Building A Scientific Revolution

A tough site in the San Francisco hills forges engineering and design innovation at the new UCSF stem-cell labs


| By Robert Celaschi |

[dropcap]R[/dropcap]esearch labs usually aren’t designed to dazzle. Typically they are plain and practical so that they can be used for a multitude of scientific purposes.

Design architect Rafael Viñoly broke that mold for the new stem-cell research lab that opened in late 2010 at the University of San Francisco. The long, gently serpentine building hangs from the side of a hill on the school’s Parnassus campus above Golden Gate Park. External staircases seem to hang in mid-air, while the 660-foot roof stair-steps upward, traversing four distinct garden areas. From below, it looks as much like a bridge as a building, with structural framework that extends up to 70 feet from ground to building.

The site is so steep that crews had to wear rock-climbing gear to do some of the initial work, said Marianne O’Brien, project manager and principal with architecture firm SmithGroup JJR in San Francisco. The uneven terrain also meant the supporting piers under each section of the building had to be different lengths to reach bedrock.

“It took roughly a year to get the foundations in place. Each excavation was essentially measured to depth, and the reinforcing for the piers was custom-fabricated for that depth,” she said.

For seismic safety, only one brand of pre-engineered isolation system could handle the design, and it wasn’t possible to get it to San Francisco on schedule, O’Brien said. So Forell/Elsesser Engineers came up with a custom design. To understand how the system works, envision a set of roller-blades that allow the building to stay stable even when the ground moves beneath it.

To secure funding from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the university had to get the building up and running on a two-year schedule. The solution was to use a design-build team consisting of the architect, the engineer and the general contractor, Redwood City’s DPR Construction Inc.

To stay on time and in budget, some modifications had to be made to Viñoly’s original design. The mechanical level, originally conceived as the building’s underbelly, was split into multiple parts and incorporated into the office level. That cut down on time and materials for interconnected smoke dampers and fire systems.

“The review process was an important factor,” O’Brien said. The team had monthly meetings with the university and made code officials part of the ongoing discussions. And there were surprises, such as when the team discovered that the main column for the elevator was going to land on the main electrical feed for the campus. “So we quickly, as a team, got together and redesigned the positioning of all those elements,” she said. “It included all disciplines: architecture, structural, civil, mechanical, electricians.”

Michael Bade, campus architect and UCSF assistant vice chancellor for capital programs, talked about the interaction between design and the research mission.

Q: Why did UCSF diverge from the typical plain-vanilla design for research labs?
A: The institute that inhabits the building really wanted a building that would promote their ability to take a very heterogeneous group of scientists and create a community among them. It’s interdisciplinary science, and it really comes down to trying to promote interactions among the people that lead onward to joint research and success. That has been UCSF’s model for a long time.

Q: How does the design help accomplish that?
A: You would think that a more compact floor plan would facilitate itself to that. But what Rafael Viñoly’s design does is, there are basically lounges with four entries at transition points on lab levels. The building steps up the hill, and at each level of those steps, there is a lunch level and lounge. You can go down half a level to the lab below, or up half a level to a conference room or principal investigator offices. So there is a true crossroads that everybody goes through.

They cannot have food in the laboratories, obviously. So food stays in the lunchroom areas. And that’s where people retire to eat and socialize and talk over problems. Then there are the rooftop gardens, which have seating areas. And people also use those as places to have impromptu meetings.

Q: Why chose such a challenging site?
A: The site was chosen because of proximity to a large volume of wet utilities, primarily steam for heating and chilled water for air conditioning from the central plant, which is right there.

Another reason is that the stem-cell program is not entirely within that building. It also has space within [two] adjacent, 16-story towers. The [new] building connects at the ninth-floor level [of an adjacent building] with a bridge. That gives people in the building easy access to core labs.

We try not to build expensive analytical laboratories on a per-faculty basis. So we have this system of shared cores. The equipment can be a very substantial cost. This also leads to better training in laboratory practices, because people do [their own lab work] themselves.

There was another site under consideration, but it would not have had the kind of direct access that this site has, and it would have been more expensive to build a major extension of utilities.

Q: The project ran into difficulties. How was it finished on time and on budget?
A: That was due in no small part to the cleverness of the contracting team to shift resources.

We were in the ground for five months longer than the general contractor thought we would be, and we still managed to finish on time. The team employed lean construction, which is based on Toyota production-management principals. It involves substantial consulting with subs. You schedule from the end point back in time towards now. With each activity you have to pay close attention to the handoff requirements.

We used that scheduling approach very effectively in both the site work, where they did this every morning at 6 [a.m.] because they had to orchestrate a symphony of heavy equipment. Given the length of the site, and that there were only one or two access points, they had to schedule people’s activities very carefully.

Q: You had already seen this process used in Japan, right?
A: I spent 12 years living in Tokyo, and when I came back I was really interested in finding people applying these ideas. I finally found them in the UC Berkeley Engineering Department. There is a guy named Glenn Ballard who was one of the pioneers in this approach, and he was very helpful to us. There is also an organization called the Lean Construction Institute. He was a founder, along with Greg Howell.

I think of them as the godfathers of this in the United States.

Building name: Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research
Size: 68,000 square feet
Cost: $123 million
Design architect: Rafael Viñoly Architects, New York
Project architect: SmithGroup JJR
General contractor: DPR Construction Inc.
Structural engineers: Nabih Youssef & Associates, Forell/Elsesser
Major subcontractors: Schuff Steel Co.; Malcolm Drilling Co. Inc.; ACCO Engineered Systems; Cupertino Electric Inc.

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