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Tech-Friendly Cladding System

Metal cladding interfered with communications at UC San Diego's advanced technology research facility, so the Building Team found a substitute that was visually high-tech but remained invisible to transmission signals.

December 01, 2006 |

Architects at the San Francisco office of NBBJ were surprised to learn they couldn't use metal cladding to create the super high-tech aesthetic they envisioned for UC San Diego's new $57 million research facility, the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, known as Calit2.

Metal cladding was material non grata because it would interfere with communication signals, significantly compromising the 220,000-sf facility's mission to be a technology incubator. The building was to be occupied by researchers studying the ways in which science, engineering, and the arts intersect; to support the discovery process, the Building Team carefully evaluated all material choices to ensure transmission signals were free to move into, out of, around, and throughout the six-story facility.

“One of the programming requirements was to make the building's connectivity, both wired and wireless, superior to anything out there,” says Fred Powell, project architect and a senior associate at NBBJ. The flow of communications into and out of Calit2 had to be unparalleled among the world's most technologically connected research facilities.

What, then, could be used to imbue the structure with a sophisticated, metallic appearance without actually using metal? The cladding would be the facility's dominant surface material, so it had to look its high-tech best. The use of conventional, dual-pane window glazing would be limited—despite Calit2's unobstructed views of the Pacific Ocean—because the building's interior, labs, and sensitive equipment required highly controlled lighting environments.

Ultimately, the team found a new product from a familiar name that enabled them to create the ultramodern look they wanted while eliminating concerns about signal interference. They chose Meteon exterior wood-fiber resin panels, which had recently been introduced to the U.S. market by Trespa, a Netherlands-based manufacturer known in this country for its durable interior panel products.

Although Meteon is fairly new to the U.S. market, the university was unfazed about using it. “The school really wanted us to do something unique and that showed Calit2 is a building where it's safe to take risks,” Powell says. Why play it safe architecturally when inside the facility university researchers would be testing the limits of telecoms and information technology?

Not that using the product was really that much of a risk. As far as communication interferences were concerned, Meteon had proved its mettle overseas, where it is used in airport construction because of its property of not interfering with signal transmissions.

The lightweight, weather-resistant panels were installed as rain screen walls with an open-joint system. Because Meteon panels are thinner than metal panels, they were upsized and ordered in a 10 mm thickness so the finished exterior would have concealed fasteners and to make the cladding fit flush with the window glazing. The panels are dead flat, says Powell, and should not warp or buckle, so there's no concern about maintaining the flush fits. He says the installation was routine.

Powell says he loves working with Meteon. “I've done a lot of different cladding systems, and next to doing old-fashioned terra cotta, this is as much fun as anything I've ever done,” he says. “It's flexible, it can be cut into interesting shapes, and it has a really great look and reflective quality about it.” In his opinion, “Meteon outdoes metal for looking high-tech.”

While the Building Team may have initially been surprised by the no-to-low metal mandate—Calit2 is a steel raised-frame structure with interior steel studs but in a gauge light enough to prevent interference with communications—the end result comes as no surprise. The Trespa Meteon cladding may go largely unnoticed by researchers working inside the facility, but on the outside it clearly achieves the high-tech aesthetic its designers hoped for.

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