Breaking Down Barriers
Glazing Helps Create
an Open, Inviting Research Facility
by Ellen Rogers
If a structure’s design can truly affect the work performance
of the building’s occupants, then the world can likely expect great things
to come from the researchers working in the Helen Diller Cancer Research
Building, which opened June 2 and is located in San Francisco’s Mission
Bay district. The research campus, which features extensive use of glass,
is part of the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), and was
designed by architect Rafael Viñoly to maximize the interactions
among everyone working there.
“Breaking down boundaries is key in this building, which is all about
creating an open, welcome space and that starts with bringing people into
the building,” says Bethany Lundell, a project manager with Rafael Viñoly
Architects (RVA). Lundell got involved with this project during the construction
documents phase. “Glazing helps create that openness and views and the
glass allows you to see pretty much through the entire building and out
into the city space, which also provides a strong sense of orientation
to place and community.”
As an extension of the UCSF cancer research program, the 161,757 square
feet of the building stands five stories and holds laboratories and offices,
including three of the institution’s premier cancer research programs.
The building’s layout was designed to encourage interaction among the
researchers and scientists and to also enhance the interiors with natural
“In designing this research facility, it was important that the building
design encourage the laboratory researchers to connect with each other,
the rest of the building, and the outside world,” says Michael Badé,
interim assistant vice chancellor, capital programs and campus architect
with UCSF. “The School of Medicine views the enterprise of doing medical
research as one that is best done in a highly social atmosphere [and]
on interdisciplinary teams. Disease-focused research, such as cancer,
certainly requires that approach.”
Glass was a key design element to creating such a structure.
“Open lab suites wrap the south and west faces of the building and they
have continuous exterior windows with clearstory glazing, which helps
open up the long, closed-in space,” says Lundell. “With the glazing, and
especially the clearstory, we were able to utilize a light shelf and sunshade
for both daylight control and thermal comfort—we can control the heat
with the light shelf, but the glass still allows in light, which bounces
off vaulted, acoustic ceiling tiles and is reflected into the depths of
the open office suites.”
All of the offices have operable windows.
“There is not another building on campus that has that; it allows occupants
to have more control over thermal comfort, as well as fresh air,” she
According to Badé, the building was also designed to achieve high
energy performance and the exterior operable windows are a part of that
“We are not air-conditioning the office per say, but we’re using a cool
roof system [in combination with] the operable windows to temper the environment
instead of forced air conditioning ventilation,” he says.
In addition, there are glass transoms above all of the doors in the corridor
spaces and floor-to-ceiling fixed glazing brings light from the atrium
into those corridor spaces.
Best Contracting Services Inc. in Hayward, Calif., served as the contract
glazier and was responsible for the installation of the project’s glazing
and architectural metal. The company’s scope consisted of the entire building
envelope, with exception of the stone finish. Ali Farzan, senior project
manager, says glass selection was an important part of the job.
“Using the right type of glass has a positive impact on the work environment
due to its affect on the energy efficiency, acoustical and thermal advantages,
as well as the psychological role of natural lighting and ventilation,”
Farzan says. “Aside from these advantages, glass enhances the beauty and
elegance [of the design].”
While there are many different glazing elements, probably the most significant
glass feature is the five-story atrium that is visually and physically
accessible from surrounding program areas and exterior terraces. The atrium
includes 1-inch insulating, structurally glazed glass with a low-E coating
that was supplied by Viracon. The interior atrium glazing is 3/8-inch
laminated, also supplied by Viracon.
“The labs and offices are each an L-shaped block that wraps around a central
atrium, which is the social heart of the building,” says Badé.
“The atrium and social organization of the building have been foremost
in the minds of those at the school of medicine. I think that was one
of the things that RVA did very well in designing the building was to
create some interesting and exciting spaces in and adjacent to the atrium,
which climbs up through the building on a diagonal and ends at the roof
Lundell adds that allowing in large amounts of natural light can have
a positive effect on the way people inside the building interact with
one another, and that stems from the atrium.
