As the 21st century dawned, Princeton University found that, at least in one respect, it was rather lagging behind the times. The institution’s chemistry department continued to inhabit a collegiate gothic structure that had been built in 1929—the old Frick Chemical Laboratory. It is a beautiful building, but its venerable stonewalls could not adequately accommodate the most recent advances both in the technology of chemistry as well as in its pedagogy. What’s more, these outdated facilities were making it difficult for the university to attract the kind of faculty—the rock stars of the chemistry world—that an upper tier institution like Princeton sorely needs on its roster if it wants to maintain a competitive edge with its ivy league peers. So the school drew up a short list of design talent and asked them to submit a proposal for a new 265,000-square-foot chemistry building. The winners were Hopkins Architects of London in collaboration with the Boston architectural firm, Payette.
The primary challenge faced by the design team was to create an environment that fostered collaboration, not just between the faculty and students of each discipline of chemistry, but between the disciplines themselves, and even between the entire department and other branches of the sciences. The old Frick Chemical Laboratory, with its dormitory style layout, kept the divisions separate, sequestered in small closed rooms where if one were working in organic chemistry there would be little chance to observe what was happening in biochemistry. Breaking down these boundaries meant developing a more fluid, modular, and transparent architecture, one that would keep the entire department in visual contact with one another and allow each discipline to grow or shrink as necessary. Of course, this open, collaborative environment also had to adhere to the stringent safety and ventilation requirements of a contemporary chemistry laboratory while at the same time meeting the university’s ambitious sustainability goals.
Hopkins and Payette began by organizing the building’s program elements into two parallel rectangular volumes that face each other across a 27-foot-wide atrium. On the ground floor one volume houses teaching laboratories, while the adjacent one is home to faculty offices, lounges, and other amenities. A similar arrangement exists on the upper three research floors, only there the laboratory side is linked to the office side by way of bridges that span the atrium. There is also a basement, which houses a 260-seat auditorium, additional laboratory space, and a room for nuclear magnetic resonance equipment.
All of these facilities are outfitted with the latest systems of chemical research and study, but the real innovation of the building is in the way it divides “wet” (laboratories) and “dry” (offices) functions while keeping visual lines of communication open. The inner walls of the atrium are clad in glass, allowing sightlines to pass all the way through the building. This arrangement also had a payoff with the HVAC system. Intake air moves first into the offices slab, where it is conditioned either by a chilled beam in the ceiling or by hydronic radiators along the wall. From there it is pulled into the atrium, where it circulates before being drawn into the laboratory slab. This is the last stop before the air is vented out the roof through some 300 high-efficiency fume hoods that operate on motion sensors. Thus, the building uses intake air three times before exhausting it, cutting down on heating and cooling loads. And because the air always moves from the offices to the labs and out, there is no danger of contaminating the dry areas with potentially hazardous clouds of poison gas.
The same transparency that allows building users to keep an eye on one another was also applied to the exterior to let ample, but controlled, natural light into the interior. The facades are clad with an insulated glass curtain wall outfitted with aluminum shades and ceramic fritting to cut down on glare and heat gain. The atrium also has glass walls and a glass skylight. An array of 216 photovoltaic panels shelters the skylight, generating electricity from the sun while casting a dappled pattern of light and shadow down onto the blue carpeted pedestrian bridges and white terrazzo ground floor.
The overall architectural expression was guided by the rigorous, modular nature of the maple laboratory casework. Everything—from the exposed elements of the steel structure, to the curtain wall framework and maple acoustic panels in the atrium—bears a machine-like, repetitive articulation. The grounds surrounding the building, however, seek a seamless integration with nature. Designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, the landscape extends the woodlands of Lake Carnegie and the adjacent stream valley to the building’s edge. The character of these environs proved perfect for integrating rain gardens and biofiltration areas, which retain and filter as much as 12,000 gallons of building and site stormwater to be reused for non-potable use, making the new Frick Chemistry Laboratory very much a machine in the garden.