Big ideas are always welcome in architecture. At the Research 2 facility within the Center for Nanoscale Science and Engineering at North Dakota State University (NDSU) in Fargo, extra-large concepts in building design and interaction with human occupants are at work, ensuring that crucial research of the tiniest proportions can progress quickly.
The genesis for the intriguing Research 2 dates to 2001, when NDSU launched the center with the objective of setting the pace for interdisciplinary research and technology development on materials that begin their operation on the atomic-molecular scale. A science concerned with building the smallest objects imaginable, nanotechnology already has had a major impact in fields ranging from medicine to automotive design to computing, with a vast potential of life-enhancing possibilities still untapped.
Located alongside its research/administrative-oriented sibling, Research 1, in NDSU’s 55-acre Research and Technology Park, Research 2 has embarked on a serious exploration of that potential. Created by the team of architectural/engineering firm Hammel, Green & Abrahamson (HGA), architecture/interiors firm Foss Associates, and lab consultants Research Facilities Design, Research 2 was built to inspire its occupants - for today and a lot of tomorrows.
“This building is a perfect example of taking research building design to the next level in terms of cost-effective performance,” says Mark Johnson, senior project mechanical engineer at HGA. “It was borne out of the need to build a facility that could support the continually evolving world of nanotechnology. We had a user group that was in tune with the flexible needs of these types of buildings and a very limited construction budget.”
“There’s a huge nationwide trend in many of the campuses around the country to be creating research parks that are successful design projects on both the technical level as well as fitting into the campus-level context,” adds Bill Blanski, AIA, of HGA. “We believe that this project is one of the best examples of a research facility that was really very economical, and yet it delivers a very inviting and attractive architecture. Research 2 is a tool for attraction and retention of top talent in a top research project at what is really a land-grant university in the Upper Midwest.”
The Research 2 design team gave weight both to the $17-million, two-story, 76,000-square-foot building’s external surroundings and internal functions when creating the façade. From a distance, the building has the appearance of rising up from the open landscape of the North Dakota prairie, its hues combining seamlessly with those of the surrounding prairie grasses and open sky. HGA referenced the perfect organization of nanotechnology everywhere in the building’s concrete and glass components, placing blue-green tinted glass accent panels next to the windows at a distance of 4 inches from the walls, adding to the feeling of visual order and symmetry.
“Nanotechnology and what happens in the clean rooms is the science of perfectly arraying elements in their structure,” Blanski explains. “The idea was to provide the students with an opportunity to - as soon as they step out of the building - see on a macro scale what’s happening on a subatomic level: a perfect order of things arrayed in this geometry. So there are very thin layers of glass with very well-organized patterns on them. Not only do they have lattices and different levels of surfaces arrayed in a way relative to where the windows are, but it’s a very economic and efficient construction. This type of talking back and forth between what the professors are teaching and what the researchers are doing in the clean rooms contributes to the architecture and the aesthetic.”
Inside, the architects were charged with designing a narrow range of high-performance systems - because some of the research is of particular interest to the United States Department of Defense, security was a building-wide design consideration along with vibration control, air quality, systems reliability, and redundancy. “To meet their programmatic needs, Research 2 naturally gelled into a grouping of three building types,” says Johnson. “First is the west wing for what we call the ‘admin’ or ‘dry lab’-type program group, which houses electronics and process engineering labs, incubator space for R&D, and a computing center. Second, in the south wing were wet lab spaces including nanoscale instrumentation, biology, and material chemistry labs. The third wing is the heart of the facility, which is the clean room wing.”
