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Bold Bioscience

The Building Team for Stanford University's Clark Center challenges conventional wisdom to create a one-of-a-kind academic research center.

May 01, 2005 |

What happens when you group 600 biologists, clinicians, engineers, chemists, physicists, and computer scientists from nearly two dozen university departments into a giant open lab?

Officials at Stanford University believe you'll get a great outpouring of discovery, invention, and education.

In what some lab planners have called the most radical experiment in research lab design in recent times, the $146 million James H. Clark Center at Stanford scraps solid walls and clunky casework for a completely open lab plan that places any number of scientific disciplines side by side. Lab benches, workstations, and whole offices can be moved on wheels. Utility hookups for power, data, gases, and liquids are exposed at ceiling level, allowing research teams to reconfigure work areas quickly, sometimes in a matter of minutes.

The 246,000-sf facility is home to Bio-X, Stanford's interdisciplinary research program that melds numerous biological research initiatives, such as biocomputation, regenerative medicine, and chemical biology, with traditionally unrelated science disciplines like physics and engineering. The goal: break the staid department-based approach to research and accelerate the formation of cross-disciplinary partnerships.

"This kind of open architecture is a terrific asset," says Thomas Wandless, PhD, assistant professor of molecular pharmacology and chemistry, who has worked in the Clark Center for nearly two years. "I bump into PIs [principal investigators] more often, and my students are literally two feet away from people who are doing pure biology."

Wandless says the open plan has contributed to several breakthroughs in the past 23 months. Most recently, a graduate student from his department collaborated with a post-doctoral fellow working under another PI on studying signaling pathways within protein domains. The post-doc was struggling with a way to bypass the normal signals given off in protein cells.

"My student had made some molecules that were designed to bind to a particular protein domain, and it turned out that it was the same domain [that the post-doc was working on]," Wandless explains. "The post-doc tried them, and they worked better than anything else. While I can't say the building was the sole reason these two met, I certainly think it contributed," says Wandless.

Clark Center's bold form, the creation of London-based architect Norman Foster, is a vast departure from the typical stodgy academic lab facility. Three wings, each three stories in height, form a rectangular box that is interjected by a bulbous-shaped, landscaped courtyard that opens up to the north. Walls facing the courtyard are clad with floor-to-ceiling glass to open up the labs and flood them with daylight. Limestone perimeter walls and a sweeping, copper-colored flat-canopy roof echo the surrounding sandstone campus buildings.

Developed by San Francisco-based MBT Architecture, the interior scheme for the east and west wings essentially turns the typical lab plan inside out. Enclosed labs and support spaces are located on the perimeter of the floor plate, with large open interconnecting labs in the core. The open labs support both wet and dry lab benches.

The south wing houses dry labs, administrative and departmental offices, classrooms, and public functions. External balconies wrapping the entire facility serve as the primary circulation corridors.

A chief obstacle for the Building Team was balancing the programmatic needs of a diverse group of research entities while maintaining optimal flexibility. In all, 45 principal investigators and 600 researchers occupy the building, representing 22 departments from three schools: engineering, medicine, and humanities and sciences.

Since lab spaces were designed to be reconfigured easily to support changing research endeavors, the design team focused on accommodating the needs of the sciences, rather than individual scientists or departments. The team hosted workshops with researchers to identify commonalities between biology, physics, and chemistry labs, such as the length of benches and the number of workstations, wet and dry labs, and fume hoods.

Researchers participated in a gaming exercise using scaled-down cardboard mockups of desks, benches, sinks, and equipment. Later, full-scale mockups helped the team select the right casework and utility delivery and ceiling systems.

Collaboration with key subcontractors early in the design phase helped the Building Team meet budget and schedule, says MBT principal Tully Shelly. For instance, structural engineer Middlebrook & Louie, San Francisco, showed how time and money could be saved by replacing castellated beams originally specified for the project with standard I-beams with laser-cut holes.

The exterior cladding subcontractor cut more than $200,000 in construction costs by specifying an insulating finish system for the underbelly of the flat canopy roof instead of aluminum panels.

The Building Team's willingness to challenge conventional wisdom in nearly every aspect of lab design was the main rationale for bestowing a Platinum Award on the James H. Clark Center in BD&C's 2005 Building Team Awards.

Construction Costs

Foundation $1,663,327
Substructure 4,751,023
Superstructure 13,787,867
Exterior wall envelope 12,469,803
Roofing 1,134,367
Interior construction 9,833,116
Conveying 582,916
Plumbing and process piping 7,741,232
Fire protection 956,855
HVAC 12,664,838
Electrical 13,420,506
Special equipment 6,456,095
Site work 3,938,644
Jobsite management 5,804,212
General conditions 2,999,436
Overhead and liability insurance 3,472,831
Preconstruction costs 2,037,908
TOTAL $103,714,976

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