Endurance, Change and Vision: The Caltech Chen Neuroscience Research Building

Chinese billionaire philanthropists Tianqiao Chen and Chrissy Luo were inspired by a news item about research in which a person could control a robotic arm using only their mind. So much so, that they donated $115 million to help fund a neuroscience institute at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, Calif.

Copper and LEED certification help intelligent neuroscience research building foster cross-disciplinary collaboration

By Mark Robins


This new 150,000-square-foot, five-story Caltech Chen Neuroscience Research Building (CNRB) serves as the university’s new administrative and knowledge center for the Division of Biology and Biological Engineering. The neuroscience institute investigates the challenges in understanding how the brain works, and focusing on the discovery, treatment and development of the brain. Detroit-based SmithGroup was the architect and Greeley, Colo.-based Hensel Phelps was the general contractor.

Inspired by biology and neuroscience, the Hensel Phelps-SmithGroup design-build team worked through many iterations of laboratory design concepts with Caltech and decided upon a model called “transparent” lab design. “It places open laboratories back-to-back, allowing light all the way through from one side of the building to the other,” Mark Zajdzinski Sr., project architect, SmithGroup. “The result is a place to focus, postulate, imagine and conduct the rigorous discourse necessary to unravel the foundations of the human mind and propel science forward as we better understand the capacity and intricacies of the brain. In materiality, the building utilizes classic, natural Southern California elements, such as travertine and copper, to serve as warm complements to the surrounding landscape.”

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The $240 million, state-of-the-art research facility fosters cross-disciplinary collaboration, providing wet, dry and computational research labs. The support facilities include a vivarium that contains animal holding areas, procedure rooms and related vivarium support spaces. The complex also includes a teaching lab, a 150-seat lecture hall, offices and conference rooms to accommodate faculty, professional researchers, graduate students, post-doctoral scholars and administrative support. Also, a pedestrian tunnel connects the subbasement of the new neuroscience building to Caltech’s Broad Center for the Biological Sciences.

Chandler, Ariz.-based Kovach Enclosure Systems provided the curtainwall, window wall, storefront, punched windows, copper panels, handrails, aluminum composite material (ACM) and column covers. “We helped with the design of the job, the preconstruction, the design assist, we did the majority of the fabrication, and we did the install,” says Tim Del Monte, director of business development at Kovach.

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Three natural materials—travertine,unfinished copper and glass—were selected for their essential qualities to express endurance (stone), change (copper) and vision (glass). Lower levels of the building are clad with 22,700 square feet of travertine stone. The featured stone was fabricated in Tivoli, Italy, at the Marrioti family travertine quarry and each piece of stone weighs 250 pounds. Expansive windows ensure natural light aid computational work and environmentally controlled research spaces. A skylight with 545,326 mosaic tiles brings natural light into the CNRB.

But designers at SmithGroup selected copper (from Revere Copper, Rome, N.Y.), fabricated as a custom copper panel system because it’s a natural material that would continue to change. “They understood copper was one of those materials that would almost have its own life throughout the entire history of the project.” Del Monte says, “Using the right materials wasn’t going to be value-engineered out. Copper, a natural and fully recyclable material, was something the donors became very interested in. We actually decided to do a mock-up a year early to show how the copper would weather to demonstrate the results to the client. As the design progressed, whenever there was an opportunity to use copper, SmithGroup really took it.”

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A floating custom copper scrim wall that stands off the building was integrated into the Kovach KRS-225 rainscreen wall. Thirty-two-ounce copper was used for the perforated scrim on north and east bookends of the building. Kovach developed a custom frame to support the copper panels.

Twenty-four-ounce copper was integrated into the exterior unitized copper wall system. This all combined to allow an undulating façade. Kovach’s Kovabond made up ACM soffits, column covers and other ACM wall panels. Copper was even infused and glazed in the curtainwall system with Okalux panels from OKALUX North America, White Plains, N.Y. PAC-CLAD Precision series, HWPC16 ribbed metal wall panels from Petersen Aluminum Corp., Elk Grove Village, Ill., were used as exterior metal cladding on the roof level.

The Hensel Phelps-SmithGroup design-build team encountered challenges and constraints throughout the project. According to Zajdzinski, the project required, “Highly technical and customized laboratory and support spaces with various technical demands and needs, finding modularity and consistency within this framework. [Also,] having a custom undulating unitized curtainwall with custom copper panels custom connections required full testing lab protocol. This included seismic overload testing to validate the copper manel attachment and integration into the curtainwall system. Working through all the drift criteria across the building, from curtainwall system to rainscreen system. [Also,] maintaining air tightness and thermal integrity even after a large seismic event. The project team relocated and preserved seven historical bungalows one quarter mile from the main job site and placed them on new foundations. The bungalows were restored to their original state and the result was a historically accurate bungalow courtyard that now functions as a high-quality interim faculty housing for visiting and newly hired Caltech faculty.”

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“Walls fold in a variety of ways, using light and shadow to create an exterior rich in texture, giving the building a human scale.” Zajdzinski says. “The folds change scale to express specific interior spaces such as laboratories, support, offices and collaboration. Research spaces cantilever over the ground floor like the boughs of an ancient forest, providing shade and an open, inviting entry. A louver screen at the roof provides a strong edge against the sky and solar shading for the façades throughout the year.”

The CNRB is certified LEED Gold and designed to consume 30% less energy than the average Caltech research building. “The design-build team included façade/glazing optimization, reduced air change rates, active chilled beams, high-efficiency, ultra-low temperature freezers, low-flow plumbing fixtures and water reuse from cooling coils,” Zajdzinski says. “Although the windows were low-E glaze, they were still able to deliver sufficient natural light throughout the interior spaces.”