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Discovery Center

Seattle, Washington

By Randy Gragg

As new, built-from-scratch, urban neighborhoods spring up, so has the new typology of the “discovery center.” Something between a model home and a World’s Fair Futurama, they’re equipped with everything from stunning models of the rising condo towers to mock-ups of individual units. When the condos are sold, most discovery centers disappear, often in landfills. But to market more than a dozen new developments across 60 acres in the South Lake Union neighborhood in Seattle, developer Vulcan Inc. tried a new approach, hiring Miller Hull Partnership to design a discovery center that could be disassembled, moved, and reused.

Discovery Center
Photo © Lara Swimmer
Discovery Center, Seattle, Washington

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LOCATIONS: Seattle, Washington (Puget Sound region)
GROSS SQUARE FOOTAGE: 11,000 ft2 (1,020 m2) COMPLETED: March 2005
ANNUAL PURCHASED ENERGY USE: 21.5 kBtu/ft2 (245 MJ/m2)
ANNUAL CARBON FOOTPRINT: 6.3 lbs. CO2/ft2 (31 kg CO2/m2)
PROGRAM: Exhibit area, reception, offices, conference room

OWNER: Vulcan
ARCHITECT: The Miller Hull Partnership
LANDSCAPE: Brumbaugh & Associates
ENGINEERS: Magnusson Klemencic Associates (structural and civil), Cochran (electrical), University Mechanical Contractors (mechanical and plumbing)

WINDOWS: Nail flange windows, Pacific Aluminum
GLAZING: PPG Solarban 60
LOW-SLOPE ROOFING: Sarnafil TPO Membrane, weldable @ separation joints
COUNTERTOPS AND PARTITIONS: Richlite solid surface
EXHIBIT CASEWORK TOPS: Richlite solid surface
PAINTS AND STAINS: Sherwin Williams, steel, GWB, wood siding; Sikkens, wood structure

Completed in 2004, the Discovery Center at South Lake Union’s first location is in a temporary park at the intersection of the neighborhood’s highest-visibility street and its new streetcar line. The brief, according to Miller Hull partner-in-charge David Miller, was to design a building that was a “signpost for the neighborhood’s new energy—something modern and crisp” but that also evoked a regional flavor and was not overwhelming to the park. When a permanent park is completed and the current site is ready to be developed, Vulcan will move the Discovery Center. “We’ve thought of it as a potential rowing center on Lake Union or a community center on the new park,” says Miller. “But, really, nobody yet knows.”

For moving purposes, Miller Hull’s team carefully determined the maximum dimensions allowed on the roadways to the most likely new locations, arriving at a 40-by-73-foot optimum bay size. Working with engineer Jay Taylor of Magnusson Klemencic Associates, the team chose a simple structural system of quadrilateral steel bents that could be fabricated offsite. With gluelam purlins supporting the roof, the bents create a clear-span structure in which a service corridor of restrooms, a catering kitchen, and a sales office sit “a bit like a mobile home” inside. The glass front slopes inward beneath deep overhangs, giving the building the feel of an oversized screened porch. The resulting quartet of modules easily bolts together at three joints to create an 11,000-square-foot building. Splice plates “zipper” the floor seams while the gaps in the standing-seam metal roof panels are bridged by a simple cap flashing. Mechanical units bolt to the top with minimal ducting routed under the bents.

Miller says the team first explored concrete pilings but then opted for a concrete grade-beam foundation for better seismic performance. The result, however, is the same: The building floats above the landscape. A lush rain garden is planted at the north end. The main entrance and catering service door connect to the adjacent street and parking lot via ramps, making the building even more adaptable for the topography of its future sites.

A neighborhood of biotech companies, a hotel, retail shops, and over 1,000 units of housing have grown up around the Discovery Center during its four-year life thus far. It has become the de facto address for the new district for everything from neighborhood meetings to block parties to summer film nights. “The beauty of this building is the key to its sustainability,” said COTE award juror Rebecca Henn. “Instead of merely saying that the building is modular and ‘can be’ relocated, this building’s beauty will most likely promote bidding wars over who gets to have it next.”

Indeed, four years into the site’s planned five-year lifespan, speculation on the building’s future has already inspired a recent University of Washington architecture studio to examine how the Discovery Center might be best transformed into a sustainability center. Some students stuck to revamping the interior; others broke the four sections into a community of pods. But one intriguing proposal, Miller notes, reused the building in a way he and the team never considered: turning it on end into a five-story tower.

“As a precedent, this fills an important need. For most projects, we should be building for longevity. But there are a variety of circumstances where we really do need temporary buildings, and in those cases the building should be designed and built for disassembly and reuse.”





Randy Gragg is the editor of Portland Spaces, a design magazine, and has written on architecture for numerous periodicals.

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This article appeared in the July 2008 print issue of GreenSource Magazine

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