“We’re trying to stimulate the researchers and the way they operate …
there are different types of light in different spaces and we wanted to
provide daylight in tough spaces … because it really does make a difference
in terms of how you experience and enjoy a space,” says Lundell. “We wanted
to provide it in every place in the building. We did not want the building
to be dark.”
Something to Think About
With so much glass involved in the project there were many issues that
had to be taken into consideration.
“It was important to know the material properties of glass, as well as
their visual and thermal qualities,” says Lundell. “Structural strength
[was also important as] we have a lot of glass spanning the curtainwall.”
Designing to account for seismic building codes also came into play.
“In California, a law was passed some time ago requiring all hospitals
to be brought up to seismic code by a certain date; [for a long time]
that date was last year,” says Badé. “That turned out to be a much
larger undertaking in the legislature than anyone understood so the date
has been pushed out to 2015.”
And, while Badè says the seismic building code requirements did
change partway through the project, this project was grandfathered into
an earlier version of the code. Since the curtainwall system used was
actually designed for stringent requirements, the project was able to
comply with the new code, even though it was not required.
Competitive construction was also challenging. Badé says California
has seen an enormous upswing in institutional construction that has been
going on for some time.
“So competition from other projects has driven up construction costs in
this area. Labs and hospitals have a lot more similarities than differences.
So this project had a lot of competition and it went over budget and we
had to do re-designs to pull it back into budget.”
For all parties involved maintaining open communication and working together
as a team was an important step to ensuring a successful project completion.
“Due to the complexity of the scope of work in the Helen Diller project
few glazing contractors were able to participate in the bidding process,”
says Farzan. “Our specialty in building envelopes enabled us to bid and
finish this project successfully.”
Coordination and communication between RVA and Best was critical. Lundell
says she worked on site for three years with the contract glaziers not
only through the development of the drawings, but also through the execution
and construction of the project.
“There have been extensive hands-on coordination and communication between
our firm and [Best’s]. I truly can’t see the building being what it is
without weekly, and often daily, contact to ensure the design integrity
and the performance of the system was going to meet the design intent,”
says Lundell. “This included in-depth shop drawing reviews and numerous
on-site and off-site meetings. We also went with the glazing contractor
to look at other projects that it had done to learn about the other challenges
that it has experienced. We also went through an exercise developing an
exterior wall mock-up.”
Farzan agrees that in order to achieve the design intent and function,
communication and coordination between contractor and architect play an
extremely important role.
“The level of communication has a direct affect on the quality and outcome
of the job,” Farzan says. “Part of that communication rests on the contractor
and architect, but other parties including, owner and the general contractor,
have a huge impact on it as well, since communication is funneled through
As an architectural firm, RVA is one that undertakes innovative, cutting-edge
designs; ones that may not necessarily be considered traditional office
“When you work with contractors you’re also working with their history
and past projects that they have done. So there were times we had to help
and encourage them to see that this wasn’t something they may have done
on a typical office project.”
She continues, “One of our biggest challenges was working though the construction
and helping keep people motivated. [This project] could have very easily
disintegrated to off-the-shelf pieces and parts put together in a way
that they always have been. We continued to push for using the parts in
a way that perhaps they never have been [used before]. That’s something
we believe at all costs and until someone tells us there is no way to
do it, it’s possible.”
The fact that the Helen Diller Cancer Research Building is situated in
a new development area has created a bit of uncertainty over how the area
may change in the coming years.
“When you have [designed with] so much glass you’re opening yourself up
to your surroundings and being in an open area you don’t really know what
the people in the offices will be looking at in two or three years,” says
Lundell. “You just cross your fingers and hope that the neighbors will
give you something pleasing to see.”
Still, it’s the use of glass that made the design intent possible.
“Glass is a big part of the way the building is designed as a social environment
for research,” says Badé. “Glass opens the building up in a way
that really allows people to understand where they are in the city and
feel a part of it.” AG
Ellen Rogers is the editor of the Architects’ Guide
to Glass & Metal.
Architects' Guide to Glass & Metal
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