During the programming phase, SPF:a determined that the only way to construct the 6,600-square-foot (610-square-meter) building was by designing it as a modular kit of parts that could be assembled on site. Structural systems had to be broken down to components, small enough to be pulled up the side of an adjacent building and carried by two to three workers, yet big enough to achieve the needed structural integrity in the finished building. The structural steel members were no longer than 20 feet (6 meters).
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Pali says the design concept is quite simple. "It's a design built on a very rigorous grid system, a rigorous structural system, and a rigorous window system. We wanted to keep it as simple as possible, using only two trades, steel and glass. That way we knew we could get it done as quickly as possible."
The envelope is composed of an inexpensive storefront system and glass panels that easily slide into place. Almost everything is off-the-shelf. "The project came out to be just under $200 a square foot ($2150 per square meter), and that's including a lot of technical features," says Pali. "On a restricted budget and considering the construction limitations, we had to keep the design to a minimum."
Siting atop the roof of the former nuclear reactor posed another set of concerns. The new building had to be relatively light. To add support to the existing structural columns, SPF wrapped them in carbon fiber, a hi-tech reinforcing material made of fiberglass fabric. The flooring of the CENS building was raised three feet (one meter) above the existing courtyard.
People enter the elevated structure through a short passage with a ramp and stairs. The walls are lined with backlit panels so the passage can double as an exhibition space. When more funding is available, plasma screens will showcase the findings of CENS research.
On the opposite end of the building, a wide, steel stairwell provides direct access to a multipurpose conference room. SPF:a project manager Siddhartha Majumdar says the idea was to create a "front stoop" where students and faculty might informally gather or smoke.
Little direct sunlight reaches the courtyard, but there is plenty of indirect light and ample blue sky. To mitigate views of the surrounding buildings but allow as much light as possible to illuminate the facility, the curtain wall consists of both transparent and translucent glass panels. From the courtyard, the building gives the impression of a floating light box. "We wanted to create a light thing in the midst of heaviness," says Pali.
The interior is starkly minimal and nearly every surface is white and writable, including doors and windows. "Every surface has a purpose. It might be low-tech but it works," says Majumdar. Workstations are flexible so they can adapt to the program's changing needs, and the ceiling incorporates a gantry-like catwalk to help researchers position their experimental sensors.
According to CENS technical manager, Richard Guy, poor acoustics are bothersome to the new occupants. The entry-passage ramp is the main culprit; its metal flooring rumbles under feet or cart wheels. As a temporary measure, the director has covered it with a thick rubber mat.
Pali says the problem reveals the complications associated with elevating the building. Stairs weren't enough; a ramp was necessary for the transport of carts and equipment. But "value engineering," an ironic euphemism for the cost cutting that is common in institutional projects, also played a role.
"There are things we wish were done better," says Pali. "We would have liked to use better materials, and materials that would soften the space and mitigate sound. Value engineering required that a lot of these things be left out. But [the facility] does seem to foster a sense of collaboration."
The original budget for the project was only $1 million, but this increased dramatically due to rising construction costs and unforeseen technical requirements. Also, there were significant costs in management and paperwork often associated with institutional projects. By completion, the price tag approached $2 million.
The CENS project was constructed in six months, opening within weeks of the fall 2005 semester. Judging by the number of complex formulas now scribbled on windows, doors, and walls, it's apparent the facility is being used as intended and ultimately, that is one good measure of success.
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Allison Milionis is a downtown Los Angeles-based freelance writer covering architecture and design, politics, and other goings-on around L.A.