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American beauty

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aj building study

Nicholas Grimshaw and Partners had to battle with the cultural differences and the climate with its landmark Plant Science Center in the US city of St Louis Located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, St Louis is a city at the same time typical and unique in its American urban character.

Sited on the west bank of the Mississippi, underneath Eero Saarinen's Gateway Arch, and in the figurative shadow of Louis Sullivan's terracotta-clad Wainwright Building, the city centre struggles to hold onto its declining post-war population. Beyond the city limits proper, the metropolitan region continues to expand in the now-proverbial doughnut pattern of so many mid-tier American cities, extending the undifferentiated residential and commercial suburbs westward along ever-widening highways into the Missouri River flatlands.

But think of St Louis as an epicentre - draw a 500-mile radius circle in the American heartland with St Louis at its heart and you have defined the central agricultural region of the continent. In this context, the city already serves as a locus for the agricultural and botanical research activities of a broad number of civic, academic and corporate institutions throughout the Midwest, and anticipates further growth as a centre of such endeavours in the US.

This status and the national, even international, ambition is signalled most clearly by the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, located in St Louis' Creve Coeur suburb. It was completed last November to the designs of Nicholas Grimshaw and Partners (NGP) under the direction of Andrew Whalley, in association with Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum (HOK) of St Louis, with Mark Husser, director of design, as principal associate.

As an independent, non-profit institution for basic plant science research, the Danforth Center partners are the Missouri Botanical Garden, the Monsanto Company and four nationally known research universities of the region.

Simultaneously, the center honours one of the St Louis region's foremost agricultural businessmen, Donald Danforth (1898-1973), former president and chairman of Nestle-Purina, a leading worldwide producer of feed grains, pet foods and cereals. During his lifetime, Danforth worked as both a humanitarian and philanthropist.

The Danforth Foundation established the Plant Science Center initiative through a $60 million (£41 million) endowment, an ideal fit for the Danforth interests in agriculture, nutrition and health.

Dr Roger N Beachy, president of the Danforth Center, describes its mission as being to 'significantly increase our understanding of basic plant biology and then apply new knowledge for the benefit of human nutrition and health and to improve the sustainability of agriculture worldwide'. The design competition entries were submitted and reviewed before the general furore, mainly in Europe, but to a lesser extent in the US, over the production and use of genetically modified seed.

By 1998, the Danforth endowment, plus Monsanto's donation of a 40-acre site opposite its own suburban St Louis offices on Olive Boulevard, led to a development strategy for the building itself, based upon a general set of goals and purposes. Monsanto's donation of the Creve Coeur site placed the Plant Science Center in fairly open, acontextural terrain at the still-developing edge of St Louis County, in close proximity to the downtown area, major highways and the airport. However, the siting also meant that the center was located in an area where the dominant typological and aesthetic norm for a building of this size is the speculative office building, dictated as much by economics, local zoning and building regulations and the necessities of parking, as by ideas of civic representation, integration of building technologies and sustainable design principles.

In the first stage of the project, HOK-St Louis was engaged as the technical consultant for the research laboratories, and Dr Frank Becker, a Cornell University consultant in workplace ecology, provided perspectives on the ideal scientific research space. There was, at least at the beginning, an expressed interest in the building's potential to address environmental issues through the integration of sustainable design principles.

Second, a limited, invited competition was organised and, unusually for American competitions, it utilised both an interview phase and a compensated schematic design review phase. From a long list of suggested participants, the center's review board selected five firms for interviews - William McDonough and Associates, HOK-St Louis, Pei Cobb Freed, Ricardo Legorreta, and NGP. Four of the five subsequently submitted schematic designs. NGP was awarded the commission, with HOK-St Louis designated associate architects for technical and landscape consultancy.

NGP submitted a schematic design similar in its basic diagram to the eventual project, incorporating laboratories and courtyards into a three-storey, nearly square volume, emphasising both the interaction of scientists and the public aspect of the research center. The design approached the issues of siting directly, providing a grand vestibule to Olive Boulevard and then displaying the programmatic elements symmetrically around the absolute north-south axis. The discrete geometry of the original design was complemented by serrated elevations and roof profiles, by a variety of cladding materials and by a free-form pod for library collections and conferences, suspended in an atrium space.

Cautious construction estimates and the processes of value-engineering, endemic in American practice, reduced the original NGP competition design's multiple enclosure systems and profiles, specific to each facade orientation, to a more standardised approach, incorporating terracotta panels in aluminum frames across the predominant expanses of all four elevations.