With their wide range of extreme specifications, designing clean rooms is a particularly complex architectural and engineering challenge. In a context such as this, clean rooms’ highly sensitive materials, processes, and equipment must be protected from contamination. To accomplish this, high standards are maintained for factors such as particulates, temperature, humidity, and vibration, as well as process utilities including ultra-high purity water, nitrogen, and compressed air. Clean rooms are rated according to Federal Standard 209 as “Class 10,000,” where there exist no more than 10,000 particles larger than 0.5 microns in any given cubic foot of air, and “Class 100,” where there exist no more than 100 particles. Needless to say, “Casual Fridays” aren’t on the calendar here - lint-free protective-clothing “bunny suits” that prevent the introduction of human skin and hair particles must be worn at all times.
Designing the 12,144-square-foot clean room wing at NDSU’s Research 2, featuring three Class 100 “Tunnels” and three Class 10,000 “Ballrooms” involved more than meeting the scientific standards, however. “In talking with the client, we were in agreement that whatever we designed had to be extremely flexible,” Johnson states. “We took the traditional clean room concept and started with a fresh slate that would drive building size and shape for the optimization of the clean room areas, getting everything we could out of it in terms of cost effectiveness, performance, and maintainability. The final design was very efficient, achieving our goals using precast tilt-up concrete walls supporting a clear span concrete roof deck and a clean room wing that was column-free. We also used a very modular approach for designing the clean room air handling, wall, ceiling layouts, and utility distribution systems.”
“We like to think about this as future-proofing architecture systems,” adds Blanski. “This is where the rubber meets the road - having this free and open space of clean rooms and making the chassis for changes to happen over the life of this building. The research they’re doing this decade will be very different than the next decade, and we have to have the ability to modify these systems without having to dodge columns or knock down walls. The same principle was applied in the chemistry labs: providing a flexible framework that provides adaptability for the building.” HGA received an Engineering Excellence Award from the American Council of Engineering Companies of Minnesota for its design.
The clean rooms may be the heart of Research 2, but the architecture and engineering of the rest of this building’s body were undertaken with equal attention to detail. HGA was careful to take a “human friendly” approach to the design, laying out the interiors to encourage constant contact between occupants. “It’s a very common challenge when designing campus research facilities to take advantage of what we call the ‘cartilage’ of the building,” says Blanski. “This is the connective tissue that links everything together, such as hallways and stairs where people can bump into each other and share ideas. All the primary components of the building are adjacent to the Commons walkway.”
To HGA, it’s this red-carpeted Commons, a naturally lit central circulation corridor that extends the length of the facility, where the most important chemistry of Research 2 takes place. “We took what’s really a circulation corridor and doubled it in width and added clearstory lighting in order to become a place of interaction for the researchers and faculty,” Blanski notes. “Private industry, research, and higher learning are all taking place here, and that all comes together in this space. People come out to get their coffee, eat their lunch, and there’s this environment where people can get into a dialogue with each other.
“So that becomes one of the primary architectural considerations: arranging the three major elements of the building to come together functionally in the day-to-day activities of the building. On the second floor, there’s a bridge that crosses the Commons area with the single purpose of looking through a window to see into the upper level of the clean rooms. To see and understand all the
systems and infrastructure that makes a Class 100 clean room is fascinating for students, clients, and partners. Aspects like this are one of the things that make these buildings so exciting to work on. Research 2 is science, and it’s fun to show that off as part of the architecture.”
With a 20-month span between groundbreaking and move-in, followed by housing nearly $13 million in sensitive research equipment, the completion of Research 2 proves that ideas of all sizes make a difference in scientific structures. “One of the places this building truly reflects these ideas is in the details,” Blanski reflects. “The skin of the building is about layers: layered glass that’s layered over architectural concrete and the glass of the building itself. Ceramic frit creates patterns on the glass, keeps the heat out, and is used to express ideas on nanotechnology.”
Adds Johnson, “Touches like that contribute to the efficiency of the cooling environment for the building’s clean rooms, offices, and walkways - it’s one way Research 2 takes straight-up engineering for user comfort and uses it as an artistic expression and functional tool.
“Engineering truly met architecture on this project, resulting in a really beautiful, efficient, flexible building.”