alice Kimm Architects designs a radical facade overhaul for the decades-old Jorgensen Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology.

By joann gonchar, AIA
January 2014

Architect A. Quincy Jones could hardly be faulted for not anticipating his clients' needs decades into the future. Nevertheless, Jorgensen Laboratory, an early 1970s computation center he designed for the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, was poorly suited for the new users the university decided should move into the building almost 40 years later. Following the relocation of the computer scientists to a gleaming new facility in 2009, Caltech determined that two recently established programs focused on energy conservation and generation—the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis and the Resnick Institute—should take up residence in the 30,000-square-foot, three-story Jorgensen.


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Caltech officials made this decision even though the reinforced-concrete structure was insular and bunkerlike, with vertical concrete sunshades, several feet deep, that blocked daylight and obstructed views of the leafy campus. The building's image and its configuration were "antithetical to the new users' mission of sustainability," explains John Friedman of John Friedman Alice Kimm Architects (JFAK), the firm hired to renovate Jorgensen. Even so, the school preferred overhauling the building to demolishing it, says Ken Hargreaves, Caltech's senior director of design and construction. "There is a desire on campus to reuse what we have," he explains.

JFAK developed a revamp scheme that radically reshaped Jorgensen but retained more than 90 percent of its original structural components. The plan included removing the intrusive sunshades, wrapping the building in thermally efficient glazing, and reorganizing the interior so that many of the new offices and state-of-the-art research spaces could be near the perimeter. In addition, the architect increased interior space by enclosing a terrace and by adding a glass-enclosed pavilion to replace the building's original bulky entry bridge. It also brought sunlight deep into the interior through a new skylit stair.

Before embarking on the $17.1 million transformation, JFAK enlisted engineers from Buro Happold to design new building systems and also to study the effect of removing the sunshades. The aim was to improve daylighting without incurring solar gain, says David Herd, a Buro Happold partner. "We were looking for the sweet spot," he adds.

By measuring interior light levels and performing extensive simulations, the engineers demonstrated that JFAK could remove the sunshades without increasing cooling loads. Much of the building would often be protected from direct sunlight, it determined, since the first level is mostly below grade, the entry floor is shaded by the overhanging floor above, and the west facade is shielded by an adjacent structure. The surrounding trees also provided some protection.

The team devised a new skin that relies on an aluminum curtain wall and a storefront system. Both cladding types incorporate 1-inch insulated glazing units with a low-E coating. With these mostly standard components, the architect has created interest and rhythm by varying the sizes of the panels, by making some mullions deeper than others, and with strategic use of translucent glass. Its placement responds to functional concerns, such as the location of equipment on the interior, "but it is also partly compositional," says Friedman.

This new envelope allowed the project team to reduce the energy expended on electric lighting by deploying daylight dimming. The building also has other energy-conserving features, such as air conditioning that automatically shuts off in any perimeter office where a window is opened, as well as a dual-duct mechanical system to reduce the need for cooling and reheating fresh air—a process that accounts for a significant portion of a typical lab's energy consumption. Together, these strategies helped the project earn LEED Platinum and should produce a 24 percent energy savings when compared to a more conventional laboratory building—a projection that Buro Happold engineers hope to confirm over the next few months through post-occupancy measurement and evaluation.


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