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The Genome Sciences Building's labs and rooftop greenhouse light up the campus.


Genome Sciences Building

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill
Chapel Hill, North Carolina

A Beacon for Sustainable Building: A design centered on light and water fosters budding research at SOM's Genome Sciences Building on the University of North Carolina's Chapel Hill campus.

By Josephine Minutillo
January 2014

The design and construction of any building involves problem-solving. The design of an energy-intensive lab building, however, presents its own set of unique challenges—especially when that building targets sustainability. Further, it is meant to be the centerpiece of a larger development addressing pedestrian-traffic and stormwater-mitigation issues that go beyond the scope of an individual structure's aesthetics and performance. Such was the test laid out for the architects at the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) when they began work in 2004 on the Bell Tower District master plan for the University of North Carolina (UNC) in Chapel Hill and its ambitious Genome Sciences Building (GSB).


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Genome Sciences Building
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Opened in October 2012, the 210,000-square-foot GSB is a luminous center for interdisciplinary research, bringing together biologists, chemists, and the medical school in a design that rethinks the research-lab paradigm and incorporates a number of laboratory types that comprise approximately two-thirds of the total area (not including mechanical spaces). Located on the upper floors of the eight-story building, wet and dry labs are enclosed in three distinct yet connected glass and concrete pods, allowing researchers to go back and forth between different experiments in real and simulated environments to test results. Above, an 80-by-200-foot rooftop greenhouse supports study in plant genomics.

By far the most energy-intensive laboratory apparatus are fume hoods, abundant in GSB's wet labs, specifically in a high-density wet lab in the middle pod of the L-shaped plan. The ventilated enclosures require enormous amounts of energy for capturing, containing, and removing contaminants from the research area. "Unlike an office environment that can recirculate air, the air in these spaces cannot be recycled," explains SOM associate director Peter Van Vechten. "While there are mechanical strategies in place to capture heat, the energy it takes to push air through is being wasted."

To counteract the high energy consumption of the fume hoods, SOM employed a number of sustainable strategies both in the labs and the building's more conventional spaces, which include classrooms, offices, and lecture halls. The building's wet labs—all but the high-density one—are among the first such facilities to utilize chilled beams, which save energy by pumping water rather than blowing air. This efficient HVAC system is also used throughout the computer-laden dry labs, where state-of-the-art screens—which use less energy and emit less heat—make the design of these rooms easier to approach than the wet labs. "They are still a challenge," Van Vechten says, "but it's a much different level of angst."

One thing the dry labs did require was a large, flexible space to house the server. Located in the basement, below a brick plinth that blends with UNC's traditional Georgian architecture and emerges from the sloped site, it has a robust rack system, currently less than half full, providing significant expansion capability for future supercomputing needs. A raised floor in this area delivers efficient cooling.

While the lower level contains some instruction spaces in addition to mechanical and support rooms, almost all of the building's occupied areas are flooded with sunlight, thanks to floor-to-ceiling glass throughout the upper floors. "These are typically very introverted types of buildings," Van Vechten explains. "This one really opens itself to the outside and makes the spaces delightful to be in, no matter what time of day it is." The high-performance glazing features a dotted frit pattern. Vertical louver-like columns within the exterior's concrete frame act as brise-soleils, further hampering solar heat gain. On the rooftop, a series of sun shades protects plants in the greenhouse, while LED fixtures supplement lighting in growth rooms on cloudy days. "For scientists, their research media are incredibly important," adds Van Vechten. "If those goes away, their research is jeopardized."

As one part of a bigger project at UNC, this particular Bell Tower District development was ideal for the mitigation project, being low-lying and prone to flooding and a busy pedestrian intersection near Kenan Memorial Stadium as well. SOM designed multiple paths under and through the new building, linking residence halls and the medical and undergraduate campuses. Landscaped and shaded areas, a ceremonial stair to classrooms, and a café create a plaza that is a pleasant gathering place fronting a park. Below the park, a 50,000-cubic-foot cistern provides toilet water and irrigation to the GSB and adjacent stadium. A reservoir tank collects roof-drainage water. "The installation of the 710,000-gallon stormwater-management system has helped to reduce the flooding problem in this area," says Masaya Konishi, UNC's Assistant Director for Project Management. "It has also resulted in 72 percent less potable-water use than standard buildings of comparable size."

Daylighting and water management contributed significantly to GSB's LEED Gold certification. SOM's greatest achievement, though, was creating a design that communicates its users' efforts to the broader community, actively promoting the interdisciplinary research critical to their cutting-edge scholarship. "The researchers are thrilled to be in the building," says Konishi. "Not only are they enjoying its amenities, but the spaces the GSB provides give them opportunities to collaborate with others to advance their work."


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