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Sustainability at the Forefront

Smithsonian research laboratory reflects its industrial and agricultural surroundings with a unique combination of metal components.

By Henry Burke

For decades, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) has been leading the way in the research of coastal estuary ecosystems and monitoring the ways that human development and environmental change impacts these systems. Located on the shoreline of the Rhode River and Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the United States, SERC’s 2,650-acre campus spans forests, wetlands, marshes, and 12 miles of protected shoreline.

In 2006, SERC engaged Philadelphia-based design firm EwingCole to create a master plan for the campus that would update and upgrade the group’s facilities. “SERC wanted to expand its research capabilities and public programs in a way that was sensitive to the environment, anticipated best practices and kept Smithsonian science on the forefront,” says Jeff Hirsch, AIA, architect and director of the culture practice at EwingCole. “We started with a view of the entire campus and identified Mathias Laboratory as the key initial project to do just that.”

Named in honor of Maryland’s late U.S. Senator Charles “Mac” Mathias Jr., Mathias Laboratory had long been the centerpiece of SERC’s research campus, but the group’s programs eventually outgrew the original facility.

“The existing lab had developed over a number of years, but was crowded and deficient in some of its capabilities,” Hirsch explains. “SERC looked at the expansion of Mathias as an opportunity not only to expand its science capabilities, but also to demonstrate their stewardship of the land and understanding of sustainability, since that truly is their mission.”

Sustainability was in the DNA of the Mathias Laboratory project from the start, and many of the decisions made along the way were informed by a core philosophy of minimizing environmental impact.

The renovation project began in 2009 and was guided by the master plan, but began with a series of charrettes focusing on programming and sustainability, Hirsch recalls. “One of the key issues we identified early on was the need to set energy criteria for the success of the project. We targeted a LEED Gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council and identified the need to exceed ASHRAE 90.1 by 40 percent. That had many implications for building systems, but we also interpreted the criteria to apply to the thermal and energy performance of the building envelope. Once our energy criteria were set, they suggested that the roof would be R-40 or greater and the walls would be R-30 or greater. That was one of the first hurdles we had to hit.”

Energy efficiency and sustainability were not the only things on SERC’s wish list. “Having the building respond to the context of the campus was extremely important to SERC leadership because over time they had developed a stockpile of buildings that all looked a little different,” Hirsch says. “They really wanted this project to acknowledge the architecture on site, and yet they wanted the building to be an obviously modern building.”

To create something that would be at once modern, contextual, and highly energy efficient, the project designers quickly turned to metal as a solution to the envelope question. “We interpreted the need for a modern building that reflected a bit of the industrial, agricultural architecture that existed on site and around the Eastern Shore, so we looked at old barns, silos, and other metal-clad buildings,” Hirsch says. “We had an interest in metal because we thought it looks both modern and agrarian. We were also interested in metal as a highly recyclable product.”

For an organization like SERC, whose entire existence is based on careful resource management and care for the environment, the idea of building materials that could have use beyond the life of the building held particular appeal. “It was an opportunity to demonstrate sustainability across all aspects of the project,” Hirsch says. “We could represent to the client that there is a program not only for managing the kinds of materials that were in the project from the onset, but that there was a program for the materials to be reused if the building had to be changed or demolished. Describing the project as having a life cycle and anticipating what that would be resonated with the SERC people.”

To realize the design and performance goals of the project, EwingCole turned to Moon Township, Pa.-based CENTRIA. The company’s MetalWrap system was chosen because it replaces separate batt or board insulation, exterior gypsum, air barriers, vapor retarders, and building wraps with a single system, which reduces environmental impact and job site waste. MetalWrap provides the desired envelope performance behind the exterior aesthetic elements, including cement fiberboard panels and brick, as well as CENTRIA’s FormaBond MCM panels and single-skin Econolap exposed fastener profiles.

“CENTRIA got the bid because they understood the project and were able to be competitive, but they had to come up with new products to solve the R-value issue,” Hirsch says.

Working together, EwingCole and CENTRIA were able to find creative ways to use MetalWrap on the project in combination with other panel components to get the job done. “In the walls, we used MetalWrap as a 4-inch panel, so what CENTRIA ended up doing was taking what was a vertical, 4-inch panel and modifying it so it went horizontal,” explains David Virgil, architect with EwingCole. Virgil served as the construction architect on the Mathias Laboratory project. “Using different combinations of panels and panel components required CENTRIA to redesign how the interface between them works. We could not have done this project without their help and support in the design phases.”

Using the different types of panels lends an exciting, lighthearted look to a building type that is traditionally more conservative. “I think the play of color is really clever,” Hirsh says. “You don’t often get a client who will paint big panels orange. It’s playful. It’s a government lab that doesn’t look like a government lab.”

“MetalWrap ends up being the armature that we added many different assemblies to,” Virgil says. “We used some corrugated materials with Econolap and set it off with reveals to articulate things. But MetalWrap ended up being an element that everything could be based on. There are a lot of different materials that are composed in a kinetic way. We had Econolap on MetalWrap, we had [cement fiberboard] on MetalWrap, masonry on MetalWrap, and FormaBond on MetalWrap. So we used a wide palette in a very playful way to get this kind of modern, agrarian industrial look.”

A phased project, the building was completed in September of 2014 and has been warmly received by SERC and the Smithsonian. “Throughout the Smithsonian, they see it as a successful project,” Virgil says. “It kept on budget and it kept on schedule. In general, I think it exceeded their expectations.”

“SERC is delighted,” Hirsch adds. “I think they feel like they have a world-class laboratory that demonstrates their commitment to sustainability. I think our other clients at the Smithsonian look at it as an example of a team approach. From pre-project programming all the way through the completion of construction, we were a very tight team.”

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