The south-facing portico, a formal entrance facade facing Olive Boulevard, began as a deep enclosed vestibule, configured in the original design by strongly dimensioned wooden laminate columns and a glass curtain wall. This structure was strongly resisted by the Creve Coeur architectural review board, and its intentions so compromised in subsequent attempts during development phases that the NGP team decided to let it go and focus on the necessities of shading and civic presence through a reduced palette of elements.

The climate in St Louis is a particularly demanding one. Temperatures vary from the high 90sinfinityF in summer to well below freezing in the winter, with high humidity levels.

Though there are significant heating demands for this building type, the critical design loads are associated with cooling for most of the year. The cooling demand derives both from heat gain through the building envelope and internal loads associated with the occupants, lighting and equipment. The lab spaces are air conditioned.

The long east and west exposures of this building required a thoughtful response to controlling natural light and minimising heat gain. The initial design strategy to create a vertical saw-tooth facade with all glazing facing north would have effectively resulted in solid or opaque exposures to the east and west. Following the 'value-engineering', the final design incorporates horizontal, concave shading devices to modulate the east-west light and mitigate radiant heat gain. The louvres were designed for the peak loading condition - 5pm at summer solstice - and were carefully spaced vertically over the window openings to optimise the shading coefficient and permit views to the outside for the occupants.

The enclosure technology is a unitised system of 11.5 x 15.5 ft, multi-layered panels made up of a terracotta rainscreen, a fourinch air space, six inches of mineral fibre insulation and a 16-gauge sheet metal moisture barrier. The terracotta also provides some thermal lag, which is particularly effective at the west wall, given the cycle of internal loading related to building occupancy. Panelisation of the technology during the manufacturing process provided a high level of quality control and craftsmanship, and also served to expedite erection.

The north and south walls of the atrium are structural glass curtain walls supported vertically by shaped, rolled steel mullions. The south wall is shaded at its top with a dramatic horizontal brise soleil, which also serves as the building's cornice. The roof of the atrium has a series of north-facing light monitors. The north-facing glazing of the monitors and north wall, and the shaded glazing to the south, provide soft, natural lighting.

The active climate control system in the atrium space is a low velocity, high volume displacement ventilation system. This is a highly energy efficient and cost-effective system for the type of environment it is serving. Cool air is introduced at the lowest level of the atrium space and displaces the warmer air upwards. The conditioned air occupies only the lowest, inhabited zone of the atrium, about seven feet in height. The upper zones of the atrium are maintained at higher temperatures and create a thermal blanket over the conditioned space.

This strategy requires the cooling of a much smaller volume of warm air than traditional high volume systems and dramatically reduces the demand on the chiller units. The low velocity strategy provides for air distribution stability and reduction of the noise normally associated with air systems.Although the duct distribution system is larger at the base of the atrium, the savings due to the reduced chiller size and the long-term energy savings associated with that make this strategy highly desirable.

A system of this type also provides cleaner outside air to the conditioned spaces.

The upper level circulation zones at the perimeter of the atrium employ the same climate control strategy to create cooled microclimates. Cool air is released into these zones at each floor level, which fills them before cascading down into the atrium.

When heating is needed, this system is also more energy efficient than the traditional alternative. In heating mode, the system is supplemented by convectors at the north and south walls to counteract the heat loss at these glazed surfaces.

If NGP has been successful in responding to this US climatic and constructional context, it is notable that, in general, British architects have not yet made significant inroads into US practice, and certainly not in proportion to the presence of American firms in London.Over the past 30 years, a relative handful of commissions can be noted, mainly for the big names such as James Stirling, Richard Rogers and Norman Foster.As a commentary on operating in the US it is worth noting that the association of NGP with HOK-St Louis has been respectful and productive, not least due to the diplomacy and shared enthusiasms for the project of Andrew Whalley and HOK's Mark Husser.

The initial teaming contained all the ingredients for disaster. The local US practice was denied a choice commission through competition, then given technical responsibility for ensuring the production of the design architect's desired quality.

NGP was unfamiliar with the US processes of contract document production, the use of shop drawings in the construction phase and the abrasive character of value engineering.

But the end result has been far, far happier for all - a fine, well-made building for the Danforth Center and for St Louis, a justifiable credit for HOK-St Louis, and the subsequent move of Husser to NGP's recently established New York office.

Although the Danforth Plant Science Center is modest and well-tailored in the articulation of its responses, what emerges is an excellent example of the poetic potential of designing with the technology of climate and light. Given the anomie of the suburban locale and the high ideals of the center's purposes, NGP has, through its siting of the building, a hybrid of formal principles and insistence on the quality of materials and assembly, produced a paradigm for the collaborative research laboratory that possesses civic presence.


