Nanotech center continues to grow

Construction on the $91.5 million Krishna P. Singh Center for Nanotechnology on the 3200 block of Walnut Street is proceeding on time and on budget. 

The sleek 78,000-square-foot glass and aluminum building, a joint venture between the School of Engineering and Applied Science and the School of Arts and Sciences, is scheduled to mark its official opening in November. But most of the construction is expected to be complete by the late summer.

In addition to gracing the east end of campus with a striking new piece of modern architecture, the Singh Center will also provide Penn with a leading research site focused on one of today’s most innovative fields of science and engineering. And the building’s design ensures the work happening inside will be the star of the show.

“We were interested in creating a serious piece of design that would complement the serious science,” says University Architect David Hollenberg, explaining that the glass-curtain style of construction was purposefully chosen by New York architects Weiss/Manfredi to allow visitors to observe researchers at work.

“I think it’s fair to say that from a technically demanding standpoint, this is one of the most demanding buildings we’ve done, just because of the nature of the science that goes on inside,” Hollenberg says.

One of the main features of the Center is located only steps beyond its front entrance. It is a 10,000-square-foot clean room that will be used for nanofabrication that sits behind a wall of amber-colored glass stretching across the entire first level of the building, about half a city block. The work that will take place inside the room requires a highly controlled environment, meaning few will be allowed to enter the area. But, the jewel-tinted glass invites all who enter the Singh Center to observe. Video monitors placed outside the clean room will also broadcast the work in progress.

At night, the amber curtain will create a soft, golden glow visible from the street. The amber tint was not selected merely for its aesthetic. It serves a purpose, says Chris Kern, director of design and construction. Because some of the experimentation that will occur inside the clean room is ultraviolet (UV)-sensitive, some research bays are outfitted with amber non-UV lighting. Weiss/Manfredi made the decision to incorporate the color into the building’s overall design. This is the first building Weiss/Manfredi has designed for Penn. Gilbane Building Company of Philadelphia is managing the construction.

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The three-layered insulated glass that encompasses the rest of the building is designed to blur the borders between outside and inside. It is etched with translucent frit patterns that not only provide a visual design but also control heat loss and heat gain.

The lower level is where perhaps the most challenging construction has taken place, because it is where ultra-sensitive electron microscopy will occur. The labs in this area will house high-powered, high-intensity, low-vibration microscopes that require an environment of closely controlled temperature, humidity, and air flow. The equipment also requires as little ground vibration as possible.

To achieve this, architects installed air flow systems that control the temperature inside the labs to vary less than one degree year-around. The labs are also enclosed in “boxes” made of aluminum plate shielding with Teflon coating to protect the equipment from electromagnetic interference. And the entire space will sit upon concrete floors that reach down to bedrock to minimize vibration.

Another highlight of the building is the third-floor cantilevered meeting room that hovers 65 feet over the Center’s courtyard. Dubbed the “Forum,” the multi-purpose room is wrapped in a floor-to-ceiling skin of glass, providing a west-aimed view of campus. Expected to be used for meetings, dinners, lectures, and other gatherings, the Forum area opens onto a roof garden with three full-size magnolia trees, that also serves as a storm water retention system.

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The garden is one of two natural water retention systems—there is another roof garden near the back of the building not accessible to visitors—and it is one of many green features that has the Singh Center targeted to meet LEED Silver certification standards.

“It’s difficult to meet LEED Silver with such a research-intensive facility. There are a lot of air flow requirements in clean rooms that are inherent to the research, and one of the requirements of LEED [certification] is for them to be energy efficient,” says Kern. “That’s tough to do with all the exhaust fans and pumps and so forth, but we are on track to do it.”

Originally published on January 24, 2013