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Pedal to the Metal

Metal lends a sleek, modern aesthetic to Clemson University automotive research facility.

By Henry Burke

Clemson University’s International Center for Automotive Research (CU-ICAR) stands as a shining example of the power of partnerships between industry and institutions of higher education. CU-ICAR’s Center for Emerging Technologies houses the activities of several major companies in the automotive industry, serves as an incubator for innovative new startups, and provides Clemson students with a unique opportunity to participate in real-world research and development.

The facility was recently visited by U.S. Secretary of Commerce, Penny Pritzker, who was struck by the potential of initiatives like this one. “CU-ICAR is a tremendous example of an educational institution conducting the type of leading-edge research that will keep America competitive in the 21st Century,” Pritzker said during her visit. “These industry-driven models are exactly what we need to replicate nationwide to promote economic growth.”

To house such a powerful and dynamic initiative, the university needed a world class facility, and for that it turned to the Greenville, S.C., office of design firm LS3P Associates. “We have a really good relationship with Clemson and with CU-ICAR,” says LS3P’s Chris Stone, design architect and project manager for the CU-ICAR project. “We had previously designed a parking garage and office tower, as well as participated in the master planning of the entire campus, so CU-ICAR asked us to design a three-story building to lease to prospective partners.”

The design of that three-story building had to account for the wide variety of activities taking place within. “It’s an office and lab facility in which startup and established companies related to the automotive industry set up offices,” Stone explains. Clemson University fitted out a number of testing chambers and virtual reality labs. MTC Federal Credit Union located a branch on the first level. Tire company Michelin North America has opened an innovation center on the ground floor. And Sage Automotive Interiors leased almost a third of the building.

“There also is something called the Tech Cafe, an incubator environment in which 10 or 15 different startup companies set up offices,” Stone says. “At the Cafe, these startup companies have a connection to the automotive research Clemson is doing at the Campbell Graduate Engineering Center next door. It’s about collaboration and being in the midst of this automotive research park.”

But not all of the tenants are natural neighbors. “The ground floor houses a major environmental and testing lab, including a giant shaker and environmental chamber five feet away from a think tank for Michelin,” Stone says. “So you have 112 decibels of generated testing noise and who knows how much vibration just a few feet away from the head of Michelin research’s office.”

In their design strategy, the architects were conscious of the needs of each of these tenants. “We had to be very flexible about where we put people and met their needs, but at the same time had to pre-design the building in anticipation of the fact that we had startup companies coming in and we had no idea what they would need,” Stone recalls. “That was probably the hardest part.”

Metal enabled the design and construction team to apply a straightforward skin that wraps around the building completely. “We used CENTRIA’s insulated metal panel (IMP) system and integrated window system, which allowed us to do a glass façade on the majority of the building,” Stone says. “We could put in a row of windows and be able to quickly put in the wall system. We wanted the exterior wall system to look like a plane on the building. Then we extended the edges of that plane to the metal panels beyond the edges, so it has the essence of movement.”

The combination of CENTRIA’s Formawall Dimension Series IMPs and Formavue integrated windows delivered a striking, modern aesthetic. “We wanted a striated, metallic surface, so we used the variable widths and lengths of the panels to create some rhythm and some line work within the façade,” Stone says. “It’s a combination of surfaces. The reveals are integrated into it, as are the vertical separations. We integrated all of that with the window spacing to create the exterior language.”

The facility also uses CENTRIA stainless steel, 40 percent perforated EcoScreen panels for solar shading. “We used the EcoScreen panels to create an east-facing solar and privacy screen,” Stone says. “It helps block the sun, lowers the solar intake in the morning, and reduces glare, but allows for day-lit gathering space.”

The CU-ICAR Center for Emerging Technologies project began in 2009 and opened in early 2011. Beyond the look and performance, metal delivered an ease of use that the design team found appealing. “The metal panel system is easy to work with and I enjoyed having the integrated window system as a good option in our toolbox,” Stone says. “It was something that delivered what we anticipated it would.”

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