experience in laboratory and research building projects. The
two firms have a long history of successful collaboration on
such diverse projects as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Farm Research Campus, in Virginia (see
“Biomedical Research Center Built into Virginia,” Civil Engineering, May 2005, pages 12–13), and the University of
Pennsylvania’s Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine.
Both firms were also already familiar with the University
Park campus and the master plan, having separately
designed other facilities for the university.
The design of the MSC addressed the university’s
ambitious project and master plan goals in numerous
ways. For example, although the new building could
have become a barrier to pedestrian circulation because
of its imposing size (approximately 300,000 sq ft of
usable space), it instead serves as a gateway, enhancing
access from the central campus to the eastern portions.
Forming an L in plan, the MSC building’s two long
wings—a 554 ft long northern wing and a 444 ft long
western wing—embrace and preserve a large gardenlike area of open green space between the two sides of
the structure and beneath the cantilevered northwest
edge. The separate wings also make it possible for each
research institute to have its own entrance and identity.
KUNJAN SHUKLA/THORNTON TOMASETTI, ABOVE; PENNSYLVANIA STATE UNIVERSITY, BELOW
From its highest point—at the cantilevered northwest corner, where the wings intersect—the building
steps down in a series of long, flat planes that extend
toward the ends of each wing. In this way the scale of
the new building changes from the more built-up facilities in the campus center to the less developed areas to the east. The stepped height of the building also
creates visible and accessible vegetated rooftop terraces
at most levels of each wing. Enclosed by strip windows
and precast-concrete spandrel panels, the building simultaneously makes a bold design statement and accommodates its surroundings. The strip windows, for
instance, reinforce the horizontality of the long wings
and create a sleek, modern effect, while the spandrel
panels are faced with brick to blend with the typical
finishes of the adjacent University Park buildings.
Some of the most critical design aspects of the MSC,
however, are hidden in plain sight and are directly
related to the more prominent design features. The
northwestern cantilever, for instance, is formed by
154 ft long cantilevered sections in each wing that
meet at the corner and span the gardenlike area of green
space mentioned above. Given that each wing is 114 ft
wide, the gateway could have created a tunnel-like experience, but the area is actually filled with natural light because of an opening to the sky roughly 64 ft square.
Cutting-edge research in materials science requires appa-
ratus of extreme sensitivity. Different types of apparatus have
different abilities to tolerate excitation occurring at their sup-
ports. Such excitation could be due to mechanical vibrations
from human footsteps, oscillating equipment, or even road
traffic. Equipment sensitivity limits are commonly expressed
in such vibrational velocity units as millionths of an inch per
second. The control of vibrational velocity was adopted in
the early days of laboratory design for several reasons. Veloc-
ity reflects apparatus sensitivity in a manner that depends less
on frequency than on acceleration and less on design than on
displacement. Velocity is related to acceleration and displace-
ment by one step of differentiation or integration. Velocity
also reflects the typical function of apparatus: to observe an
object or process during a discrete viewing or sampling time
interval. During a photographic exposure of fixed duration,
The primary framing of the cantilevered northwestern corner
features two multistory trusses located in each wing, upper.
The cantilevered corner extends above an inviting pedestrian
area that serves as the desired gateway garden space, lower.
for example, a doubling of vibrational velocity results in
twice as much visible movement.
Because the control of vibrational velocity may require costly
construction, the velocity limits within the MSC were tailored
to the anticipated needs of its researchers. The laboratories of
SEPTEMBER 2012 Civil Engineering