Great expectations

High design and a collaborative environment are big draws for a new Midwestern medical research institute
August 11, 2010

When the Van Andel Institute (VAI) began to plan its new Education and Medical Research Center in Grand Rapids, Mich., it wanted to compete successfully with such renowned facilities as the legendary Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif., designed by Louis Kahn and completed in 1965; the Neurosciences Institute, also in La Jolla; university research facilities in Boston, New York and other urban locales; and the historic Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. Developing such a facility was a primary project challenge, according to VAI facilities manager James Becsey.

VAI's strategy was to attract researchers by commissioning a distinguished architect to design a world-class laboratory building outfitted with the latest technological resources. The $60 million, seven-story building designed by New York City-based Rafael Viñoly Architects, houses VAI, which serves as the governing body for two subsidiaries: the Van Andel Research Institute, an independent research organization focused initially on cancer research; and the Van Andel Education Institute, which explores fundamental issues of education. VAI is funded by the Van Andel Foundation, which was established by Amway Corp. founders Jay and Betty Van Andel.

The 160,000-sq.-ft. building — which will eventually be expanded into a 400,000-sq.-ft. facility — contains VAI's world headquarters, laboratories, conference rooms, a 350-seat auditorium and a 250-ft.-long "great hall" for public events and large gatherings. Organized as a rectilinear, concrete-and-steel box with glass-enclosed, cantilevered wings, the building accommodates the institute's executive and administrative staff and approximately 200 scientists and research personnel.

Transcending site constraints

The building had to respond not only to the needs of the client, but to a tight site in downtown Grand Rapids that is underlain with sand. The site is hemmed in by a church to the west, a hospital and a school to the east, and roads to the north and south, which limited access for construction staging and storage.

The sloping site, with a grade change of 62 feet, and a fast-track schedule presented hurdles to be overcome during the 22-month construction process. New York City-based structural engineer Dewhurst Macfarlane and Partners developed a multifaceted structural system. A two-story, concrete-framed podium is partially buried in the hillside, and forms a 36-ft.-deep semibasement retaining structure. Rising from the lobby level is a steel superstructure that accommodates the desire for a minimum number of columns in the entry-level public spaces. A series of deep transfer girders are located at the fifth level. The frame is attached to six concrete towers — two for mechanical systems, two for elevator shafts and two for stairwells.

The structure also had to support Viñoly's glass-enclosed research lab cantilevers. "The structural design was based on a major portion of the building being cantilevered," says Lloyd Hansen, project director with St. Louis-based McCarthy, which in joint venture with Ada, Mich.-based Erhardt Construction Co. was the project's construction manager. "We had to erect a temporary support tower until the floor slabs were poured and the concrete had cured sufficiently to make the cantilevers self-supporting." Major structural bents that help to support the cantilevers are tied to the structural concrete frame. Steel beams were precambered to limit live-load deflections to 12 mm from level.

The site's subsurface composition consisted entirely of sand, which was probably deposited in prehistoric times as glacial ice receded to form Lake Michigan 30 miles to the west. "It was like a sand dune, only much more compressed," Hansen recalls. This was both a benefit and a drawback. The compressed sand was able to support spread footings. But the disadvantage was the need to hold back the sand with a 45-ft.-high retention system to permit construction of the two levels of the building that extend into the ground.

Enlightened research

Unlike more typical research laboratories, which have predominantly individual work areas and rely primarily on artificial lighting, VAI is characterized by an emphasis on natural light and open-plan laboratories.

The sloped glazing specified for the cantilevered wings, which makes walls and roof a single unit, were a real challenge, according to Glen Heitmann, vice president of the building's enclosure consultant, St. Louis-based Heitmann & Associates. The three levels of cascading glass on the west side of the building comprise double-glazed panels. Each panel is 2 inches thick and has two air spaces for added insulation. Thermal efficiency, as well as watertight connections, were critical for a building in Grand Rapids, which can experience extreme weather conditions.

A flexible future

Because of its independent funding, VAI was able to develop a work environment with fewer constraints than found in facilities built for organizations that must obtain outside money. This agility directly influenced the architecture, and is reflected, for example, by the non-traditional lab configurations.

"The design of the building is not a reflection of the institute's research goals so much as a means to achieving those goals," explains Rafael Viñoly, principal of the architecture firm that bears his name. "Flexibility," he adds, "was the most important idea in shaping the program, because the Van Andel Institute recognized that the manner in which technology and methodology change means that a laboratory designed with a specific scientific endeavor and method in mind would quickly become obsolete." The cascades of the Grand River, which inspired the city's name, also influenced the building's design, says Viñoly. The curved glass roof forms of VAI's new facility represent an abstracted version of falling water.

From daylighting and bench design to re-searchers' direct access to equipment and colleagues, Viñoly's scheme aims to encourage interaction among staff members and to accommodate changes in lab activities. The main laboratories are organized into three zones — research, support and offices — that share a circulation spine. The spine "acts as an interstitial zone, allowing research groups to interact in ways that foster a comfortable social environment and allow the free exchange of ideas," according to Viñoly.

Extensive natural lighting enhances the communal environment. The glazed roof transitions into walls that appear to cascade down the west side of the building. Fritted and coated low-emissivity glass panels, along with operable aluminum louvers, help to control solar heat gain. Research that requires minimal or no natural light is conducted in the below-grade laboratories at the base of the building.

The second phase of the VAI master plan, which is likely to be implemented in the next five years, will house additional research space, a large library and classrooms. Tying the two phases together will be another series of curved glass roofs.

Abby Bussel is a freelance writer and principal of Engine Books, an editorial services company based in New York City.