Metal Architecture Home

Biomorphic Sunscreen

Ornamental metal scrim sunshade mimics the brain's neurons

Levin Bldg Dec17 1
Photo: Todd Vorenkamp/TRV Photo

The new Stephen A. Levin Building at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia is a hub for neural and behavioral sciences. The facility’s design stems from the acknowledgement the study of complex behaviors is a fundamental focus of life sciences in the 21st century. The university wanted to bring together its psychology, biology and behavioral sciences programs into a common facility to create greater integration of the study of genes, the brain and behavior.

Completed in 2016, SmithGroupJJR, Washington, D.C., provided master planning, programming and design for the state-of-the-art integrated sciences building. The 77,000-square-foot building acts as an iconic center and connector for a newly defined life sciences precinct.

Creating Connections

Sven Shockey, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, design director at SmithGroupJJR, says the idea of creating and stimulating connections was the central idea for the project. “Connections included those between the adjacent life sciences buildings, connections between departments (particularly psychology and biology), connections between the interior and the landscape, and connections between the university and the community,” he says.

The design team created a logical bar design for the new building that abuts an existing lab facility and links to another through an underground tunnel. To create a connection to the campus’ botanical garden while allowing for future expansion and creating a pedestrian plaza, a below-grade auditorium extends south with a green roof. The labs need to have a carefully controlled environment, and collaborative and circulation areas feature a large glass volume with an aluminum sunscreen that provides soft, yet expansive, light throughout the day. Additionally, the innovative biomorphic sunscreen mitigates glare and heat gain, while presenting a new public face for the university. 

As the building massing was being developed, Shockey says it made sense to place the grad student work spaces to the north to receive balanced light. “Most of the research labs did not need or desire daylight, so they were placed in the middle of the building,” he explains. “The circulation and social/collaboration spaces were then placed to the south to receive generous daylight and expansive views of the garden and the city.”

Sometimes too much light would flood into those spaces, so Shockey says the sunscreen helped temper the light, reduce solar gain and therefore, heating loads, while greatly reducing glare. “We experimented with different form factors and found that a planar sunshade can significantly reduce solar gain, but allow expansive views out,” he adds.


Photo: Scott Morris

Biology Design Cues

Since the building is a life sciences teaching and research facility, Shockey says they looked at all scales of biology for cues. “We found that branching forms are present in all scales of biology—microscopic life, the fingers of a hand, the branches of trees, etc.,” he explains. “The challenge was that we did not want the pattern to read as rigid repetition. Biological forms always incorporate slight differences into each variation. And we realized that too much variation would be expensive to fabricate.”

Ultimately, Shockey says the design team came up with an idea in which two panel types created with asymmetric splines could work in a grid in which some panels were installed mirrored or flipped. “This generated a complexity in the overall patterns and even suggests new patterns between the panels,” he says. “The pattern is achieved with portions of the metal cut out and other portions perforated which suggest a second layer.”

Fabricated by M. Cohen and Sons, Broomall, Pa., the sunscreen is made up of 8,200 square feet of perforated and laser-cut aluminum panels, which hangs 3 inches beyond the curtainwall. The lightweight panels represent the neuronal synapses of the human brain.

SmithGroupJJR worked closely with M. Cohen and Sons from very early in design and through fabrication and installation. M. Cohen and Sons helped figure out how to frame the panels, each measuring 3 feet, 11 1/2 inches by 7 feet, 3 1/2 inches, so they could resist wind loads with minimal structure.

The sunscreen reduces the building’s solar heat load where it occurs by 50 percent, and reduces the building’s overall energy use by 3 percent since the cooling loads are reduced. “When the sunlight passes through the sunscreen, the result is a dappled light effect, similar to light filtered through trees, a very pleasing light for the circulation and collaboration spaces behind,” Shockey says. “The openings create animated shadow patterns on the interior surfaces that change throughout the day and through different seasons. At night, the effect reverses and the activity inside the building is exposed through the openings.”


Photo: Todd Vorenkamp/TRV Photo

An Iconic Centerpiece

Jerry Fossey, general manager at Fairview Architectural North America, Bloomfield, Conn., says the project is an iconic centerpiece. “Copper and white metal panels were selected to contrast with the adjacent dark brick buildings,” he says. “In addition, the copper recalls other green buildings on campus and will age gracefully over time.”

The project features 45,100 square feet of 4-mm Vitrabond metal composite material (MCM) with an FR core from Fairview Architectural North America. The MCM has a 15-year custom pre-patina copper coil applied finish. The project also features MCM panels in Custom Aria White and Cannon Gray.

Fossey says the company developed a variety of patina finishes on copper in a controlled laboratory environment. It then produced a coil-processed patina finish on aluminum, which was used in the manufacturing of the copper composite material. “Special handling was required at every step with this delicate natural living finishing,” he says, “and to achieve a ‘consistent inconsistency’ we had to ensure there was no color continuity with adjacent panels. This meant we had to randomize and number code every sheet of copper composite material prior to fabrication.”

“We felt the metal was an appropriate material for a high-performance, precisely designed lab building that will look good for many years,” adds Fossey. “Metal was also used for the sunshade on the south side of the building. It is lightweight, with openings and perforations to gently filter light in circulation and collaborative spaces. The design recalls the branching and connecting patterns evident in all scales of biology.”

Photo: Todd Vorenkamp/TRV Photo

A Smooth Transition

The building is located at the convergence of vehicular and pedestrian approaches to the campus, making the development critical to the perception of the university by the adjacent community. Therefore, the project’s master plan and program links the two to provide a smooth transition between the academic environment and the surrounding community, while becoming a destination for students and faculty both inside and out. The project’s program required the demolition of two existing buildings, Kaplan and Mudd, along with the creation of adjacent outdoor spaces, as well as the design for the bold, new Stephen A. Levin Building.

The new building and sunscreen are a backdrop for the new life sciences quad, which is a green space with table and chairs, benches, areas of turf, and a bridge leading through a rain garden. “The pairing of the building and the quad create a strong sense of identity and place for the new life sciences precinct,” Shockey says.

And, he adds, “The sunscreen not only references the research program, but it also references the adjacent research garden—Kaskey Park—and helps to conceptually connect the part to the neighborhood and street to the west.”

The Stephen A. Levin building is named for a graduate of Penn’s College of Arts and Sciences who made a $15 million gift to the school, has received a variety of awards, including a Chapter Award from AIA DC chapter, a Design Award from the AIA Potomac Valley chapter, and Construction Excellence Award-Best Educational Institutional project from the General Building Contractors Association.