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Blending past, present, and future at a research center

The four-part mission of a garden of scientific research helped drive the design for the Beijing New Material Research & Development Center

By Christopher Groesbeck, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP (Chicago, Illinois)

How do you create an environment that will attract the world’s leading scientists to the center of an industrial technology and manufacturing park?

In short: By drawing on the past, present, and future to create a setting for scientific research and collaboration for today and beyond. Designing for today’s scientific researchers requires designing for collaboration. Creating a truly inspiring research campus means tapping into significant cultural traditions, layouts of exploring legendary places of discovery, and infusing sustainability into the entire design.

The design for the 180,000-square-meter Beijing Zhongguancun New Material Research & Development Center features a campus of interconnected courtyards that seamlessly integrate office, living, research and development, and communal space to create “Scholarship in the Garden.” This garden creates an inwardly-focused, collaborative community oriented toward the pursuit of science and inspired by nature.

While the institute is a massive space, it’s navigable. The campus is laid out symmetrically with flexible, repeatable labs to the south, residential and amenities to the north, and office buildings and a conference center at the center.

The major design elements in this massive project are all derived from the Beijing New Material Research Institute’s four-part mission.

1.     Provide state of the art facilities for today’s researcher
Today’s researcher requires space for collaboration and flexible laboratories. The new Beijing New Material Research Institute facility was designed as a world-class institution supporting theoretical and applied science—bridging materials research to real world applications. Stantec’s design for Beijing New Material Research Institute provides state-of-the-art, flexible facilities that are supported by a robust infrastructure that sets the stage for the pursuit of great science. We looked at the trends in research and found that today both research and the researcher are interdisciplinary. New laboratory facilities must accommodate today’s advanced research scientist who collaborates with, but also shares the skills of biologists, chemists, computer scientists, and engineers.

Collaboration is facilitated by proximity and community. The collaborative nature of materials research is reflected in a series of interconnected courtyards. The design makes use of a series of these courtyards to promote the chance encounters, collaboration, and natural inspiration required to spark innovation. Facing the courtyards from the center are offices and collaboration spaces with open lobbies and conference rooms that serve as an extension of the outdoor gardens. Offices, dedicated conference space, and both formal and informal collaboration areas are essential elements for this laboratory environment.

The new facility is outfitted to the standards of the leading national and university laboratories around the world. The institute’s flexible laboratory spaces (for three to six researchers) are designed specifically to support new materials research and its related fields. These labs are outfitted with specialized program requirements, such as vibration sensitive areas, clean rooms, 100 percent exhaustive spaces, and cranes that can lift 20 tons of dead weight.

Stantec worked with ADCAS (Architecture Design and Research Institute of Chinese Academy of Sciences) on the Beijing New Material Research Center. ADCAS is part of the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing and one of the leading firms in laboratory work in China.

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2.     Create a campus environment
The inward focus of the research campus promotes exchange and collaboration through formal and informal interaction within a landscaped campus setting. In developing our vision for the Beijing New Material Research Institute, we looked at the world’s great labs. Most materials science research is done on a campus, so we ran with a campus-oriented scheme. We studied the quadrangles of large research universities. We placed the conference and dining facility in the center of the complex to highlight its importance. Located in the heart of the campus, it celebrates the collaboration essential to the scientific community. The exterior curtain wall of the conference center is a major focal point. Completely transparent, it features 8-meter-high glass panels (not unlike those seen in Apple Stores), which allow the surrounding gardens to be visually connected to the center’s ground level. The upper stories of the conference center, which are cantilevered out on all sides above the lobby, are sheathed in a special glass which reflects different colors at passersby as the sun strikes it at different angles. The continuously changing color reminds researchers they are investigating new materials and that science is dynamic and always evolving.

In a modern way, the campus layout also references a great history of communities connected by courtyards, as seen in the palaces, temples, and homes of traditional Chinese architecture. As is the case with historic Chinese palaces, courtyards and formal gardens, open space defines the design.

Offices and open lobbies and conference rooms face the courtyards and act as extensions of the gardens. This internally focused design insulates researchers from the industrial development that surrounds the site.

3.     Provide residential and life amenities focused on the quality of life for the scientists and their families
We planned not just a research campus, but a community that will host 1,500 researchers and their families. The campus features facilities for residency, dining, social exchange, recreation, retail, education, and healthcare support. The central conference and dining center serves as a community hub and features conferencing, dining, exhibit, and lounge cafes with a Winter Garden that connects out to the gardens in the surrounding courtyards.

To the north is the residential and life amenities complex that will be the home and “town center” for those living on the campus. It features dining, recreation, entertainment, fitness, healthcare, community, and educational space for residents. Residential units range in size from 45 square meters for single researchers and range from 90 to 180 square meters for senior researchers, scientists, and their families.

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4.     Create a green, low-carbon development
The research campus creates a low-carbon community that complements the nature of the research taking place inside while serving as a model for sustainability in China. There’s no getting around it. Typically, laboratories are ravenous for energy, consuming up to five times the resources that a conventional structure requires. For the Beijing New Materials R&D Center, we focused attention on ultra-efficient low-carbon energy systems.

Beijing New Materials R&D Center is a low-carbon development. The design employs a variety of active and passive strategies that reduce dependence on fossil fuels. The large overhang “Wing” roof structures integrate the required large mechanical areas into the architecture of the complex. Roof gardens fill space between these mechanical areas. The campus landscaped environment shades, protects, and enhances the lives of occupants. Green space can be found on the ground, in planted terraces, and on green roofs designed to collect and conserve rain water. The design for the complex integrates traditional and renewable materials of stone, wood, and tile with modern materials of glass and metal used for a high-performance curtain wall.

The elements above along with the north-south orientations of buildings and use of renewable materials in interiors set a high bar for sustainability in research facilities.

The design for the center articulates a balance between past and future. It looks to the future with sustainable features and state-of-art laboratories. And it references the past in its inspiration from quintessential Chinese courtyards and gardens. It addresses a deep and timeless human need for community, collaboration, and interaction with nature.

Chris is an architect who knows the importance of effective collaboration. He has led more than 60 projects worldwide, including public assembly and multi-building complexes for public, corporate, and institutional clients.

Creating a truly inspiring research campus means tapping into significant cultural traditions, layouts of exploring legendary places of discovery, and infusing sustainability into the entire design.

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