Lab Design and Furnishings

Lab Building Promotes Interdisciplinary Research

A look at the William and Linda Frost Center for Research and Innovation

MaryBeth DiDonna
Embracing the University’s interactive pedagogy, the design features open-air learning and research environments, including gardens that can be accessed from the ground level teaching kitchens.
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The William and Linda Frost Center for Research and Innovation is slated to be the first truly interdisciplinary building on the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo campus devoted to undergrad students who will participate in faculty-mentored research each year, where they will work shoulder-to-shoulder with their instructors. The four-story, 103,800 sq. ft. building will combine three colleges: the College of Liberal Arts (CLA), the College of Science and Mathematics (CSM), and the College of Agriculture, Food, and Environmental Sciences (CAFES).

The Frost Center was developed to accommodate an ever-growing student and faculty population, as well as encourage interdisciplinary collaboration. The building has 19 flexible laboratory and teaching spaces, as well as general-purpose classrooms, collaboration spaces, and offices for faculty and staff offices. It also houses a recording studio, editing bays, a high-end computer laboratory, and a state-of-the-art teaching kitchen, which is located on the first floor and visible from the atrium. The sensory laboratory facility allows outside subjects to be taken through trials of sampling food and beverage offerings to obtain research feedback, and the program often partners with food/agriculture industry companies for this research. 

The labs were planned in a modular manner in order to be flexible enough to adapt to future changes. They are able to be combined into large, open labs, and they can also be subdivided into small instrument or special-use laboratories. The building is designed for LEED Gold.

Lab Manager speaks to Vladimir Pajkic, partner in charge of the project, and Matthew Young, associate principal, both of ZGF, about the California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, William and Linda Frost Center for Research and Innovation, and what it means for the future of interdisciplinary research. 

The exterior architecture is characterized by classic materiality, including brick, wood, and glass.
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Q: What was the need for the Frost Center facility? Is it replacing an outdated existing facility or accommodating new research/ a new program?

(Vlad Pajkic): The facility was designed to support the educational priorities of a growing student and faculty population, promote interdisciplinary communities, and provide much needed academic space. It is a new building on campus that represents a step forward for the university. It will be the first truly interdisciplinary building for the San Luis Obispo campus, bringing three colleges together under one roof: the College of Science and Mathematics (CSM); the College of Agriculture, Food, and Environmental Sciences (CAFES); and the College of Liberal Arts (CLA). 

Q: Is there anything particularly unique or groundbreaking about the Frost Center or the way the labs were designed?
 A (
Vlad Pajkic): Occupant health and energy efficient performance are key design drivers for the building. Passive design strategies and natural ventilation ensure the building will be as healthy as possible for its occupants. One hundred percent outside air from air handling units and operable windows in offices allow the building to avoid the recirculation of air that might provide an avenue of airborne pathogen exposure, a strategy of particular importance as higher education institutions grapple with the COVID-19 crisis.

As Cal Poly serves a primarily undergraduate population, the building will be dedicated to undergraduate students who engage in faculty-mentored research and work side-by-side with professors. Teaching is primary within the building and spaces such as recording studios and culinary and sensory facilities give students hands-on experience. They also allow the building to be responsive to future changes in pedagogy and student needs. For example, modularly planned laboratories can flex for optimal space utilization, combining to produce large, open laboratories, or subdividing to produce small instrument or special-use laboratories.

Q: If a similar facility or program were to look at your lab for inspiration, what do you think they will take away as an example of what they should also implement in their own lab?
A (
Vlad Pajkic): The building is not typical of what you would expect for a research laboratory—its form disrupts the traditional idea of academic laboratory design. Individual towers break up the building scale and establish homes for the teaching and research modules. This broken-down scale creates a more accessible and open experience, eschewing a traditional approach to lab design that is often institutional, blocky, and daunting. 

The central atrium is an inherently welcoming and collaborative space. It feels spacious and offers a high level of transparency and visual connections. From the atrium, students can glimpse teaching and experiments in real-time, such as in the state-of-the-art teaching kitchen for the College of Agriculture, Food, and Environmental Sciences on the first floor. 

The central atrium is an inherently welcoming and collaborative space. Upon arrival, students can glimpse teaching and experiments in real-time, such as in the state-of-the-art teaching kitchen for the College of Agriculture, Food, and Environmental Sciences on the first floor.
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Q: What kinds of sustainability initiatives have been included in the design plan? Is the facility pursuing LEED certification or something similar?
A (
Matthew Young): Occupant health and energy efficient performance are key design drivers for Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. The engineered façade offers an example of research and technology on display. Exterior fins are attuned to specific solar orientations to optimize daylight and energy efficiency and allow for full floor-to-ceiling glass in labs. The facility is designed to achieve LEED Gold certification. It will also consume 30 percent less potable water than current California efficiency standards and have capacity to accommodate future rooftop solar panels.

Q: What sorts of challenges did you encounter during the design/build process, and how did you overcome them?
 A (
Matthew Young): Our challenge from the beginning was how do we design a lab building with great views, but with shading solutions that do not involve shades that have to be rolled down during the day, blocking the views out to campus? Cost efficiency was important to the client, which played a hand in designing the exterior skin and shading devices. 

We created a shade strategy through utilizing vertical and horizontal fins that have been tuned to capture the sun’s angles throughout the day. We worked closely with the metal fabricator to explore the materials of the exterior fins. Through testing, we found an expanded metal pattern with a metal material that was stiff enough to be self-supporting and withstand outdoor conditions. This allowed us to remove extra framing material, cutting down on the cost and the weight of the facade components. In the end, we were able to provide a comprehensive shading strategy that was cost efficient and constructible.