FOUNDATIONS/SLABS 50.15 $6.87/sq ft Includes drilled piers, grade beams, slab on grade, excavation and waterproofing SUPERSTRUCTURE FRAME 280.03 $38.36/sq ft Includes concrete columns and beams, supported floor slabs, shear walls, steel framing and staircases ROOF 35.99 $4.93/sq ft Insulated single ply membrane roof system

EXTERNAL WALLS 220.39 $30.19/sq ft Includes terracotta curtain wall system, glass curtain wall system, masonry block and hollow metal doors, windows and rooflights

INTERNAL WALLS AND PARTITIONS 221.92 $30.40/sq ft Includes metal stud and drywall partitions, interior masonry partitions, interior wood doors and hollow metal frames, wall finishes, floor finishes, and ceiling finishes

FITTINGS AND FURNISHINGS FURNITURE 208.12 $28.51/sq ft Includes environmental growth chambers, cold rooms, lab casework and kitchen equipment

SERVICES $6.27/sq ft Includes water installation, sanitary equipment, toilet accessories $66.61/sq ft Includes variable air volume Phoenix valves,100 per cent outside air, multiple air handlers $41.79/sq ft Includes emergency generator $1.47/sq ft One passenger and one service/passenger elevator $2.46/sq ft Includes fire protection system, FM 200 gas fire protection system at data center, pre-action systems at other critical areas







PRELIMINARIES AND INSURANCES PRELIMINARIES, OVERHEADS 387.05 AND PROFIT $53.02/sq ft Includes general conditions, fees, permits, and insurance

EXTERNAL WORKS LANDSCAPING, ANCILLARY BUILDINGS 170.60 $23.37/sq ft Includes retaining wall, reflecting pool, landscaping, asphalt parking area and drive, greenhouse, grounds maintenance building, and hazardous materials building Cost Summary Cost per m 2Percentage (£) of total


SUPERSTRUCTURE Frame 280.03 11.48 Roof 35.99 1.47 External walls, door, windows 220.39 9.03 Internal walls and partitions, 221.92 9.09 inc internal doors and finishes Group element total 758.33 31.08


SERVICES Water installations 45.77 1.88 Space heating and 486.25 19.92 air treatment Electrical services 305.07 12.50 Lift and conveyor 10.73 0.44 installations Protective installations 17.96 0.74 Group element total 865.78 35.48


TOTAL 2440.03 100



COMPLETION DATE September 2001

AREAS Main building 11,850m 2(127,435sq ft); Headhouse 2,270m 2(24,400sq ft); Greenhouses 1,400m 2(15,069sq ft)

FORM OF PROCUREMENT Negotiated lump sum

CONTRACT VALUE £34,386,100

CLIENT Donald Danforth Plant Science Center

DESIGN TEAM Nicholas Grimshaw and Partners: Andrew Whalley (director), Vincent Chang (project architect), Graeme Dix, William Horgan, Jim Keen, David Kirkland, Mark Middleton, Steve Riddell Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum: Bill Odell, Tom Goulden, Mark Husser, Andy Clinch, Jeff Strohmeyer, David Hronek, Jim Fetterman, Nora Akerberg, Tod Burkhead, David Raver, Terry Laflen, Jerry Cannon, Mara Baum



MAIN CONTRACTOR McCarthy Building Companies

QUANTITY SURVEYOR Davis Langdon & Everest

PROJECT MANAGER Landmark Contract Management

LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum


CONSTRUCTION MANAGER McCarthy Building Companies


TECHNICAL ARCHITECT Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum

LABORATORY ARCHITECT Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum


INTERIOR ARCHITECT Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum

SUBCONTRACTORS AND SUPPLIERS Maple and cedar supplier Architectural Woodwork; maple panelling RPG Diffusor Systems; metal panel ceilings Ceilings Plus; growth chambers Conviron; interior/exterior stairs and railings Equus Metals; curtain wall and brise soleil Josef Gartner; water features Hydro Dynamics; lab casework Kewaunee Scientific;

greenhouses Nexus; stone flooring supplier Zickel


Nicholas Grimshaw and Partners www. ngrimshaw. co. uk

Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum www. hok. com

Ove Arup & Partners www. arup. com

Davis Langdon & Everest www. davislangdon. com

McCarthy Building Companies www. mccarthy. com

Landmark Contract Management www. landmarkcontractmanagement. com

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